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Reuven Cohen of ‘Award Pool’: “Building tournament systems is very complicated”

During the day, I try to focus on work and ignore what’s happening in the greater world. I live in my own world while working. I completely reorganized my office, so it feels like space away from my home. Brenda and I also try to make as normal a life as possible for the kids. […]

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During the day, I try to focus on work and ignore what’s happening in the greater world. I live in my own world while working. I completely reorganized my office, so it feels like space away from my home. Brenda and I also try to make as normal a life as possible for the kids. We don’t want them to dwell on all the problems of the world and stress them out. We know the pandemic will be a formative part of their lives, and we want them to see it as a positive time in their lives, a creative time. That time we built a company together.


The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Reuven Cohen, founder and tech/developer behind Award Pool, an automated end-to-end esports competition and management platform.

Cohen is an early creator of infrastructure as a service (2003) and the founder of one of the first cloud companies. He is also a successful entrepreneur and founder of Enomaly. Enomaly was among the first to develop a self-service infrastructure as a service (IaaS) platform. In 2012, Anomaly merged with Virtustream which later sold to EMC for 1.2 billion dollars in 2015.

Cohen served as a strategic advisor to Amazon Web Services, Sun Microsystems and the Obama campaign and administration. Later Cohen advised the US General Services Administration (GSA) and the Chief Information Officers Council (CIOC). In this role, he drafted the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition of Cloud Computing and the GSA Cloud First Policy. He also founded CloudCamp in over 150 cities and many other global cloud organizations.

In addition to his role with Award Pool. Cohen is an active mentor to startups, an angel investor and a thought-leader who has consulted for the likes of Forbes, Wall Street Journal and CNN.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

When I was eight, I wanted an Atari, and instead, my parents bought me a Tandy 1000 at Radio Shack. No kids had their own computers in the early ’80s, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so it was a big deal! From that day on, I was hooked on technology and computers. Having my own computer gave me a significant head start in my professional career. My mom helped me set up my first business, printed greeting cards, when I was ten. My passion for technology was one of wonder. I was amazed at being able to create anything I envisioned. I started at age 10 on networked computers with the creation of a BBS (bulletin board system), a precursor to the internet; at age 12, I beta tested for AOL; at age 19, I started a rich media design company and by 25 was one of the founders of Cloud Computing and infrastructure as a service.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Create your opportunities ‒ don’t wait for them to come to you. One of the things we tell our kids is that by learning to program and build web applications, they will always be able to create their own opportunities.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I like the theory behind Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The 10,000 hours rule resonates with me. When creating a startup or application or anything, you get what you give. To do a startup well, it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours. The question is, are you going to spend that time over ten or two years? I lean towards the two years. Jump all in! This method has worked especially well during the pandemic shut down where I have nowhere else to go.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the pandemic began?

I tend to bounce between corporate and entrepreneurial life. For a while, I will be with a large company and work in a more traditional context, and then I go back to starting something new. Recently, I celebrated my 30th anniversary in web development, which is significant for someone my age. I am an early creator of infrastructure as a service (2003) and a thought-leader in cloud computing as the founder of one of the first cloud companies.

I was a strategic advisor to Amazon Web Services (2006), Sun Microsystems (2007), the Obama campaign/administration (pre-election 2008). I later advised the US Federal CIO Council/GSA (2009), where I helped draft the NIST definition of Cloud Computing and GSA Cloud First Policy. I founded CloudCamp (150+ cities) as well as many other cloud organizations around the globe.

As an active mentor, advisor, angel and instigator, I am intimately involved in the startup scene worldwide. A successful entrepreneur, I founded Enomaly, which was among the first to develop a self-service infrastructure as a service (IaaS) platform, and in 2012 merged with Virtustream (sold to EMC for 1.2 Billion dollars in 2015).

What did you do to pivot as a result of the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit hard in Toronto in March 2020, we were weeks away from opening an esports training facility in Toronto. It would be a place for teens to gather and game together in a safe and inclusive environment. A place where learning about STEM can be fun with gaming and game development classes ‒ a place for esports tournaments and birthday parties. But when the pandemic hit, and a physical location for kids to gather was no longer viable ‒ it was time to pivot.

What kind of business do you start when you can’t leave the house? How do you keep three kids at home engaged and learning? My answer was: “Teach them what you know.” And what do we know? How to build a website and start a business. What had we been researching? Esports. What do the kids love to do? Game. The answer was there. Award Pool.

I locked myself in my office for four months and built the architecture of an automated end-to-end esports competition and management platform: Award Pool. When things started to take shape, I took in our son Finnegan and together, we created the chat system for Award Pool.

When things started to function, my wife, Brenda developed a business plan, an investor deck and a marketing plan. Our daughter, Isla, and son, Sam, helped to create t-shirt designs. Sam and his friends were the first testers of the Fortintie leaderboard. At this point, I brought in a trusted friend and business partner, Alex, to help take Award Pool to the next level, and suddenly, our little family project became a viable and growing business.

Dinner conversations changed from what we did at school to what we need to make Award Pool better, what games we needed to feature, what sports we could incorporate, how a Swiss-style tournament is different from a Round Robin. We talked about ownership, stock options, investment and sales. I heard my son Sam talking to his friends about the different ways you can sell a company and which one will give you the most profits. My daughter Isla started building in Scratch instead of watching Netflix for hours on end. Finnegan became our new tech support guy.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

As I said, we needed to find a way to keep the kids engaged while they were quarantined at home and try to find a new business to start since the last one wasn’t going to work. In our research for the esports training facility, we knew it was a hot market. We thought about hosting some online games to help keep the idea alive and perhaps create some buzz for the facility we were hoping to open later. In looking into hosting an online esports tournament, we realized there was no organization or platform to do it all.

Suddenly it became clear (Aha) what the industry needed — not necessarily a physical place to play tournaments but a system to manage online tournaments, teams and leagues and events. I pitched to my wife that we could build this and teach the kids about building a business, and so it began.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Like any early-stage company, we are in the process of determining product-market fit. As a programmer, designer, and experienced CEO, I like to build the product with real-world partners that have specific requirements. I build to their needs while developing. However, creating in a public way means that any bugs or problems are immediately visible to all and need to be fixed in real-time, usually during tournament check-in. Despite that, we have made good headway in product development and have significant new releases coming out.

For example, we are showcasing a new product on Award Pool called Award Pool Challenges. With Award Pool Challenges, organizations can create compelling quests for increased engagement! It’s a way to gamify your user experience. The Award Pool Quest Widget allows you to build action combinations, including social media actions, tournaments, direct integration into your favorite games, sign-ups and more. Fans download the app and get started on various quests. We are working with PRJKT VET, a charity that helps wounded vets, to create a Veterans Bowl quest for the upcoming Army-Navy Veterans Bowl. Check it out here: https://app.awardpool.com/quest_list/veteransbowl

Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The key to being successful as an entrepreneur has to be a supportive partner who encourages you to do the things you want. My wife, Brenda, has been involved with all of my startups in one way or another for over 20 years. In this startup, Award Pool, the business plan development, product pitches and marketing is handled by Brenda. Award Pool is truly a family project as we also get our kids involved. While not everyone can work with their partner or kids, we make it work. She also took on teaching the kids during the pandemic ‒ that takes a saint.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

A highlight for me was watching my 9-yeard-old son, Finnegan, build a fully functioning chat system. He reminded me of myself at that age ‒ a proud moment.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

There are always hiccups in a new business and things you learn, especially when you are developing live. Here are a few things we came into:

  • Nobody pays to enter tournaments in esports. You can’t count on tournament ticket sales to be your primary source of revenue.
  • Building tournament systems is very complicated. The various types of tournament styles (Round Robin, Swiss, Teams, Battle Royale, etc.) make it very challenging to make a one-system-for-all.
  • The current process of tournament management is very labor-intensive. A huge goal for Award Pool is to change this, but there are many hands-on decks for tournament management as it stands right now. Just another sign that we are building a product that is needed.
  • Anything that can break- will break. Test. Test. Test. I am constantly reminded of this lesson.
  • Hire early and smart. Bringing Alex on board early on to help with finances and funding took a huge burden off my shoulders. And although Finnegan is a quick study — I am looking forward to getting another programmer starting soon.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

During the day, I try to focus on work and ignore what’s happening in the greater world. I live in my own world while working. I completely reorganized my office, so it feels like space away from my home. Brenda and I also try to make as normal a life as possible for the kids. We don’t want them to dwell on all the problems of the world and stress them out. We know the pandemic will be a formative part of their lives, and we want them to see it as a positive time in their lives, a creative time. That time we built a company together.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

That’s an existential question. I pride myself on mentoring and helping others in the startup world. I want to empower those who may have had less opportunity to find their footing and follow their ambitions. If I could do anything, I would work in social entrepreneurship causes.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I have met many famous people and tech giants during my years traveling the globe speaking at tech conferences and consulting. I’m going to pick someone entirely out of my industry and say, Oprah Winfrey. I admire that she is a self-made, super successful entrepreneur who overcame many challenges to get where she is. She is always finding new channels and an inventive way to speak to her audience.

How can our readers follow you online?

@ruv on Twitter and @ruv on Instagram or follow our corporate account @awardpool on Twitter.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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