Beyond the Biz | Charles P. Cohen

19 September 2008

In the early days of dot-com, Charles Cohen created one of the first online currencies. In its heyday, the now-defunct garnered more than five million registrations in an 18-month span with users earning “beenz” through purchases and redeeming them for other products and services. At one point, the company was valued at $300 million and had offices in 12 countries.

One United Kingdom Financial Services Authority raid and a few other mishaps later, Mr. Cohen’s wildly successful brainchild reportedly sold in a “multi-million dollar” deal to an American marketing agency in late 2001. This past June, the company was highlighted by CNET as one of the top 10 “greatest defunct Web sites and dotcom disasters.”

Since then, Mr. Cohen has put the past behind him. He wrote a book called “Corporate Vices: What’s gone wrong with business,” which he describes as “a study of rotten business cultures that produced the dotcom boom.”

He also created a new day job in 2003 as chief executive of Probability, a publicly traded mobile gambling company. In the 2007 fiscal year, net gaming revenue, which comprises the lion's share of the company’s total revenue, was up 152 percent at £3.1 million.

On Monday Mr. Cohen sat down with IGamingNews for a candid telephone interview. Even though he was open to discussing just about anything, he laughed at most of the questions: "I can’t believe that people are even the slightest bit interested in this stuff."

Find out for yourself below.

    Q: How did you get involved in the I-gaming industry?

    A: Well, it’s not legal to deal drugs, and my mother wasn’t too happy about pornography … no, I’m just joking.

    Initially I was interested in mobile as a platform for games generally. And then I was introduced to the idea of mobile lotteries. That turned into instant-win cash games on the mobile, and then it became I-gaming on the mobile.

    Q: Looking back, what did you see yourself doing as a child when you "grew up"? How is it different now?

    A: (Laughs.)

    I don’t remember. I have no idea. The concept of “growing up” didn’t occur to me. Why grow up? Even my kids don’t really think of growing up at all -- they would rather not.

    Q: What would you be doing if the Internet had never been invented?

    A: Oh, that’s a good question, isn’t it? I was around when it happened. I would probably have had a career in something like journalism or possibly politics, which is what I started doing when I left the university. I say that without any thought whatsoever.

    Q: What’s the best part about working in the I-gaming industry?

    A: The best thing about it, certainly from where I’m standing, is being able to apply a whole range of different bits of knowledge and disciplines. So everything from technology to understanding the probability, gaming regulations and rules, payments -- everything that is involved in gaming businesses and technology businesses and turning them into a game that people actually enjoy playing even when they are not making money out of it.

    Q: Tell me about your best day as CEO or your worst day as CEO . . . or both.

    A: There were probably two best days: The first was the day that we floated the company on the stock market, and then there was a day last September that we had our first quarterly profit.

    The worst day . . . ask me in a year’s time. I don’t know, actually. We’ve had some pretty, um, yeah, the day that someone won £200,000 on blackjack.

    Q: What would legalization of I-gaming in the United States mean to you?

    A: Well, it would be huge. But it’s also not going to happen.

    Q: Name your favorite vacation spot.

    A: We have a house on the south coast of England (in a place) called the Isle of Wight. I love going down there.

    Q: What do you like about it?

    A: It’s quiet.

    Q: What about the best place to stay while traveling? Have you traveled a lot in your career?

    A: I’ve traveled a lot -- not with this business -- but with the last one. My favorite place is Tokyo. I love New York as well.

    Q: Have you had any memorable experiences while traveling on business? Any cultural differences in the places you've been?

    A: None that I’ll tell you about . . . well, in Japan, for a European like myself, is a completely alien culture. There is nothing about it that is familiar. So, getting off the plane is a cultural experience -- going to the toilet is a cultural experience in Japan. They’ve got these toilets that are sort of computerized. And don’t press the wrong button -- it can be embarrassing.

    I’ve been to so many different places, it’s difficult to . . . I just like coming home. You know, the problem when you travel for business, first of all it’s unpleasant because you are never on it with your family. And so, the things you would like to share with the people you share your life with, you can’t. Unless you send them a text message, which is not quite the same thing. At the same time you have a very artificial existence because you come and go in a few days. You never really get under the skin of a place.

    I did like the time I spent in New York. The people were fantastic. No, that’s it, really. And London. I like London. When you live in the best city in the world why do you want to go anywhere for anyway?

    Q: What's been your most extravagant purchase in the last 12 months?

    A: It’s a toss-up between a Mac Book Air and a handmade suit. Let’s go for the handmade suit.

    Q: Name a dream location for a gaming convention.

    A: (Laughs.)

    I got to be boring about this. I think it needs to be in Vegas. Vegas is the Jerusalem of gambling. It’s where you go to worship at the altar. And I think just doing it anywhere else is just pointless -- unless it’s Monte Carlo. Actually let’s be more interesting. Let’s go for Monte Carlo.

    Q: And why Monte Carlo?

    A: Because it’s got that glamor; It’s got that old-world, 19th-century glamor. It’s the place that really invented the casino. There’s been gaming since mankind invented fire, but Monte Carlo made it an experience. You know, there would be no Vegas without Monte Carlo.

    Q: What's been the best spam message you've ever received?

    A: One of our competitors in the mobile gaming business sends out the most appallingly worded, long text message promotions. Any of those would fill most of my top 10. That’s basically it.

    Q: Do you have a favorite non-gaming Web site?

    A: God, you know what, I hardly use the Internet at all.

    Yes, I do: because it keeps my children quiet for hours. It’s a great utility.

    Have you ever seen it?


    Oh, you go check it out. It’s like a social network for kids, but it’s a cartoon world where you have a little penguin, and you play games and earn points and you spend the points decorating their igloos. It’s very funny. But for every six-year-old, it’s complete paradise.

    Q: What about a favorite YouTube video?

    A: No, I can’t stand YouTube. I really can’t; it’s all crap. You know, there’s nothing on television -- why would I watch YouTube? I tried watching YouTube through the TV yesterday, and it was even worse than watching it on the computer.

    YouTube is just the tritest of stuff that’s not even good enough to be on television.

    It’s like Facebook. Facebook is possibly the most boring Web site in the world. Why do I want to know that my friend just cleaned his toes? I just don’t get this obsession with broadcasting your life, and then looking at what people are doing. I’m a little bit old-fashioned about that -- I like to pick up the phone.

    Q: And that was actually one of my questions -- if you were on Facebook or Myspace? It doesn’t sound like it.

    A: No, I am actually still on Facebook because I communicate with relatives on there who are all over the world. I’m using it less and less, and I’ve been try to close my account, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

    As for MySpace, I’m over the age of 13. So, Q.E.D. I don’t have a MySpace account. But MySpace, from what I’ve seen, is possibly some of the worst designed Web pages on the planet.

    Q: And after asking that question, we must ask what biggest online trend you’ve seen that you hope will end?

    A: Well, I would like to kill all social networking sites. I’d like to see them destroyed. No. Yeah, Web 2.0 . . . no, let’s go for Twitter -- life casting I think it’s called. For one very serious reason, which is I’ve got a big thing about the right to privacy, and I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to justify having a legal right to privacy in a world where people broadcast the contents of their knicker drawer on the Internet. It makes the concept of having a private place harder and harder to contemplate.

    And I know that might sound a little bit nerdy. But actually, if you think about the long run, what it means is corrosive. I can understand why people do it, and that’s perfectly fine. I think people are just too relaxed about their privacy. And this sort of makes giving up your privacy a fun activity -- I don’t buy that.

    Q: You mentioned earlier you own a MacBook Air. What is your ideal work computer?

    A: There it is. It’s a really, really good computer.

    Q: When was the last time you gambled? Are you up or down?

    A: I think I must have lost some money on blackjack recently, but I’m probably about even. I don’t really gamble very much. I get vicarious pleasure by watching other people gambling on our service. The only game I play is blackjack. And you should never gamble with the intention of making money. You should just do it for fun.

    Q: Where do you get news about the rest of the world?

    Q: I get it from the BBC. Actually, let me be more controversial: I’m one of the few people who actually buys a newspaper. I buy three newspapers a day, and I read magazines, too, which is even more shocking.

    Q: What three newspapers do you read?

    A: Everyday I read the FT -- the Financial Time -- The Daily Telegraph and the Times.

    Q: How long to you spend reading them?

    A: It takes 20 minutes each. Well, 90 percent of the content is the same. It’s only the op-ed stuff in the business pages that is different. And then every weekend I read the weeklies. I love magazines and newspapers.

    Q: How do you fuel your mind? What do you eat for breakfast?

    A: I consume large amounts of very, very concentrated caffeine. I have an espresso problem.

    Q: An addiction?

    A: You can’t actually get addicted to caffeine, but you can have an unhealthy interest in it.

    Q: Do you run or walk?

    A: I swim every day.

    Q: Do you own a Blackberry?

    A: I do, but I hate it so much that I never turn it on. Blackberries are evil, nasty, horrible things. I used to have one with a regular-sized keyboard and then they gave me the Blackberry Pearl, and it’s possibly the worst device I’ve ever used in my life. It’s just so badly designed that it’s not even true.

    Q: Have you thought about buying an iPhone?

    A: I have two iPhones -- the old one and the new one. I kept the old one for curiosity’s sake. I love my iPhone.

    Q: So, you actually turn it on?

    A: I use it for personal stuff.

    Q: Okay, that’s all of our questions. Did you have anything else you’d like to add?

    A: Not really. I still have got all my hair.

Jeanette Kozlowski is a staff writer for IGamingNews and manager of Clarion Gaming's Gaming Industry Media portal. She lives in Kirkwood, Mo.