One thing that's always done well on the internet is vice: first porn, now gambling, too. One person who has made fortunes from both is the American entrepreneur, Ruth Parasol, a former "porn princess" and the prime mover behind PartyGaming, which is scheduled to make its stock exchange debut in London later this month at a staggering $9bn valuation.
How the company started
Parasol, a qualified lawyer now in her late 30s, has packed a good deal into a career that began when her father, Rick Parasol - a Holocaust survivor who'd built a profitable business around premium-rate sex lines - gave her a couple of phone lines of her own "as an unorthodox teenage birthday present", says The Guardian. She made a convincing go of them and, by the mid-1990s, had moved into the even more lucrative field of internet sex: she was an early investor in the Internet Entertainment Group, which majored on supplying live porn to websites - and later (after Parasol had sold out) became infamous for distributing sex video tapes featuring actress Pamela Anderson and her rock star husband Tommy Lee. But Parasol quit the porn world for good in 1997 and moved into the small but buzzing area of online gambling. She hired a friend of a friend, an Indian computer geek called Anurag Dikshit, to write a casino program. He took 42% of the business; Parasol and her lawyer husband Russ deLeon shared the rest with a fourth partner, another youthful Indian, Vikrant Bhargava, who joined in 2000 to handle marketing.
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The founders had the right idea but the wrong games, says Fortune. Revenues from online roulette and blackjack were respectable, but it was the launch of PartyPoker.com in 2001 that "set the company on fire". The timing was perfect: the poker World Series was being televised for the first time - and audiences were hooked. Even so, as a comparative latecomer, PartyGaming faced a tough challenge. Bhargava's strategy was an eye-grabbing $1m prize competition, played out amid much razzmatazz. The stunt made a $500,000 loss, but it proved a publicity masterstroke. Within a year, PartyGaming had 15% of a rapidly growing global market; by the end of 2004, it had a staggering 55%.
Will it all end in tears?
Parasol and her colleagues are well prepared for the initial public offering on the stock exchange: they've appointed a clutch of respected non-executives, and hired the admired former Odeon cinema boss, Richard Segal, to front the operation. Nonetheless, the refusal of all but Bhargava to emerge from the shadows doesn't help credibility. The ostensible reason for Parasol and deLeon's invisibility is that, despite being based in PartyGaming's offshore home of Gibraltar, they're no longer involved in daily management. But the sector's ambiguous legal status in the US doesn't help, especially as some influential voices are now seeking to legislate the industry out of existence. But given the company's borderless status, stopping PartyGaming "looks like an impossible mission", says The Guardian. Even if the US market (responsible for 85% of its revenues) stalls, there's still the prospect of China, "home of the world's most enthusiastic gamblers". The greatest risk the firm faces is surely the army of copycats seeking to muscle in on the profits, says The Independent. As yet, it's still too early to call whether Party-Gaming is a full house or a busted flush.
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