Back in the early 2000s, a Berkeley student named David Daneshgar took up professional poker. He soon started making serious dough--between 2005 and 2009, he won about $2.5 million in professional games. By 2006, he was ranked the fifth-best player in the world.
After retiring from the professional circuit and underground games in Hollywood, he went to the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business to get his MBA. Following his graduation, he and his two friends Farbod Shoraka and Gregg Weisstein founded BloomNation, an online marketplace similar to Etsy but focused on local florists. Instead of 1-800-Flowers and FDT, services that Daneshgar says charge high fees that eat into florists' revenue, BloomNation helps local flower businesses connect to customers in one easy-to-use location.
The startup surpassed $1 million in sales last year and continues to grow 15 to 30 percent each month. It has received $7.2 million in funding from brand-name Silicon Valley VC firms. But long before he was able to get the business to this point, Daneshgar jump-started it with one last poker game.
Since none of the founders had a technical background, BloomNation needed capital to pay a developer to build a proof of concept. In 2010 Daneshgar decided to enter a tournament in Los Angeles that had a grand prize of $30,000. He won it, BloomNation's site got built, and after going through the MuckerLabs accelerator, the company got $1.7 million in seed capital from Andreessen Horowitz, Chicago Ventures, and Spark Capital.
Inc. caught up with Daneshgar to find out the skills he learned while playing poker that he believes helped him launch and grow BloomNation. Check out his eight tips.
1. Leave your emotions at the door.
In poker, you need to sit, observe, analyze, and make decisions in seconds. You cannot be emotional and you can't let the pressure of losing a large sum break you. "If you take longer, people start to understand something is wrong. Whether it's an employee issue, negotiation with investors, or business decisions, you have to be ice cold and make decisions that could implicate the company," Daneshgar says. "I have made decisions while playing games where if I was wrong it would've cost me $1 million. Now I can calculate things and make decisions, hard ones, without feeling the pressure."
2. Read people and look for patterns.
Once you get past calculating the odds, "it's all about the ability to read people," he says. "I sit there and watch people--I track their pulse, their breathing, their posture, and look for patterns in their behavior." After doing an initial read of a competitor, Daneshgar says, you have to take a deeper dive and consider how smart he is and how many steps ahead he's thinking. "If he's smart enough, he will know that I know what he knows. It becomes psychological manipulation, a game of game theory. It's extreme, but it's situational."
He says the ability to read people can be used to help you beat a poker player, give a client what they want, or negotiate with an investor. "The ability to understand people on a psychological level is real and it's what makes the best poker players and businesspeople. They call it 'gut' in business, but it's about seeing clues and patterns and coming out with it quickly."
3. Sharpen your ability to execute.
"At the end of the day, it's all about execution. If you see your opponent's pulse going quickly, then later she reveals a great hand and her pulse was fine, you deduce that her pulse quickens when she's bluffing," he says. "But if you're risking $100,000 on the decision you're about to make, can you see it through? It's all about execution."
4. Spot the sucker.
In a negotiation, you need to know if you're the least skilled businessperson at the table before the other people take you for everything you have. "They say if you can't spot the sucker at the table in the first 30 seconds, you are the sucker," Daneshgar says. "Most players can sit at a table and at a high degree of accuracy understand everyone's ability in 30 seconds. At the negotiation table, that skill is priceless--you need to be able to understand the books and the streets."
5. Don't think you can follow a script.
While studying at Berkeley, Daneshgar taught a class on the probability and statistics of gaming. His students would ask him specific questions about poker hands such as, "I had two queens. What should I have done?" He says those are the wrong types of questions to ask. Instead, you need to ask, "How many chips did you have? How aggressive was the player? How did the other players perceive you?"
Business is the same way. "There's no script in business, just like there's no script to follow during a poker game," he says. "Poker and business are both situational--you need to tailor everything you do and say to each individual person or client. You listen to what they say, hear them out, make quick decisions, and adjust."
6. Remember "The Gambler."
Daneshgar says you need to know when to fold 'em. "A lot of people can win on winning hands, but not everyone can minimize their losses on losing hands," he says. "If you win big hands but lose big on other hands, you'll be a net-even player or a net-loss player. If you see a losing proposition, you need to act quickly and fold." In other words, when you've sunk a lot of money and resources into a project or deal that's going to go bust, don't wait to see the next card. Ditch the project and get on with your next move.
7. It's not all about the money.
By the time he was 24 years old, Daneshgar says, he was meeting actors, celebrities, and prominent businesspeople while playing in underground poker games in Hollywood. But with the exception of Jerry Buss, the former owner of the Los Angeles Lakers who later wrote his recommendation letter for business school, he didn't focus on building relationships with them. "I was there solely to make money and I regret it," he says. "Networking and keeping up relationships are really important in business--with customers, clients, investors, you need to build relationships with everyone at the table."
8. Reinvent yourself at every table.
America loves a good comeback. No matter who you are, what you've done, or what you're planning to do, you can change your trajectory. In poker, Daneshgar says, it's the same. "You can reinvent yourself at every table," he tells Inc. He says you cannot let a past losing streak or past poor performance follow you to new endeavors.
Many businesspeople are too risk-averse, he says. In a startup you need to ride the wave of risk, but avoid going too far over. "If you can't let the debt go and see it through, you'll lose. It's the same in poker--it's called 'tilt.' If you lost a hand before, and you can't block it out and play this game without emotion, you're going to lose."