Interview: Arun Devadas (K-OS Theory, ICE-2007)
With the country slowly inching back to normalcy amidst looming threats of yet another COVID-19 wave, public places have begun regaining their lost hubbub. Real life interaction with other people (apart from one’s family) was sorely missed by all, hence what better way to compensate for it than engaging in exciting, fun games with one’s friends? K-OS Theory, founded by Arun Devadas- an NITT alumnus (B.Tech ICE- 2007), strives to do all that and a lot more!
Read on, as Arun talks about his stint at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, co- founding K-OS Theory and being its CEO, his time at NITT and some intriguing insights on leadership and following one’s passion.
The name “K-OS” sounds pretty intriguing. Is there some story behind the name, because it sounds very similar to chaos?
Yes, infact, it is inspired from the Chaos Theory, which is used to study random behaviour in large-scale systems to predict future outcomes. Since our startup focuses on games and entertainment, we thought of paying tribute to the chaotic fun experienced while people play together!
You had started up K-OS theory to provide an immersive social experience in October 2020 – a time when the pandemic and lockdowns were still in place. What was your long-term vision with K-OS at the time?
When I was working with McKinsey at London pre-2020, life was different. My friends and I had decided long ago to build a startup together, so when the pandemic struck, we decided to go ahead with founding K-OS Theory. With lockdowns worldwide, founding and running a startup, especially a people engagement-centric startup was scary, but our minds were made up. We felt that the pandemic and the recession that followed would be temporary. Though we found it difficult, there were certain advantages- we had ample time to find the right customers and got good deals, which helped in steering our venture forward. I think this is what business is all about- surviving through unexpected troughs so that one can ride the wave.
Do you believe there are any limitations in ‘Gamifying’ a business in the long run?
Not that I can think of. Many industries- education, physical fitness etc are getting gamified. I believe gamifying helps industries to sustain better in future.
In a success story, the pitfalls that one had to overcome get overshadowed by the towering nature of success itself. What do you consider as the biggest hurdle that you have had to overcome in your career thus far?
I think my journey so far has been pretty conventional and my career path too structured. Studying engineering at NITT, joining Goldman Sachs, pursuing an MBA at IIM-Calcutta and working at McKinsey…..I feel my career trajectory is straight out of “How to make parents and the society proud 101”: the unwritten rulebook which deems what is respectable and acceptable for an Indian youngster- career wise!
However, I enjoyed a lot as a consultant for McKinsey- traveling all over the world, taking on challenging projects and meeting new people. Hence the biggest challenge was to leave McKinsey to start my own venture. It was very difficult for having followed a codified, structured path so far made me risk averse and also unwilling to let go of all the benefits that I had enjoyed as part of my job at McKinsey.
The first 6 months after founding K-OS Theory were really difficult. In my previous job, I solved problems from only one domain. However, now I faced the real world, where I had to tackle various issues, with each day being an entirely different experience from the rest. To be frank, even if it has been one year since K-OS was founded, I still feel we’ve just begun. It feels like a game with infinite levels- there are no ultimate wins, only the next bunch of challenges.
How has your experience at NIT Trichy helped you in your journey so far? Do share your experience with clubs/teams that you were part of in college.
Staying at NITT was my first time away from home. For a typical Bangalorean, I experienced quite a culture shock at Trichy but soon got accustomed to it. The best thing about NIT Trichy is its atmosphere and the sheer number of opportunities up for grabs. College gave me more freedom to explore different fields and identify what I’m good at and what inspires me. I still vividly remember playing cricket with my hostel mates and gorging on veechu parotta and mutta kalakki at Raju Anna’s shop- near Agate!
In college, I was a member of Balls by Picasso- the literary and debating club and made lasting friendships with my co-members. Even last week, I attended a quiz in Bangalore. Out of the 50 who had attended, 20 were from Balls by Picasso, including the quizmaster! I’m glad the 14 year bond we share as ex-members of Balls is going strong.
Most students pursue an MBA in a country they’d like to settle down and work further. What was your experience like working at McKinsey Australia right after your MBA at IIM-C?
Joining McKinsey Australia straight out of IIM-C was an exhilarating experience. It was very serendipitous as I was asked whether I’d like to join McKinsey, but their Australia office. Since moving to Australia meant a ton of new experiences, nice weather and exposure to a completely new culture, I agreed. I lived in Sydney, but as a consultant, I traveled a lot- to Jakarta, London, Mexico City among many others. However, leaving my girlfriend behind in India was a dampener (laughs) but I was glad when she joined me in Australia the next year. On the whole, working in Australia made me more mature and gave a major boost to my confidence. In fact, it gave me courage to take the plunge and launch my own venture later.
You have held multiple leadership positions across industries in your career so far. What leadership traits have been the most difficult to imbibe?
Leadership is a very intangible concept- it is hard to define who a good leader is. I feel true leadership emerges in the face of challenges. In hindsight, retrospecting on each mistake I made and each risk I took, made me a better leader. Leadership is also about staying calm during trying situations, where everybody around one is stressed and unmotivated. Everyone admires MS Dhoni, since he’s known to remain cool even during tense situations and make the right decisions. I’m trying to imbibe that very trait of his- staying calm on the outside while making rational decisions inside, focusing solely on what one can control and facing challenges with courage, no matter how stressful the external environment is.
What is your go-to source of motivation when stuck? What are your perspectives on motivation?
I’m an avid reader. I just pick up a book and get engrossed with reading while sad. In the corporate world, motivation comes from responsibility to team members and clients but ultimately, true motivation stems from within. One has to channel that inner motivation to do what one is truly passionate about. For instance, we at K-OS could have done something more trending- like building a software for a crypto trading exchange. However we didn’t, because if we had picked up something we had no inclination towards, we would have no motivation to face challenges and solve problems. To be happy and successful, one has to work on things that intrigue and inspire us.
You are an ardent believer in collaborative efforts and the importance of team building throughout various stages in your career. What have been the chief contributors that motivate you to focus on building a team in a corporate environment?
Very few things in life can be achieved alone. Effective team building does not stem merely out of team dinners or rewarding top performers. It is all about building trust. In the corporate environment, goals and metrics are very important. We are not in control of the targets set or the outside environment. I noticed that teams where managers instill trust within the team members perform better. Strong team bonding reinforces the fact that it is okay to take risks and making mistakes is part of the learning process. Only when such a conducive environment for growth is provided, the team thrives as a whole.
I also remember an incident in the early stages of my career at McKinsey. I was working on a project in Mexico City and all the meetings were held in Spanish. I sat clueless in every team meeting and was fully dependent on my team members to fill me in on what was being discussed. Based on what they said, I had to build a model. As my project tenure was about to end, I had to present my work to the CEO of the company. When the CEO greeted me in Spanish, I could only greet him back and couldn’t converse further. When I told him I didn’t know Spanish because I was from India, he said the meeting could proceed in English instead as everyone had to be involved. I was impressed and humbled by his gesture. It quite set the tone- not only for the meeting but also in fostering mutual respect within a team. It was a crucial team building and leadership lesson for me.
Is there any advice you would want to give your 20-year old self? Is there anything you wish you could have done differently in college?
I’ve always been in a hurry. I’ve always focused solely on the future, instead of the present. For instance, when I was offered a job at Goldman Sachs, I spent my final year being excited about my first job and when I joined Goldman Sachs, I spent a lot of time focusing on giving CAT and joining IIM. As I look back, I realise that one mustn’t remain solely in anticipation. One must enjoy the moment and appreciate what one has at present.
I was an average student and I focused more on extra-curriculars than academics, but I’m glad they paid in the long run. ICE at NIT Trichy was pretty hard and I feel lucky to have survived it. However, I enjoyed every moment of participating in extracurriculars during college life, hence I have no idea what I could have done differently.
Having worked extensively on projects involving coming up with innovative strategies, how do you think institutions- schools, colleges and workplaces can influence and encourage one’s creativity?
It’s very hard to say. Frameworks for running businesses can be taught well in classrooms. For instance, I remember studying an entrepreneurship elective in NIT Trichy and various important courses like financial planning, accounting, market sizing etc at IIM-C. Creativity and ideas, well. Ideas cannot be taught since creativity is mostly spontaneous. Ideas can come from anywhere. Most entrepreneurs I interacted with told me that their startup ideas were based on problems that they or people close to them faced. Looking at problems as opportunities, conceptualizing and executing our ideas- all these can be learnt only outside the classroom.
Have there been any personal experiences that prompted you to start up K-OS theory?
We had already decided our roles and responsibilities in our startup, but the idea was only lacking (laughs). We thought we were good to go and could figure things out soon, since we knew and trusted each other. We were also clear our startup involved gamification, but we were unsure about how to implement it.
I vividly remember the day- I had been very stressed since I realised I had to quit my job. I found it harder to explain it to people, who thought I was stupid to quit my job and start my own venture. Most people even said playing games was silly and a startup focusing on games would soon fail. I attended my friend’s birthday party in the evening, feeling very stressed, worn out and scared. There were games organised in the party and as I played with other people, I felt tremendously better. I didn’t even realise 4 hours had passed! As I drove home, I wondered, can I create something that makes people enjoy- forgetting their mundane worries? I discussed it with my friends and we decided that a virtual game was too mainstream. We wanted to give people a more immersive experience instead of graphics and frantic fingers on the keyboard and voila, K-OS Theory was founded.
Our final question for you: Tell us about your fondest memory from college.
My fondest memory from college is attending lit- fests and having fun with my teammates. I was introduced to literary events in my 2nd year and I remember avidly participating in NITTFest and Festember E-Lits (English lits). A bunch of us with similar interests got together and soon began to participate in competitions held at JIPMER, IIT Madras and IIT Bombay. We lost a couple of them, but we still had a lot of fun.
When we finally got the hang of E-Lits, we began winning competitions. I especially remember winning competitions held at IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore in my 3rd year and splurging my prize money at Raju Anna’s ! Such experiences taught me to stay sportive, venture out of my comfort zone and give my best shot at every opportunity I got.