Former MIT Blackjack Player Sells Startup For $50m
By Michael Gendel
The name Jeff Ma may not mean much too many of us, but he’s led quite the life. He’s an MIT graduate, former consultant for the Portland Trail Blazers and San Francisco 49ers, and is the inspiration behind the cult film 21, starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth.
And now he finds himself $50 million richer after selling his startup business to Twitter.
His company tenXer, which works under the idea that one developer can do the job of 10, provides management software in order to aid developers, helping them work together and release more things in a faster manner, which of course is perfect for Twitter in today’s market.
After working closely with Ma, Twitter bought out the brand at the beginning of April, and has shut down tenXer to work directly under the Twitter name.
Ma said of the acquisition, “We will be shutting down tenXer and continuing our work within Twitter.
“We are excited to apply what we’ve learned in the last three years to a world-class engineering organization.”
It’s just the latest service to be bought by the social media juggernaut, with them buying ZipDial and live-streaming app Periscope already this year.
But in Ma, they’ve invested in someone who already has a history with the brand.
The companies in the past have worked together, with tenXer having pulled in a number of data sources to help startups with making decisions, as well as Twitter using them as a case study discussing the benefits of advertising with Twitter.
Although Ma’s reputation dates back much earlier than that; he has become quite the expert in predictive analytics dating back to his time studying mechanical engineering at MIT.
There he met Bill Kapan who helped him learn the rules of blackjack and become an expert at the game. Ma, among others, eventually won a serious amount of money in casinos across the US, most notably in Las Vegas.
While he took a step away from the game after graduating in 1994, he was to leave quite the imprint on the industry. Bringing Down the House, a book by Ben Mezrich which semi-fictionalized his time as part of the MIT Blackjack Team, was eventually turned into a movie by Robert Luketic, the man behind Legally Blonde and Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!. The movie 21 is somewhat better than those offerings and even sees Ma make a cameo appearance as a casino blackjack dealer.
Success is in his blood, and combined with his expertise of analysis (which made him so good at blackjack), Ma transitioned into the world of sports, creating a sports analytics firm called Protrade.
He said of the venture, “I had read the book Moneyball, and wanted to leverage what I had learned in blackjack. Originally, I wanted to start a sports consulting firm.”
Ma and his team began doing just that. Taking inspiration from the Oakland A’s attempts at putting together a competitive baseball team through analysis and evidence-based thinking, they did some consulting with the NBA’s Trail Blazers and the NFL’s 49ers, but that didn’t last and it was apps for sports fans which really took off. Next up for Ma was Citizen Sports.
Ma and his team became the first to begin fantasy football on Facebook, and at one point had the leading sports app on the iPhone. Yahoo then purchased the company for a figure rumored to between $40 and $50 million.
That recent $50 million is therefore only adding to his wealth.
The company itself will still be working within the walls of their San Francisco office, and continuing to work on improving efficiency and effectiveness by tracking key pieces of software, to analyze daily work habits.
It’s unsure however if that will now be offered outside the walls of Twitter, although it isn’t thought the company had developed a large client base yet anyway, due to little interest developing on its new found owners.
What will be interesting is to see where entrepreneur Ma goes next. He’s continually coming up with new ideas – most of which have been a success – by channeling his skills on the blackjack table and into business.
He noted that in his first book, The House Advantage: Playing The Odds To Win Big In Business, was published in 2010.
He’ll no doubt put those skills into action once again, and maybe even see another book noting his experiences with Twitter, particularly as he has a large passion for writing.
“Writing a book is one of the most rewarding and inspiring things you can ever do. The process of writing is incredible… I’ve never been so intellectually curious in my life.”
As for Twitter, they’re developing quite the catalogue of acquisitions now with the likes of Vine, TweetDeck, and Namo Media all in their books.
However, rumors are also circulating that tenXer could in fact see Google become their new owners with the search engine rumored to be looking at purchasing Twitter.
They already have a good relationship, with Twitter handing off some of its ad sales to the California brand, and with Google apparently sitting on a $60 billion pile of cash, it could easily afford it. And with assets like tenXer and their other recent purchases to sit on, the take-over would look more and more appealing.
We’ll of course, have to wait and see though. More than $1.5 billion was added to the value of Twitter, just through sheer rumor that Google could launch a bid last week, although there’s plenty more we should keep our eye on, most notably tenXer.
It’ll be interesting to see how Twitter utilizes this over the coming months, and in particularly whether they advertise it for use outside of their own business. They unleashed Fabric, their mobile development platform to the world after buying it out so there’s no reason the same won’t happen again, especially as they’ve already championed it with a case study a while back.