The Curious Case of Tech Founders Running an Invite-Only Secret Poker Night

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On a Friday evening in August 2007, the offices of the online review site Testfreaks opened for 30 odd start-up founders. Why? To play poker.

The poker evenings, which have since become an institution happening 3 times a year, are run by founders and have managed to attract all sorts of tech people such as Klarna’s Sebastian Siemiatkowski and Spotify’s Daniel Ek. This is the story of that secretive event, which has been instrumental in shaping the Stockholm start-up ecosystem from humble beginnings to a global tech city. It’s the one which highlights how important networks are for an ecosystem and that great things do come out of community meetups (as long as you get the right audience to attend).

So, what was the first game like? Serial entrepreneur Anna Omstedt attended the same and shared her valuable experience – it was just her and another win in the mix and a crazy amount of testosterone with an open bar with beer taps set up in an office. The first person to run out of poker chips had to run to McDonald’s across the road and buy cheeseburgers for everyone as a kind of punishment. The buy-in wasn’t more than €50, but one could purchase more chips during the first hour of play.

The Establishment

The poker night has always been invite-only and attended by the best of the Stockholm tech. With VIPs and crucial members, the networking possibilities were truly something that no other event could offer. Additionally, where there’s a community of successful founders, that’s also where the venture capital wants to be. You don’t have to sit through boring seminars and conferences to actually talk to people afterwards and make connections. Lots of connections and businesses have been done during these poker nights but what was so different about them was that they were so much fun. You’re hanging out from 5 PM to late at night and no one loses too much money. And the winner was expected to spend all the winnings at the bar later that night.

With almost only founders present, the events have also become known as a place where business relationships start. Also, how it manages to get so many founders to join is both about execution but also timing.

The hype around poker had seen an upswing around the turn of the millennium. The reason for this was the birth of online poker sites and a special hold card camera that made poker a popular time-wasting activity in front of the telly.

No Entry for Outsiders

Kristofer Arwin, one of the founders of the poker night made a smaller fortune selling his comparison site Pricerunner, had made poker a hobby in the early 2000s. As for meetups for founders, things were pretty dry with a lot of focus on sponsors at the time. Arwin saw the value of this and together with his brother Martin and other Pricerunner people, the poker nights started. At the beginning, he thought it would be a business opportunity to make money but after a few poker nights, they forgot about the initial idea. Even though they had sponsors for food, drinks and the place they had, they’ve never made any money out of it.

Apart from invited founders, only a few paying sponsors were allowed to attend. Non-founders, except those sponsoring the event, were denied entry. Arwin states they’re in fact pretty tough in that rule, this is what makes the event different from others – it’s done by founders for founders!

30 Going on 350 (Members)

The key was to get enough interesting people to join to get others to come along. Arwin didn’t push too much on the poker skills in his original invite back in 2007. This still continues and Arwin always sends out a short leaflet about how the game is done to help people without prior experience. You just have to follow the instructions in the leaflet and you can do pretty well. They’ve even had people winning the whole game without ever playing before.

By getting the tech elite to join, the interest for the poker network has grown considerably over the years. Now they have about 350 people on the list but only 100 are allowed at each event. The selection criteria to get an invite to the poker nights is unknown, except for being a tech founder. But as some people say, you never ask for an invite – you get one if you deserve it.