William Hill on its ‘Dragon’s Den move’ to launch the gambling sector’s first startup programme

William Hill has launched a “gambling industry first” accelerator programme for startup businesses with its director for corporate development and innovation Crispin Nieboer calling it a “disruptive move” amid rival gambling brands “playing it too safe”.

WHLabs, which has been set up in partnership with technology entrepreneur Stuart Marks’ investment fund L Marks, is offering up to eight technology startups a place on a 12-week accelerator programme that will run from September to December.

Nieboer says William Hill is looking for businesses to help digitally transform the in-store experience at William Hill’s high street branches and will offer an initial investment of £25,000 – which could rise to £150,000 – as well as office space in its Shoreditch and Tel Aviv offices.

He told Marketing Week: “I think we’ve realised that there’s a huge amount of disruption in the technology market – with companies worth a billion pounds who weren’t even around a few years ago – and the gambling industry is now ripe for similar disruption.”

There have already been 150 applications from startups according to Nieboer, with entries to the WHLabs programme ending on 26 July. He said that although the first year will be a “test” he expects WHLabs to become a “permanent part of the business.”

Changing the in-store gambling experience

He also gave an insight into the types of solutions William Hill is interested in.

He explained: “I guess you could call it a Dragon’s Den move but I think above all it is about harnessing omnichannel and the customer experience.

“We want to do more on customer recognition. At the moment, our biggest VIP for online betting could walk into store and we would not know he his so facial recognition screens could allow us to recognise loyal customers instantly and reward them with offers.

“If someone enters a store while logged in via our app, we should be able to speak to them more efficiently and enhance the ‘thrill of the ride’ experience – the time period between a customer placing a bet through to it being settled.”

Brand perception

Over recent years, the gambling sector has not been without its controversies with its advertising, including William Hill ads, routinely blasted for promoting irresponsible gambling.

On a list of YouGov BrandIndex’s 48 biggest UK entertainment brands, William Hill is ranked 44th – ahead of Paddy Power and Ladbrokes. Its brand index rating, which includes consumer perceptions of quality, value, satisfaction and reputation, has risen 3.6 percentage points to -11.2 over the last 6 months.

Nieboer said the start-up programme will show that there’s more to William Hill than just gambling and help increase brand health.

“Our brand has incredible levels of trust as we’ve led the debate on responsible gambling but I think backing startups shows even more growth for William Hill,” he added.

“No one else is doing anything like this and other gambling brands are perhaps playing it more safe – I would not be surprised if our rivals try to copy us.

Referencing the Unilever Foundry, a similar start-up initiative of which the FMCG giant has pledged to discover the next Facebook, he joked: “If we can find a company that can make a billion I won’t be complaining!”

“We think everything is in place to create a startup that can quickly generate millions and rollout creative and disruptive technology throughout our estate.”

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