Playing to win: Eric Yang, chairman of Ourgame, outlines his resilient rise to the top
Though the disruptive effects of the digital revolution are often bemoaned, technology has helped some traditional activities thrive.
Today, Eric Yang is chairman of Ourgame, an online platform for classic games and a business that is becoming a global player in the field of “mind sports”. But, as a boy growing up in Guangzhou, Yang’s dream was to become a professional Go player – a game that, through technology, has spread outside its traditional Asian confines into the rest of the world.
“When I was a kid in primary school, I went to study Go on Sundays,” Yang recalls. “And when Ourgame was launched in June 1998, Go was our first game.”
Yang spent the last two years of his high school in the US before studying electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. Though his childhood dream of a career as a professional Go player went unrealised, he says the one thing he knew when he graduated in 1994 was that he didn’t want to do anything that was boring and repetitive.
“I had a fear that if I became a programmer or an engineer I would be holed up in a windowless basement doing something no one would ever see.”
He was determined, instead, to keep learning new things and gain experience in different industries. Consultancy was one type of work that appealed to him as he believed it would provide a good level of variety and challenge. His joining IBM, therefore, might have seemed an unlikely move. “At that time IBM was still spiralling downward, the future was uncertain and no one knew IBM would be doing services or consulting. Everyone thought ‘Big Blue’ just sold machines.” He spent his first year there working mostly on retail. At the time, clothing retailer The Gap was his biggest client and he was helping transform its business by finding different ways of doing things, such as their inventory and logistics.
“But I was soon looking at taking sales from offline to online without losing The Gap’s brand identity. This process would later become known as e-commerce.”
It was not long before Yang found himself talking to his clients’ key decision-makers. “In strategy meetings I found that, to the IT guys, I was the one who knew most about business. For the business guys, I was the one who knew most about IT.”
In 1998, IBM sent him back to China to launch the company’s regional consulting business, with an initial focus on e-business. After departing, briefly, in 2000 to work for an American startup, he rejoined IBM and took on more responsibilities in more markets.
By 2005, Yang was running IBM’s consulting business, and other divisions, in the Asia-Pacific region. When he left for Ourgame five years later, he was running two industry clusters for the global emerging markets consulting and outsourcing business.
Taking over Ourgame in 2010 meant joining a business that was losing money. “The first thing I had to do when I got into Ourgame was turn around people’s thinking and them get out of the loser’s mindset – ‘we can’t do it’, ‘it’s not possible’, ‘been-there-done-that’. But though I knew what needed to be done to stop the bleeding, I did not fully know what needed to be done to start growth. I had strategies and notions, but I did not know if they would work.”
Today, Ourgame has 500 million registered users and Yang is helping take the company global. “We started with an online games platform and, from China, we are expanding globally. We are also going into e-sports – competitive gaming – and we have built stadiums in China and arenas in the US.”
Yang says that a successful leader needs to be resilient. “When we’re facing overwhelming odds, it’s easy to give up. So the first way I add value is by galvanising the team to always have hope, to keep fighting for it and not give up. The leader has to be the rock that doesn’t move.”
Another key focus is team-building. “It doesn’t matter how hard I work, or how smart I am, it won’t work without the best team. One part of my job is to constantly look for the right people and not micromanage them.”
Having seen, from the inside, the total transformation of IBM’s business model, and having led the revitalisation of Ourgame, Yang says he has learned that nothing stays the same for very long.
“Either you embrace change, or ideally lead it. Otherwise someone else will roll over you with it. It’s not even a choice. This is particularly true when you are a smaller company, the underdog. We have to be nimbler, we have to be one who’s more willing to change, more willing to innovate, more willing to do the more difficult dirty work that no one else wants to do.”
AHEAD OF THE GAME
Eric Yang gives his five top tips for triumph.
Zero in “We focus totally on mind sports and entertainment and won’t do anything else until we become the global leader. Resist all other temptations regardless of how lucrative they might seem at the time.”
Have courage “Think boldly and strategically, aim very high, and be intimidated by nothing.”
Put in the hours “You must be willing to do the prolonged heavy lifting in order to gain a delayed, but large, return.”
Innovate, innovate, innovate “We are constantly creating new business models and businesses because, to challenge larger rivals with more resources, we must always be leading the curve.”
Enjoy yourself “Try, passionately, to have fun while doing all of the above.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Playing to win .