We sat down with Mark Besharaty, the owner and CEO of recently formed esports media company Gamelevate, to discuss his hands-on experience in managing a remote workforce and what it’s like to start a business in the middle of a global pandemic.
Tell us a few things about yourself and your career. Have you had any previous experience with remote work arrangements before embarking on this adventure?
My career has been in real estate finance for the most part. I’ve been in the business world for quite a long time, either as an employee myself or an employer of others. In no way, shape or form have I, or anyone involved with me, worked in a completely remote environment before.
What is Gamelevate and what led you to its creation?
Gamelevate is a digital media company focused on competitive esports. Our writers and freelance journalists cover the latest in esports news and entertainment throughout the competitive gaming world. We combine this coverage with insights into industry trends and the latest and most innovative equipment made by leading hardware manufacturers for competitive players as well as gaming fans.
Our mission is to create the world’s premiere hub for esports information and content by leveraging connections with esports teams and hardware manufacturers, aiming to serve a broad and diverse audience, which includes the currently underappreciated segment of adult gamers.
Were you confident in pushing forward with your plans in a COVID-impacted economy? Was Gamelevate always going to revolve around a remote workplace arrangement?
If the pandemic had not occurred, it would have been very much “I want people that I can see, talk to and interact with face-to-face”. That’s been my conditioning during all of my years working in the corporate world: I became a remote worker myself only because of the pandemic and, as I got to work through Zoom, Google Meets and other such platforms, I was surprised by how effectively it all worked. It was as if a lightbulb turned on in my head: I didn’t have to be so strict about my hiring policy anymore! When I first started Gamelevate, I thought that if remote could work in the US then, I could also probably make this work anywhere in the world.
Many senior decision-makers saw remote work as a massively detrimental factor for productivity before the pandemic hit. Do you think that it is now here to stay, and do you see it as an improvement?
The old generation of bosses is still very skeptical about this approach. However, I think remote work is here to stay. I see the benefits from both sides. That said, there are still advantages of working in an office space. For example, there are no distractions from the family in the middle of a call, there is tangible interaction with colleagues, and teams can have unplanned but fruitful conversations with other staff members during the working day.
Zoom calls are very strict in terms of using the allotted time for a meeting, and they are generally a less natural way of interaction. I think a hybrid approach will become prevalent in the future. Companies won’t be able to stay as strict as I had been because they’d lose the brightest talent to more flexible employees in this regard. Just like my thoughts on this subject have now evolved, I think most corporate owners and senior managers will adjust to the new dynamics of the optimal workspace environment.
Our mission is to create the world’s premiere hub for esports information and content
– Mark on Gamelevate and its creation.
What has been the biggest challenge so far when it comes to organizing the workflow at Gamelevate?
Funny you should ask as I’m trying to organize an important meeting right now. We have a participant that is located in Taiwan, another is in Turkey, someone else is traveling from Pennsylvania to the Netherlands, then you have myself in California…it’s certainly a challenge!
The other challenge relates to the work model I chose when starting Gamelevate. The workforce is currently composed primarily of independent contractors and freelance journalists. There are many positives about this model however the main issue is that these independents may have a variety of priorities and commitments based on their work with other companies.
This wouldn’t be the primary approach either for a more traditional, office-based setup either…
Yes, I would agree with that.
How do you handle your personal work-life balance while managing and organizing a remote team with members all around the world?
As a company owner, I feel strongly that I should spend every minute of my time focusing on growing the organization. Previously, it was easier to separate my work and my private life when my workspace was in an entirely different location from my house. Now my home is my office and I constantly see it: it is all around me.
I think I put a lot more time and work into this company than I had at my previous ones – I work on the weekends, at nights. If i have an idea, there is no reason to wait until Monday morning to start working on it. I enjoy this rapid pace though, so it hasn’t been a big problem for me personally! I just have to make sure to keep my wife happy with a quick mini-vacation here or there.
Do you think this also has to do with the prevalence of workplace communication platforms like Discord and Slack, the idea that you can ping your colleagues at any time?
When I first started my career there were car phones, then pagers, then Blackberrys. Now there’s a powerful, small computer in everyone’s hands in the shape of a smartphone. The work-life balance had already shifted, even before the pandemic. The expectation had already been evolving to a much quicker response to messages.
COVID has exacerbated this, especially because we all know that everyone is at home in front of the computer anyway. Still, people should absolutely be able to spend time with their families and to go shopping without feeling an overwhelming obligation to check every message instantaneously! This is the exact dynamic that old-school managers miss out on with a remote workforce. People are actually a lot more involved with their work because of all these new communication technologies and tools.
Especially in the esports industry…
Yes, in esports, there’s always breaking news somewhere. Tournaments for a variety of gaming verticals are ongoing almost on a daily basis. Fortunately, this feeds in nicely with the Gamelevate model and it’s a great benefit of having our global team. People can always fill in and pass the baton to each other, pinging their colleagues as they are about to go to sleep!
How were your hiring decisions impacted by this availability of a global workforce?
During my previous managerial jobs, it had been very challenging for me and my human resources team to find people in the specific locations to fill the roles I had been looking for. My new approach with Gamelevate has allowed us to find highly talented people on a global basis.
What has been the biggest surprise for you so far in managing Gamelevate?
I’m surprised by how well all this has worked so far! I’ve owned companies before and my access to this global talent pool allows me to narrowly target specific esports games and matching roles. I now have access to a much wider range of talented writers with in-depth knowledge of individual esports titles.
Having to find such a diverse group of people in close proximity to one single office would be like trying to find a needle in the haystack. The exponential growth of our viewership in just four months is largely due to the quality of talent that we have been able to bring in. This is because I don’t have to make any compromises on quality due to location issues.
Certain editors use the derisory term “bedroom journalist” for content creators working from home. What are your thoughts on soliciting original reporting as the head of a fully remote media company?
The old-school concept of “if they’re not in the office, they’re not working” doesn’t apply anymore. The freelance journalist model has proven to be successful across the esports industry along with publications within many other industries. Another great thing about having remote journalists is that our team can quickly appear in a variety of geographic locations to attend live events as they start to occur.
The global situation is continuously changing as the COVID waves continue to ebb and flow with different situations in every country. Do you plan to stick with a fully remote approach for Gamelevate as the company continues to grow?
Yes, I’m sold!
My new approach with Gamelevate has allowed us to find highly talented people on a global basis.
– Mark on the global talent behind Gamelevate.
Your plans for raising investor capital for the company involve a robust focus on crowdfunding. Can you tell us why exactly you see this as a good fit for a corporate entity in the gaming world?
We’re looking at both venture capital and equity-focused crowdfunding options. This has been a core part of our business plans from the outset. There are pros and cons to each method. For example, venture capitalists can provide excellent experience, direction and networking opportunities in our industry. The downside is that most venture capitalists get heavily involved in the decision-making process of the company and the founder’s original ideas and influence may get eroded along the way.
Sometimes, this process yields incredibly strong results with multi-billions in valuations. These are called “unicorn” companies and stories about them abound in the media. However, there is another side to venture capital funding as well. In many cases, the company founders are forced into an early exit due to differences in vision. Sometimes the companies continue to prosper but there are just as many instances where the company eventually ceases to exist.
Crowdfunding has come a long way since the early days when it was a fringe alternative for raising investment capital. Much like remote work, we can now start to truly understand the benefits it provides to companies such as Gamelevate. Crowdfunding allows companies to harness the enthusiasm of a much broader group of small-scale investors. Many global jurisdictions, including the US, recently passed laws to allow ordinary individuals to invest in companies in this form.
Crowdfunding is a very good fit for the esports industry due to its large base of loyal and passionate fans. As an example, no utility company would attract this level of interest and excitement from their customers. Therefore, it would probably be much harder for a small utility company to raise capital through crowdfunding..
This sort of accelerated growth via investment capital would allow Gamelevate to add more staff as fully salaried employers, something that is somewhat rare and a positive opportunity in the esports content creation industry. Based on our success so far, we would try to maintain the same remote work environment whether our staff was independent or salaried.
Aren’t most investors in the esports industry focused on partnering only with individual esports teams?
Yes, that is correct. Non-endemic investors, advertisers and brands had tended to focus on individual team organizations as the only way to get into esports. They are just starting to understand that the content-creation aspect of the industry is where massive growth can really happen. Focusing on an individual team is great and can lead to very good results with that particular fanbase. There are a number of highly successful partnerships that have been established and we believe that this phenomenon will continue to grow.
Brands that also partner with esports content publishers tend to get representation across a much broader set of teams and gaming titles. The risk is inherently lower because if one team or one game does not perform to expectations, the media publisher can quickly switch focus to other more successful teams or gaming titles.
Anything else we should know about you?
Yes, I am huge fan of Fortnite and, much to my own surprise, have started watching pro Twitch streams more than regular TV. Sometimes, I even participate in Fortnite tournaments but just don’t have the reflexes to keep up with the younger crowd. I also play chess on a regular basis and am always up for a game or two. I especially love lightning-fast bullet chess with only one-minute for each side!