“This is really cliché, but as a kid I made a killing selling candies,” Kenshi Arasaki, 28, said with a laugh. A University of Calgary alumnus, Arasaki co-founded A Thinking Ape, one of the highest grossing mobile developers in the world. But it wasn’t always clear that entrepreneurship was for him, let alone the highly competitive gaming industry.
“While I was doing my computer science degree ... I had this very conventional thought process: finish school, get a job at a prestigious company, then follow the main track of life that a lot people are expected to have,” said Arasaki. But his thinking changed when he was recruited by Amazon.com in Seattle. “It was a great company. But there was this little voice in the back my head saying, ‘Are you sure you really want to be doing this?’ At the end of a year-and-a-half at Amazon, that little voice turned into this really giant roar.”
After leaving Amazon, that roar led him and his two partners, Wilkins Chung and Eric Diep (University of Waterloo grads), to build A Thinking Ape. But success didn’t come immediately. It took a while to find their niche. “We actually started out life as a chat company,” said Arasaki. “But it wasn’t long before we knew that was the wrong business. Our data was telling us that there was this core group of people who were almost fanatics in terms of how devoted they were to their favourite games on the iPhone, and they wanted a place to chat about it. But there was no outlet for this community.
“We came up with this hypothesis that we could create games that were nothing more than thin veils for kickass chat rooms. ... People thought we were crazy. None of us had any experience developing games. But we did it, and that change turned out to be really spot-on in terms of a good business. We became profitable quickly and surpassed a lot of games makers. Overall, we make global social games, but this is all built over a real-time chat communication layer.”
Arasaki clarified that in an online game, there can be many people playing at the same time, but remain strangers. But when you give them the means to communicate, you create an environment that encourages new friendships. You create an environment that turns into a strong community.
“And that’s where we excel,” added Arasaki. “We’re really good at the art of building really strong gaming communities, (but it’s also) a science. ... The games are the excuse for people to get to know each other. ... It’s been pretty amazing the kinds of connections people form just because they play this game and have this common bond to share with each other. You see these really amazing moments of humanity.”
But the life of an entrepreneur isn’t always an easy one, nor is it a clear one. It takes many tries before you succeed.
“When people consider between joining a start-up or a big company, you could take that nine-to-five job, but then you have to realize there’s actually a cost to it. You may get paid a lot from your cushy job or get benefits out of it, but (in the end) you’re getting paid to accept a lower growth rate in terms of your skills. You’re not learning as much. And eventually you won’t be excited about all the new tools. You’re not keeping up with the state-of-the-art. You won’t continuously be refining yourself, because you’re not being challenged! And all of a sudden you look up and notice that you’re not at the top of your field. I think that’s really dangerous, because a lot of young people and new grads massively underestimate their own power and the compounding nature of their intelligence.
“When you’re placed in a highly stressful, highly challenging environment, and you’re relatively inexperienced, you’re in a position to learn faster than you ever will or ever have before. And that has an exponential curve to how much you learn and grow as a professional, and as a person.”