You might not know Jeff Ma by name, but there’s a good chance that you’ve heard something of his exploits. As seemingly a jack-of-all-trades, Ma has been involved in many different enterprises, ranging from professional blackjack to starting up companies designed to manage development workflow.

The former of these led to a starring role in Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, a book detailing how a group of MIT students, including Ma, developed a blackjack strategy that turned the odds in their favor and generated millions in profits. The book became a bestseller and was the basis for the film 21, in which the main character was based on Ma, who was a math whiz at MIT but barely knew the rules of blackjack before he joined the team, eventually becoming a strong contributor to their successes in Las Vegas.

While that chapter of his life ended long ago, it would appear that the serial entrepreneur is once again facing a blank page after his newest endeavor, TenXer, was sold to social media powerhouse Twitter.

The Company 

At its heart, TenXer has a very specific purpose – to aid software developers with project management. As many projects are staffed by developers spread far and wide across the globe, getting everyone on the same page is a difficult task. TenXer aims to streamline that arduous process and make it easier for developers to work together more efficiently and get their products created as quickly as possible. TenXer uses a combination of data and analytics to help with the process, fitting in perfectly with the growing trend of metrics and more informed, quantitative decision-making that is happening on the corporate level.

With a degree in mechanical engineering, this seems to be a project destined for Ma to tackle and if Twitter’s acquisition is any indicator, the product he built is a good one. To gain insight into how engineers work and how collaboration could be improved, TenXer drew on existing data from some of the more popular frameworks like GitHub and Pivotal and then used that information to inform decisions that could effectively be based on the metrics. While mainly intended for new startups, the company’s clients extended to several established firms as well. 

The Deal 

Although official numbers have yet to be released, the rumored price tag for TenXer was just under $50 million. In the announcement that was sent to current TenXer customers, Ma indicated that the company would close as a separate entity and become part of the larger Twitter program. To appease those customers that would be left without a project management service, all payments were refunded in light of the purchase.

The note also mentioned that the current team of employees would be moved to the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and continue their work there. Before being sold, TenXer was an attractive option for venture capitalists, securing some $5 million in funds from Khosla, Google Ventures, and True Ventures.

What this leads us to believe is that TenXer may be gone as a B2B product, but the framework will likely be adapted to be proprietary Twitter software. It may be rolled out to a wider audience in the future, but for now it’s Twitter’s to keep all to themselves. With Twitter having a reputation for being less than stellar and project development and implementation, this new move may possibly improve their effectiveness at introducing new features and further cement their position as one of the Big 3 social networks.

The Past 

If Ma selling a startup sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happened before. After the whirlwind blackjack success, Ma turned his attention to sports, specifically looking at data analysis in the professional arena. Coming up with some interesting ideas (think Moneyball, but more advanced), Ma landed consulting jobs with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers as well as the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Using what he learned, he founded Protrade and then Citizen Sports, with the latter being bought in 2010 by Yahoo. Both were developed on the same principle and combined the easily intertwined worlds of gambling and sports by allowing fans to participate by buying and selling sports stars on a fantasy level but with real money involved on Protrade. With Yahoo’s sports section being one of the top online portals for keeping up to date with global athletic activities, the acquisition of Citizen Sports added another layer of depth for visitor interaction.

The Citizen Sports end products were mainly a collection of online fantasy leagues and mobile applications, which have since been absorbed into the overall product package that Yahoo offers to dedicated sports fans. How Yahoo improved on the existing products was to include even more obscure sports like rugby and cricket into the applications as well as adding a social context that allows users to share their thoughts about upcoming games or just engage in casual conversation with friends. When Citizen Sports was bought by Yahoo, Ma chose to leave the team, one of the primary indicators that he could be once again stepping out on his own. 

The Future 

With the blackjack, sports, and TenXer, it would appear that Ma prefers a role somewhat behind the scenes and he even says that while other kids dreamed of being professional athletes, Ma fantasized more about seeing himself in the decision-making role of being a general manager. Getting into fantasy sports therefore feels natural and Ma found that he excelled at the hobby that has since become a national pastime. Following the work done by Dan Okrent and other sabermetricians, Ma has done quite well, winning his fantasy baseball league on a regular basis and with the lessons learned translating well into business. Those wishing to learn more about Ma’s specific approach would be well served by reading his 2010 book, The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big.

So, what’s next up on Ma’s plate? Neither he nor Twitter have announced whether Ma will still be heading up the project once it’s fully ensconced into the Twitter facility, but it seems more Ma’s style to head out again on his own. Regardless of whatever project he dreams up next, it’s a safe bet to say that it will certainly be an interesting enterprise and another productive chapter added to an already illustrious career.


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