Wise Words with Dimitri Sillam | Springwise

Grantoo provides an online gaming platform where students can complete games and are rewarded with educational grants or donations to a charity of their choice, sponsored by brands. Recognizing that many students use the world of gaming as a release from academic pressures, Grantoo founders Dimitri Sillam and Mikhael Naayem wanted to put this relaxation time to good use. Previously, Dimitri studied Economics and Business Administration at Brandeis University, and Negotiation and Strategy at Harvard University. He also founded Oriental People.com, an online dating website geared towards Middle Easterners which he later sold having acquired over two million users, and Lazeo, a laser hair-removal business.

Grantoo is brand new, with their website still in beta testing and the first tournament hosted at the beginning of this month. We caught up with Dimitri to find out how he was finding the initial stages of launching the business.

1. Where did the idea for Grantoo come from?

The idea for a social gaming website that helps students with their tuition bills goes back to 2007. I was a student at Brandeis University when most on-line poker gambling sites were shut down in the US. A lot of my classmates had been playing a lot of poker, for better or for worse, and there was a demand for a similar, legal product. I got to thinking that the hours students spent on gambling sites might be better channeled into something positive and productive. When I ran the idea past a friend of mine, he told me that the money should also go toward charities. He was worried that a whole generation of college students were coming of age in hard financial times, and so they weren’t developing good charitable habits. If a student shares her prize with a charity, she is going to feel a connection to that charity, and to the company that sponsored the tournament. Some day, our users will graduate and become working adults, and we hope to instill in them the idea that all of us can do good.

2. Have you experienced any difficulty gaining endorsement for a model that awards grants for gaming, rather than academic, prowess?

None. We just finished up the NCAA basketball tournaments in this country. Most of the Division I basketball players get tuition assistance for their gaming prowess. We’re making that model accessible to far more students.

3. Can you describe a typical working day?

Every day is different. Grantoo is a hugely ambitious concept. It’s easily the biggest, coolest challenge I’ve ever taken on. We have developers in Switzerland and Russia, so I’m up early to talk to them about coding issues. Our business team is in New York, so I spent some time each day making sure she has what she needs when she rounds up sponsors for our upcoming game tournaments. And then I come to work in San Francisco, where we do the design, sales, strategic partnerships, and marketing. There are startups out there who are trying to do an app. We’re trying to launch a gaming company, a social network, and a revolutionary advertising platform. We’re trying to change people’s minds about brands, charities, and computer games.

4. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on Grantoo?

If I ever do, I’ll let you know! Seriously though, I got married this winter and my wife, Caroline, keeps me centered and calm.

5. What’s the secret ingredient to success as an entrepreneur?

Believing in something beyond dollars and cents. This weekend, our tournaments raised enough donations for Partners in Health to have them vaccinate 80 people against cholera in Haiti.

6. What drove you crazy when building your business?

A lot of people saw the poker cards and just decided that we were secretly a casino. We accept no money, ever, from our players. You could play Grantoo games 24/7 and it wouldn’t cost you a cent. But some people see a poker deck and they refuse to see anything beyond it.

7. What motivates you to keep going?

There’s that old cliche about “doing well by doing good,” but it’s true. We know that our focus on helping students and charities will keep us moving in the right direction as a company.

8. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I’d have caught up on my sleep! I miss it.

9. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

Grantoo will be on all major college and university campuses starting in May. In five years, we want to be a major source of donations and scholarship aid. Next semester, we’re also going to roll out coupons and in-game rewards for local businesses. College towns are the last bastion of so many great, quirky, Mom and Pop stores. We want to offer them marketing solutions that let them reach out to college students while giving back to that same community.

10. If you weren’t working on Grantoo, what would you be doing?

Sleeping, eating, calling home more regularly… Seriously, though, I’m in my element. This is my third startup; I deferred college for a year when I was 18 to start my first company: the first major internet dating site for the Middle East and North Africa. After college, I started another company, Lazeo. The rigor of those environments informs everything I bring to Grantoo. I’m really grateful to have had those experiences. Grantoo would be far too ambitious for a first-timer.

11. Tell Springwise a secret…

I staked Grantoo with money I got from that second start-up, a laser hair-removal business. People laugh, but it’s what got me here to pursue my dream!

12. Any final words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Want it, work for it, but want it for something beyond yourself. Because there will be dark moments when you personally don’t want it anymore. Those are the moments when your friends and your causes carry you. Some of my employees have been my friends since we were teenagers. No matter how hard it gets, there’s no way I’m going to let them down, and I know they feel the same way about me.

Thanks Dimitri!

You can read more about Grantoo in our article here or visit the Grantoo website here.
via Wise Words with Dimitri Sillam | Springwise.

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