Edinburgh couple behind fantasy sport site FanDuel

As last weekend began, thousands and thousands of sports fans across America would have been sitting in front of their computers, updating fantasy teams with their favourite players.

Monday, 6th April 2015, 10:14 am
FanDuel chiefs Lesley and Nigel Eccles. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach

No matter the sport – American football, basketball, baseball or hockey – as game day approached, hundreds of thousands of pieces of online information would be flying through the digital ether as rosters were rearranged, and as games got under way, over six terabytes of updates to scores and statistics shuffle across screens.

None of those US fans probably know or care that their weekend’s fun was managed by a team of dozens of engineers based in an Edinburgh office block, or that the firm behind it, FanDuel, is among Scotland’s brightest tech start-up success stories.

Founded around the kitchen table of husband and wife Lesley and Nigel Eccles, FanDuel is now believed to be worth $1bn. It’s more than a game: the site has tapped into the growing phenomenon of “professional” fantasy sports, where the stakes can be as big as any Las Vegas casino table. One tournament was hosted at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, with giant cheques for $150,000 handed over by Playboy bunnies.

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It began with a gamble of a different kind for Nigel, from Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland and Scotswoman Lesley, who had left high-powered management consulting jobs in London to move to Edinburgh and raise a family.

“It was a bit of a crazy year,” says Lesley. “We’d just moved here, we’d had our second child, and we moved house again, and then at that point Nigel realised he wasn’t particularly happy in his new job. He’d always hankered over setting up his own business, and I knew at that point that if we didn’t do it then, we’d never do it. We had this tiny little idea of a game that we could potentially develop and over the summer of 2007 talked about it and played around with the idea, fleshed it out, and got to a point where we said: ‘Lets just do it’.

With two young children, a new home, and a long way away from the natural home for a tech start-up in London or California’s Silicon Valley, Lesley describes the decision as a “real leap of faith”.

She says: “I’m not particularly a risk taker, but that was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.

“It really was terrible timing – we’d just taken on a huge mortgage, had our second child, and it couldn’t have been worse. We never let ourselves think about what would happen if it didn’t work. We just made ourselves focus on making it work.”

Nigel adds: “There wasn’t really a safety net. It was burn your boats time.”

So what’s it like to not only work with your spouse, but build a company from the ground up? “I think being together made it easier,” says Nigel. “I think it would have been very hard if just one of us was doing it, because it’s so intense and all-consuming. It’s not like a normal job.”

As you’d expect from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, there is little work-life balance to speak of in the Eccles household. Lesley says that the couple “try not to talk about work before breakfast, but that doesn’t always work”.

But for Lesley, who was returning to work after her second child when FanDuel was launched, and has now had a third, the flexibility of not being at the beck and call of a manager or clients has meant that having a demanding career has actually been easier.

“This was an opportunity for me to have a challenging career, but not be in the office full time,” she says. “It’s very rare to find that combination.”

The firm now leads the market in its field and brings in millions of pounds of investment from venture capitalists betting on its success, but on the way up it had vital support from Scottish Enterprise and a series of start-up ‘incubators’ designed to support fledgling firms.

Nigel says the fact that FanDuel is an Edinburgh success story is an “accident” – the pair talked about relocating to the US several times in the early days, before the personal appeal of the Capital won out. That’s a worrying reflection, given that half of FanDuel’s 150-strong workforce is based at their Quartermile HQ.

But the pair say Edinburgh will “always” be their base even though 100 per cent of their clients are in the USA, and they are preparing to hire another 50 staff, with the potential for dozens more in the years to come.

Nigel and Lesley hope that the success of home-grown tech firms like FanDuel, their downstairs neighbours Skyscanner, or video games giant Rockstar North can help create an “ecosystem” that fosters more entrepreneurial start-ups.

“If I went out and said, five years ago, who in Edinburgh had built a billion dollar consumer internet business, there really wasn’t anyone here who’d even created a hundred million dollar one,” says Nigel.

“We had to look outside of Edinburgh and the UK. More and more, we’re being approached for advice. We’re also doing internships with students and school pupils.”

So could Edinburgh bring another $1bn tech company through the ranks? “It’s very hard to predict, because I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the next big sports technology story would come out of Edinburgh,” says Nigel. “You just wouldn’t have looked at Scotland and said Grand Theft Auto would have been produced here, or Skyscanner. They all seem to have been accidents of history.”