Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Oleg Krot.
Oleg Krot is the Co-founder of WePlay — one of global leaders in esports / Investor in Tech innovative projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, innovator and expert in the Esports and Gaming industry. He is managing partner of TECHIIA holding and few other companies at the moment with more soon to come.
TECHIIA holding unites 10+ businesses in the field of software development, creation of IT products, esports, and media, manufacturing and distribution of premium souvenirs, construction of infrastructure facilities. TECHIIA applies sustainability principles based on high ethical standards and social responsibility principles.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have been in business for 23 years now. From the age of 12, I was recommended as a professional in setting up computers and it was the very beginning of my business journey. I launched my first LAN gaming-center business in 1998. This became possible thanks to the simplification of the tax regime for small businesses, which, by the way, is still available. I rented a small room in the local art school, started hiring employees and doing business the right way.
This is how the first LAN gaming center was created. And in addition to that, I had some IT-related contracts. Not sure if either due to my young age or my mindset, but I was working like crazy and did not see any limits. It was at this point when my current business partner Yura Lazebnikov and I joined forces. We created more LAN gaming centers due to the growing demand. To attract more customers, my team and I started organizing esports tournaments, which turned out to be a great idea and even sponsors started reaching us. We realized that it should be an independent business. Today this business is reflected in WePlay Esports, an international esports media holding. Later on, other projects were launched organically. Also, an IT product company Enestech and its product Senet, a software for cyber arenas is rooted in esports.
In parallel to that, other IT projects scaled up and we went global. In order not to outsource the development, we have created j:Mind.Systems, our own service company. We also created a technology site construction business and WP Merchandise!, a company that manufactures plush toys based on computer games, movies and comic books licensed by companies such as Warner Bros., Ubisoft, Valve, Bandai Namco, the list goes on.
In 2019, my partner Yura Lazebnikov and I united all the assets into the TECHIIA holding. Today it unites more than 10 business projects and over 1000 employees. Its offices operate in the USA, Cyprus, and Ukraine. And the Senet service is being used in 80+ countries worldwide.
Since then Yura and I left the operational management for CEOs. Instead, we focused on the idea generation, investment analysis of new projects, the growth of current businesses, and making them all part of TECHIIA. For example, the holding has recently acquired a company that produces unmanned aerial vehicles and provides services for remote sensing of the earth’s surface. We named it Culver Aviation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Over time, you start taking all the good and bad things less emotionally. Even once the most emotional events no longer seem to be something huge. There is a fun training method in martial arts when your partner or the coach consistently hits your weak spots: the inner thigh, abs. It helps during the fight if the opponent hits you there, you don’t fall and stay consistent in order not to be defeated. Therefore, I tend to perceive “mistakes” as such a training process. Therefore, it is essential to quickly correct them and such mistakes in the future.
Let me give you a real-life example. The WePlay Esports’ thing is to turn esports tournaments into a spectacular show. Several years ago, when we were organizing one of the Dota 2 tournaments, our managers were contacted by the representatives of a well-known gaming peripherals company from its London office. They were fascinated with the WePlay Esports tournaments and they wished to purchase the most expensive advertising integration for $50,000. They wanted to come to our office to meet in person and sign a contract. As soon as we said that we were in Kyiv ‒ outside the EU ‒ there was less enthusiasm, and the negotiations were moved to their Kyiv office. And we had a completely another offer from their local representatives, it was $1000 for the same integration.
This lesson helped me realize that the products themselves can (and should) be produced where it is reasonable from the perspective of cost-efficiency, and sold wherever possible. To see this, it is not enough to create products that will be in demand all over the world. You need to be ready to sell where customers are willing to buy them. It’s not just about geography, it’s also about compliance. Today we have built an international holding that unites companies from different jurisdictions. It was a long and difficult process, but it is inevitable once the company aspires to be a strong player in the global market.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I did not have any mentor who would set goals for me and push me to achieve them. On the contrary, there was a person who allowed me to do business with no rush. I’m talking about my spouse. She was there for me, created comfort, supported me, and allowed me to work in peace.
In my opinion, a person has three aspects that affect work and happiness: the family environment, health, and social status. Take one away and the person will start feeling inferior and work ineffectively. Take away two ‒ and the person will find oneself in a mix of depression, grief, self-torture, suffering, and self-pity. Take three away and, well, you get my point. All three aspects are crucial to me and I am happy that I can reach my full potential.
Before I met my wife, those were my parents who supported me. I dropped out of university four months before getting my bachelor’s degree. Nobody scolded me, my parents understood that I could no longer mix work with study properly and therefore chose the first one. Later I finished my studies and I am glad that it happened at the time when I was ready for this (especially to allocate time for education).
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I don’t know which Extensive research can be 100% correct in stating that. There’s a phrase from Star Wars ‒ “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”. Any product can perform on the market for a long time as long as it solves a problem. World history knows a lot of soap bubbles ‒ dot-coms, tulip mania ‒ they were not solving any, they were a hyped product.
When we started 23 years ago, the world was different. In Ukraine, where we started, entrepreneurship provided many opportunities, but no one knew how to use them. It was then that Yura and I realized that it is necessary to be flexible, be aware that the world is not linear, experiment, and not be afraid to make mistakes.
We all remember that long before the iPad, Microsoft introduced touchscreen tablets. But then they were expensive, irrelevant, and needless. Apple reverted to existing technology, but it did it in a timely manner and more properly. And we, not knowing the Apple case, could say that if such smart people could not implement the idea, then this idea is a failure. But Apple teaches us not to be so small-minded.
Yes, a purpose-driven business is more likely to stay in the market for a long time. But this cannot be the only way. A huge number of people, having invested in time, earned a lot of money on cryptocurrency exchanges, tulips, dot-coms. I think a person who has made a fortune on a hyped product will listen to the statement that business must be done according to the instructions quite carefully. Though this person will listen to it while driving his/her own Ferrari.
Yes, you can work with a hype business, but you don’t need to jeopardize the main one. You need to allocate as much money for it as you do not mind losing. Restraint and self-control in this case are the main qualities. The distribution of assets between high-risk, medium-risk businesses and blue chips is an extremely important skill for a businessman who wants to go beyond the limits of a small business.
Speaking of my motives, I have always perceived money as a tool to help me change something. And it’s not just about my own life or business ambitions. These are social projects, science, and a lot of social problems that can and should be solved.
I am far from thinking that the goals of such tasks can only be philanthropic. Everyone involved should be interested in the process and the result. For example, as part of our sustainable development policy, we work with children’s cancer clinics. Seeing kids’ recover makes me happy. I don’t know if this is how I was raised or my attitude, but we all want to live in a better world than it is now, don’t we? I am sure that every person should and must change the world for the better.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Leadership in my case is about creating a strong business that will be safe on the one hand, and resourceful on the other. ‘Safe’ is about strength, profitability, and compliance with international standards. ‘Resourceful’ is about the implementation of your goals without going all in. The work environment should also be safe and resourceful, so that teams not only implement the already accumulated competencies but also create new ones, grow and bring more benefits to the business. At the same time, values are also important, because they are the foundation on which interaction is being built. At the beginning of this year, we published our Code of Ethics and Business Conduct which reveals our approaches to interaction both within our companies and with our partners, state officials in different countries, contractors, and other stakeholders.
The business is, first of all, the individuals and teams who build it. But some investors must be sure that the enterprise is strong and reliable. There should not be one person or process that encloses all work. You cannot depend on one customer, the political situation in one country, and so on. Therefore, in the context of how to be a leader, it is first of all to build a stable business.
What is the main investing principle fundamental to successful outcomes?
The stronger your business is, the faster it gets the investment. And you need investment for growth. Another case is if your business does not scale it doesn’t require any new investments. And the whole different option is when the system scales well, but you have so much money that you don’t need any outside investment. But this is a very rare case.
The fuel for growth can be earned partly on your own and partly by attracting investors. And if there are only a few bottlenecks in your company, then attracting new investments is a piece of cake.
How to deal with turbulent times at work?
The problem is that in turbulent times the company needs to act fast. Not in a month or a year, but the very same day. Let’s consider a fairly big enterprise as an example. Its board of directors gathers once a month, or even once a year. This is unacceptable in a crisis. It is a huge mistake to deprive operational staff of the right to make decisions. Turbulent times require flexibility and speed. The rest is a matter of the team’s professionalism.
There is one test I run once in a while. We have about 10 business directions in our holding. By ‘about’ I mean that some startups are under “manual” control. But once they grow into a fully independent company, we send the CEO on a two-week vacation to see if, without him/her around, the team is a mess or not. If there is a mess, the CEO is not qualified enough. The team must be ready to operate even if there’s no leader around. The CEO should never create a team that needs an everyday “nanny”. It is unacceptable. So basically this test determines whether the team is ready for unforeseen circumstances.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t believe in external motivation. Either a person has a goal and strives to achieve it (that’s self-motivation), or there is no goal and no motivation at all.
I have always been a workaholic, pushing myself too hard. After my first child was born, I was on the edge. It was a tough time. My daughter was very small, she often cried. My wife felt fatigued, and I suggested that she go on vacation with her sister for two weeks.
So now, in addition to my huge workload, I had bad sleep because my child was crying all night. Somewhere in the middle of this period, it became unbearable for me to cope with all that and I was torn apart by the hatred of everything around me. It lasted about five seconds. But then it hit me, this is just a little person who cannot express her feelings in another way. I analyzed my anger: “Is it due to the lack of good sleep? If so, it’s just a condition, I can make adjustments. If it is the job that annoys you ‒ you can always quit it. If I take full responsibility for the kid I will do it properly and with dignity, it is my kid.” And since then, I was never angry with my kids.
We demotivate ourselves. I blamed myself for everything: “my wife is exhausted, which means that I am the one to blame; my kid is upset because I am angry with her; I can’t cope with all my work.” Once you find yourself thinking like that, just stop. Self-flagellation, anger, and fatigue are the worst counselors. Managing your emotions is difficult, but possible. Self-demotivation is more likely when there is a lack of serotonin, this is a hormonal imbalance, a common biochemical process associated with overload and stress. First, you need to have a good rest, find a few hours for healthy sleep. A person can quickly find a way out of any situation, and quickly and without strain when this person is in a proper condition.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Over the past year and a half, by ‘challenging times’ everyone usually means the pandemic and its consequences for business and the economy. The fact is that for a leader, any time is challenging.
The main difference between businessmen and those who pretend to be ones is how they take calm times. If your company grows when everyone else grows, this is not necessarily your merit. You just have your share.
A businessman, on the other hand, does not sit back and relax in the phase of general economic growth. He/she uses this time just like an athlete getting ready for the main competition of his life. That is the businessman learns how to deal with crises, accumulates resources and reserves, draws up plan B, C and even up to Z. In calm times such businessmen are the ones to set the bar themselves as high as possible.
And when a crisis comes, (and it always comes) some get dismayed not knowing what to do, others freeze hoping that everything will work itself out. And there are these businessmen who turn the rapid reaction mode on. I think the speed of reaction to changes and the ability to drive oneself and others in relatively calm times are the key qualities of a true leader.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Initially, if you are well prepared for the crisis, half of the job is done. The team needs to know that in times of uncertainty it has something to rely on and that the team has created it with its own hands.
Furthermore, a time of change is a time of opportunity. We always tell our colleagues that if we make a competent effort during a crisis, we will accelerate our growth several times.
WePlay Esports is a striking example of that. During the pandemic, the company has grown in every aspect: the number of tournaments, the audience, the viewing hours, the finances, the team, the status. We built an esports arena, launched our fighting league. We were entrusted with holding the major tournament of the Dota Pro Circuit series ‒ one of the top Dota 2 competitions in the world.
The advantage of the crisis is that someone leaves the market, some resources become cheaper, and customers reveal new needs. You have to act. Therefore, there is no time to feel uncertain and get bored.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
To tell the truth, not hiding anything. That is the best way
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is never predictable. I recommend being flexible in terms of long-term plans. To have a dozen scenarios and switch between them depending on the market situation, competitors, and current opportunities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
You need to take full responsibility for your actions, and not justify your failures by external circumstances. Focus on creating, rather than complaining. As soon as you start explaining your low performance with external reasons, as soon as you start listing the problems that prevent you from moving forward, you are no longer in demand. Self-justification is an addiction. As soon as you come up with an external reason why something does not work out and stop acting, then you will always be finding such excuses and will never be able to comprehend that you might be the reason for all your failures.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first is to rely on inaccurate data and forecasts. The current pandemic has severely damaged businesses around the globe. But humanity has never witnessed a single virus that would vanish due to herd immunity without losing an insane amount of lives. Vaccination is the only option. Quarantine, lockdowns, and disinfection are good, but not enough.
At the same time, among businessmen, I have repeatedly heard a variety of expectations: everyone must get sick; if we keep the lockdown, we will strengthen our immunity. They believed the claims of some anti-science resources and started making their business decisions based on such claims.
The same goes for forecasts. “In three to six months, a vaccine will appear and the coronavirus will vanish,” said many at the beginning of the pandemic. Well, it didn’t happen, as we can see.
It is worth reminding yourself that the average traditional forecast of any crisis is one and a half to two years. Be guided by facts and reliable sources.
The second mistake is to stop doing anything and wait for everything to work itself out.
The crisis changes reality forever. Like a war or a childhood disease. Those who were able to automate processes, work effectively remotely, to strengthen their product and widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the market. And it will be very difficult to catch up with them.
Nobody knows when or how it will end. But just in case, I usually take some conservative or pessimistic indicators and think about what I should do all this time. I choose a strategy and, after weighing several scenarios, implement it. A pause can only be one of the tactical steps.
The third is to rely on rigid structures.
That’s what usually huge corporations do during the period of a prosperous economy with their numerous boards and complex hierarchies. Even if CEOs think they need to be prepared for anything, local leaders usually look for easy ways. If the tool works we will apply it. And it doesn’t matter that it is useless once the banking system collapses, the currency is volatile, the stock market goes down, and there is no way to use loans and refinance.
It does not work in times of crisis. It turns out that the “tools for success” work only half of the time, and the rest of the time the company either crashes or tries to stay afloat.
But it is these mistakes that help the market evolve. Weak, clumsy, inflexible businesses are forced to downsize or close. So they free up resources for new companies that are trying to be as efficient as possible.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The growth rate often depends on the individuals next to you. Common values are super important. This applies to both business partners and teams. When recruiting a person for a team, we carry out an agreement on values at an individual stage of an interview ‒ the Bar Raiser. Expertise and soft skills may vary depending on the position. The main thing is inner freedom and compliance with our values.
That’s also rooted in our slogan: “We dare to look beyond”. We are looking for people who are in love with what they are doing and push the limits, each in its place. Such a team does not wait for any crisis to start acting.
A proactive person does not run forward because of some threat behind, but because such a person loves moving forward.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Treat your team as your family and partners. The Steve Jobs bio describes how authoritarian he was. I am not saying that this is wrong, I am saying that for every leader the five most important things are completely different. This is how to name the three most important parts of the body in terms of beauty. For a Brazilian, these will be big eyes, and for the Ndorobo tribe ‒ well-stretched earlobes. The “you gotta do what you gotta do” approach kills flexibility and creativity. A person must understand the main goal of his/her task. The company management cannot share all the information. But clearly communicating the main reason for the whole work is essential.
- Сommunicate and interact respectfully. Any attempt to raise your ego while offending or hurting other people is unacceptable. There is no reason to humiliate another person, there are no circumstances for this management style to be acceptable. There is no reason to neglect a person, regardless of his job, social status. I will communicate respectfully, deliberately avoid sensitive topics, be careful with my words, so as not to seem arrogant, hypocritical, disrespectful. This is essential when communicating with your employees. The manager is the one who can raise your salary, lower it, fire an employee. Many executives enjoy flattery, they enjoy the power. With great power comes great responsibility. By focusing on this goal, they are distracted from the main one.
- Be an example. The best way to demand something from a person is to say: “If I can do it, so can you”. I know people who lead an idle lifestyle but require subordinates to work from dusk to dawn. Moreover, there’s often no clear reason for that. You should be an example for your team.
- Don’t make people work for an idea. We all work to make money. In addition to the idea that we are making a cool product, I am focused on the benefits for a specific person. The leader should think about what his/her employees need. He/she should consider the amount of work and the gratitude for doing it. It is important that the manager puts himself/herself in the employee’s shoes and analyzes whether the amount of money corresponds to the level of workload.
- Rest well to work well. I remember the time when during three years in a row I never took a day off or sick leave. Even with a fever, after taking some antipyretic, I was still coming to the office. This was extremely bad for my health, even though I had a good one. After being on vacation for three days, having a good sleep at night, I realized how bad decisions I’ve made due to the lack of good rest.
In Slavic culture, there is an idea that we rest until we’re out cold and we work ourselves to the bone. But we always need to strike a balance. Being in the squirrel-in-the-wheel mode, you lose fresh thinking.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Rest well to work well” is probably one of the best quotes. I heard it from my German friend in regards to the topic we previously discussed.
This rule works for me, but this does not mean that people who work long hours and seven days a week are ineffective. I want to believe that they have enough sleep and other resources to quickly recharge.
Let me tell you an anecdote, which for me is much more than just a funny story.
There is a skyscraper in the downtown business district. And it has had the same window cleaners for years. One of the teams, consisting of a German, a Mexican, and an Estonian, is having their lunch break right on the 42nd floor.
The German opens his lunch box, there is a deep-fried pork knuckle with pickled cabbage. He looks at it and says:
My life doesn’t change, I’m tired. The same 42nd floor, the same lunch every day. If tomorrow nothing changes, I will throw myself out. I can’t live like that.
The Mexican opens his lunch box with fajitas in it saying:
Here we go again, the same fajitas, just like before, and after. You’re right, Hans, nothing changes. If tomorrow everything remains the same, I will throw myself out after you.
The Estonian, in turn, opens his lunch box with sandwiches with sausage and gasps:
Yes, gentlemen, I totally agree with you. If nothing changes tomorrow, I’ll join you.
The next day, on the 42nd floor, at lunchtime, the German opens his lunch box and sees the same food. He screams and throws himself out. The Mexican opens his lunch box with the same fajitas as the day before and also throws himself out. The same happens to the Estonian.
At the funeral, their wives talk to each other in grief. The German woman starts to explain to her friends:
My Hans loved this deep-fried pork knuckle so much. If only he would have told me, I would have made potatoes, baked fish for him, made salads, but he did not say a thing.
The Mexican woman adds:
My beloved Pablo! He said he married me because of these fajitas. I thought he adored them. One word from Pablo and I would have made such a quesadilla, I would have studied all the recipes in the world just to make him happy. But he was silent all the time.
Then the Estonian woman says:
Yes, dear, I understand why both of you are upset. But I am more than upset, I’m shocked because my Johan was always making his own lunch.
I love this anecdote because it very subtly ridicules the fatalistic nature of a person. Everything is in our hands. It is sad when people, because of their isolation, do not want to take a step towards their loved ones or some opportunities, and lose so much, right down to their own lives. There is no need to refer to the higher power when you can fix everything by yourself, by simply pulling yourself together.
How can our readers further follow your work?
New readers and followers are always welcome! Don’t hesitate to visit the TECHIIA holding website, our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Also, my partner and I share useful content and special news from the world of investments and technology on LinkedIn and Twitter. Here are my Linkedin and Twitter accounts, as well as Yura’s Linkedin and Twitter accounts.