Tech entrepreneur Nikolai Livori may be the CEO, Managing Director and Founder at Kanon Gaming Limited – a Maltese-born iGaming company that has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2012 – yet his roots, he humbly admits, never lay in business. 

Hailing from the tech sphere, he reveals, “I’m a programmer, and my background is mathematics and AI.” Having joined the industry around 15 years ago, Nikolai got his first taste of leadership through heading the tech department within Bet24. This was at a time when the gaming industry in Malta was still in its infancy, and he describes it as tough work: “internet speeds weren’t what they are today, and it was also before the advent of the MGA, so it was a totally different ball game.”

Then, in 2011, against a backdrop of much growth and acquisition happening in the industry, Nikolai was involved in a merger between Bet24 and industry giant Unibet. This proved to be a turning point in his career, leading him to question what his next steps would be. “I grabbed the tech that I had, rebuilt it, and started over in 2012. That was when Kanon Gaming was formed,” he smiles, looking back on the  start of his own venture.

At the outset, Nikolai explains that the company’s primary focus was on sports betting, and as the industry grew and developed, so did Kanon Gaming. “We operated as a sportsbook for a while, and eventually started offering lotteries in Malta, before making our next pivot,” he says, setting his sights beyond Malta’s shores. “We launched Casino Epic and Casino Gami, and decided to target Sweden with a Swedish license, pivoting the business to casino. Today, we offer casinos in Sweden, Denmark, and soon, Canada,” Nikolai teases, but more on that later.

Looking back on the company’s journey throughout that time, the CEO comments that, while gaming itself hasn’t changed, the industry and the regulatory landscape around it certainly has. “Pre-2012, it was a bit more of a cowboy industry, where you start operating without a responsible gaming policy. With regulation, it has become a lot more controlled. You have to take care of the player, and this is a very positive thing,” he maintains.

Another change Nikolai highlights is resources. “Globally, we lack tech and marketing resources – in this sphere, we need the same resources used by other industries like pharmaceuticals and fintech. Before, we used to easily find people, but now with so many opportunities available, there’s a lot more competition.”

For Kanon, the road ahead certainly seems bright, as the team sets its sights on the Canadian market by acquiring an Ontario gaming license. “We would really like to go beyond the EU and enter the US market. We currently have thousands of players in Sweden and Denmark. Next, we would like to launch in Canada, and after a few months, try for a US license,” the CEO reveals.

Divulging his thoughts on his leadership role, and the tools necessary to lead the business through this journey, Nikolai points out that, being the founder and owner of Kanon Gaming, as well as the CEO, gives him a different viewpoint to an employed CEO. “For me, this is not a job, but my life,” he smiles, explaining that gaining knowledge about every department within the business is extremely important. 

“Having studied IT, I know a lot about what the IT department is working on, but at the same time, I can also do Google Ad Words and Facebook marketing, so that when I’m conversing with the marketing team, I know what I’m talking about. If the CFO gives you a big financial document, you have to know how to read it,” he states, though admits that this also comes with its challenges. “You sometimes don’t have enough time for other aspects of your life. My hobbies today include researching different aspects of the business, so there’s no breaks! It’s not a positive aspect, but I’m learning to manage it. It can be difficult to detach when it’s your own commitment.”

While he certainly admits to making mistakes, Nikolai has also learned a lot, mostly, he admits, when it comes to managing people. “Within the company, we’ve seen some 30 different nationalities over the years, and everyone has a different attitude and thinks differently. So, you have to take things as they come and treat everyone as individuals – you can’t put them all in the same pot.”

And through all that, the most important lesson he’s learned is never to give up. “Since starting the business in 2012, there have been plenty of times when we could have gone bankrupt or failed, but we stuck to it and pivoted, making the changes necessary to move forward,” he says.

As for what the future looks like, the CEO says that up till now, the team has achieved enough to be able to take the company through the next few years, but his eyes are always searching for growth. “We’re not a huge company but we do have an exit strategy: either to list on the Stock Exchange in the next couple of years, or get acquired or merge with another business in the industry. So our immediate target is to reach a stage where the company is attractive to others.”

This interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders 2022 project. The new online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.

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