Toby Rowland: The acceptable face of capitalism hits the jackpot with

A day in the life of the director and co-founder of
Click to follow
The Independent Online


Toby Rowland, a budding internet entrepreneur and the son of the late tycoon Tiny Rowland, turns up for breakfast at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. He is visibly hungover from his 37th birthday party the night before - he partied the night away at the exclusive private members' clubs Drones and Annabel's - and tucks into sausages and scrambled eggs on brown toast.

After two other internet ventures, it looks as if Mr Rowland has hit the jackpot with, reputedly the world's largest skill gaming website, featuring puzzles, word and card games. Launched at the start of 2004, it hosted 40 million games in January as 84,000 paying customers logged on. In peak hours, 35,000 people play at the same time. The stakes are tiny, averaging 35p, but people don't really play for money, Mr Rowland says. "It's the female Party Poker. Poker is all young guys between 18 and 35, what we do is women from 25-plus. They love the mental stimulation and the very small stakes."

He adds: "There was nothing of this kind existing in Europe, and we thought the US sites weren't very good. It's a games site, but it's also a place where people talk to each other and make friends. They instant-message each other and have photographs of themselves and their dogs on the site."

The business has already grown to twice the size of its US competitors and is poised for further growth as it breaks into the huge American market.

The venture is taking off, and Mr Rowland says he is "very happy" as a newly married man - last summer he tied the knot in a glamorous Yorkshire wedding with Plum Sykes, the American Vogue journalist and author of the best-selling Bergdorf Blondes, who has just published a new novel, The Debutante Divorcee.

Their first meeting was not quite as glamorous - he bumped into her in a supermarket in Oxford when he was studying Japanese at the radical left-wing Wadham College (which he joined because he liked the architecture), and saw her modelling in a student fashion show. But he did not get to know her until they met again, years later, at a friend's wedding in Paris, and soon got engaged. By then Mr Rowland had become very rich - his father left hundreds of millions of pounds when he died in 1998 at the age of 80.

Despite sharing the entrepreneurial spirit with his father - the hugely successful businessman who was described as "the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism" by Ted Heath - Mr Rowland is very unlike him in other ways, and somewhat shy. Tiny Rowland built the ailing Rhodesian gold-mining venture Lonrho into a huge international empire, and pursued a vendetta with Mohamed al-Fayed over the control of Harrods, through the pages of The Observer newspaper, then owned by Lonrho.

His sprawling empire, ranging from tea estates to car dealerships and steel mills, seemed constantly mired in scandal (Tiny Rowland counted several dictators among his friends in Africa, and he was suspected of paying bribes to further his interests).

Asked how he was influenced by his father, Mr Rowland is predictably reluctant to discuss him, but then says: "My father died before I really started in business - he died in 1998 and I had my first business in 1999. He was involved in very different types of business. It would be quite difficult to grow the kind of businesses that my Dad created today - they are all very mature industries. We have very different careers." He says he was too young to get involved in his father's business, and adds: "Of course I admire him."

What was it like growing up surrounded by his towering father and his business friends? "It meant that I met a lot of lawyers through him." When Tiny Rowland tried to buy the 70 per cent of House of Fraser Lonrho did not already own in 1981, he met with fierce resistance from the chairman, Sir Roland Smith, who told him to "take your tanks off my lawn". He also survived an attempted coup by his co-directors, and fired eight of them.


After breakfast, Mr Rowland heads to his office near Victoria - "If it's a nice day, I might bicycle" if he were heading off from his home in Notting Hill - for the weekly marketing conference call in which staff from London, Stockholm, Hamburg and Los Angeles take part. The venture has grown to 30 people worldwide, and is about to open an office in LA to spearhead its drive into the US market. On the call, they discuss new initiatives such as the "Handbag World Cup" - an "anti-World Cup, handbag design game" to run at the same time as the football tournament. Seventy per cent of's users are female. Mr Rowland has also persuaded Matthew d'Ancona, editor of The Spectator, to challenge users to a word battle where they can win £50 if they beat him on Wednesday. And he is designing a Big Brother game for Channel 4 after a similar game proved popular last year.

Unlike other British entrepreneurs who take on the US first, Mr Rowland decided to start with Continental Europe. "European markets are the hardest ones to do because of the different languages and currencies, so we thought we'd do them first and then go for the US."

Germany is his biggest market, where most people play Skat, the country's national card game, whereas English people, predictably, play more puzzles and word games. The website offers 42 games at present, with new ones being launched all the time, and is available in 10 different languages and six currencies.


Lunch with one of the regular players on the website. "We very often like to meet with the UK users to get an insight into what they're thinking. We don't do formal customer research."

One of his most reliable critics is his mother, Josie, who likes to play games on and will ring him if it is not working properly.


He lectures on "Venture Capital and the Entrepreneur" at the London Business School, one of several talks he gives every year to share his experiences raising capital. While he found it well-nigh impossible to raise money for in 2003 after the technology bubble burst, two years later he managed to get $42m (£22m) from the private equity firm Apax Partners. "We spent very little - when we started in 2003 there was no money for internet companies in Europe and we paid for it out of our own pocket. In 2005 we sold $42m of shares to Apax Partners. They helped us be more aggressive and hold a minority stake."

Other shareholders - apart from himself and his Italian business partner, Ricardo Zacconi, who have the largest individual holdings - include, somewhat bizarrely, several members of the Bayern Munich football team.

Things haven't always been so good. Mr Rowland's first website, clickmango, set up in 1999 to flog vitamins and supplements, never got off the ground, and went bust within a year or so. "It was a failure - a bad business model. Customers didn't use credit cards online at the time, and we had a negative gross margin - that means you don't have a business."

But he describes it as a valuable learning experience, and in 2001 he bounced back with a dating website, After investing in the venture, he got to know the chief executive, Mel Morris, now chairman of - "a genius, he persuaded me to go up to Derby and live in a Travel Inn for a year". Mr Rowland became the website's marketing director, alongside Mr Zacconi. It was sold for $150m in 2002, and the two used their share of the profits to found (formerly called


With Plum and some friends, he heads off to the Royal Opera House to watch La Fille Mal Gardée. But his main passion outside work is horse-riding in Gloucestershire, and he is on the lookout for a nice horse to buy. "There are a lot of horses for sale, but it is hard to find a good one," he sighs. "It's my only real hobby. My wife loves riding as well."


He goes through his US e-mails and sinks into bed.