David Daneshgar and his partners Farbod Shoraka and Gregg Weisstein were in the process of building the first website for their new business idea, BloomNation, a Los Angeles-based marketplace for local florists, and they needed $30,000. While other entrepreneurs might head to the bank, a venture capitalist, or even Mom and Dad, Shoraka and Weisstein asked Daneshgar to hit the poker table.
It’s not as outrageous as it might sound. Since he was a teenager playing cards with his buddies in a suburb about 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles, Daneshgar was good at poker. While he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, he even taught a class on playing the game. After he graduated in 2003, he became a professional poker player, ultimately winning the 2008 World Series of Poker. With that victory under his belt, he headed back to business school at the University of Chicago, where he and Shoraka came up with the concept for BloomNation.
It might sound like the plot line of a caper movie, but Daneshgar went to a two-day tournament and won its nearly $30,000 prize. He immediately invested the money into the company, which officially launched in 2011. Since then, the company has landed $1.7 million in funding and has grown into what he calls the "Etsy for flowers," connecting shoppers with local florists and cutting out middlemen like 1-800-Flowers and Teleflora.
Daneshgar still has poker in his blood—and says it’s taught him five important things that help him be a better business leader.
Poker is more about having a strategy for any given situation than it is about the luck of the cards, Daneshgar says. You have many unknowns, including your opponents’ hands and the cards you have yet to be dealt. But good poker players know the odds of winning with any given hand. Even if a hand isn’t ideal, you can think and act strategically and make it a winner, he says.
"If you sit there for 100 hours, everyone's eventually going to get the same card," he says. "It's what you do in the situation that matters."
Poker players watch their opponents, looking for "tells"—those little tics, movements, and expressions that give away the strength of their hands. Daneshgar equates them to "human lie detectors," and he is able to pick up on changes in posture, breath rate, or perspiration that can belie their bluffing. For example, someone with a bad hand may immediately sit up in his or her seat to try to project a position of strength, he says. This skill comes in handy when negotiating deals and business transactions. He says he has a better sense of when people are being honest with him, and when they’re not telling the truth.
By their very nature, poker players need to be able to tolerate risk. Between playing their hands and reading those around them, a miscalculation could be costly. But good poker players—like good businesspeople—aren’t reckless. They see the signs that a game isn’t working out, so they’re comfortable folding the hand and moving on.
Daneshgar says his intuition has been honed by playing poker, helping him have a gut sense of the right moves to make. Sometimes he says he doesn’t even have to look at his cards to know the right moves because he can sense it from the clues and indicators around him, like his opponents’ tells. This helped him when negotiating with investors.
"If all you wanted is money, there are a lot of people to give it to you," he says. "But how do you find that right person? It’s in your gut."
Being aggressive in poker can help you win even when you have a bad hand, Daneshgar says. By never giving up and sticking to his own style of play, which was to never read someone’s confidence as a sign he should fold, he earned a great deal of criticism early in his career. He came in second in a tournament after a particularly aggressive game and people there told him he was the worst poker player they’d ever seen.
"The way I play is that it's different from the way everyone else plays," he says. "In business, it's all about different taste."
The experience taught him to stick to his guns and to never be intimidated, even when it seems someone else has the advantage. He’ll use that advice when he heads to the next World Series of Poker to try to win its $10 million purse on July 4. This time, he’ll still invest some of the money in BloomNation, but he’ll keep some for himself, too, he says.