How A 19 Year-Old Founder Turned An Idea Into A $20M/Year Business
Brian Wong on losing his job, networking and building a business by asking questions.
At a dinner party hosted by Kevin Rose, CEO of white-hot (at the time) Digg, startup heavy hitters mingle with their peers; founders, VC’s, prominent angel investors.
It’s not an unusual scene as far as San Francisco goes.
Except for one thing: the 18-year-old kid with glasses who, as far as the invite list goes, isn’t “supposed” to be there.
As Kevin would later tell him, “I had no idea who the fuck this random Asian kid was that was hanging out at all of my events.”
But it wasn’t long before Kevin knew who Brian Wong was.
It wasn’t long before a lot of us knew who Brian Wong was.
How did he get into that party? And how did he use those same skills to build a 100-person mobile advertising business that appears on 4,000 apps and is on track to make $20 million in revenue this year?
We talked to Brian, now 25, about his legendary networking skills, how he came up with and co-founded Kiip at 19 after being laid off, and the lessons he’s learned turning it into a rapidly growing business.
How a 19 Year-Old Founder Turned an Idea Into a $20M/Year Business
Breaking Into the Club
Brian, who graduated from the University of British Columbia at just 18, has had a “go for it” mentality for quite some time.
No one else cares about your life as much as you do, and if you end up putting in the time and energy the results will be there. It’s a numbers game. You want a job? You ask 10,000 people, and if one person gives you a job, then you made a 1 in 10,000 chance happen.
So when it was time to plot his next steps after college, Brian began asking anyone who would help him for guidance.
I was doing everything I could to get as many informational interviews and coffee meetings as I could—and by the way, it was the most genuine form of informational interview, because at the time I wasn’t even aware of what a business development job was—and I was asking questions like ‘what does a business development person do?’
I was genuinely curious about what it means to work in a startup. What are the jobs like? What am I expected to do?
When you’re genuinely curious, people are willing to help you.
With his interest in business development sparked, he eventually was able to parlay this networking approach into a job at Digg.
By getting to Kevin Rose.
I met Kevin a few times at conferences. I was kind of creeping on him—much like people generally do with him—and I ended up showing up at a bunch of his parties.
Though we’re friends now, I didn’t know him at the time, and later he told me that he “had no idea who the fuck this random Asian kid was that was hanging out at all of my events.”
But eventually I think he figured out that if you have the ability to network yourself into these situations, then you’re probably the type of person that might be a good hire in business development.
How does Brian suggest getting into events where you don’t “belong”?
Honestly, just act like you belong there.
The more you’re like, ‘ooohh I don’t really know, should I be here?’, people start to think ‘wait, is this guy supposed to be here?’.
The more you convince yourself, ‘hell yeah I’m supposed to be here,’ the easier it gets.
Of course, nobody ever confronts you, especially when you’re comfortable and you’re networking and you’re a good person to talk to.
Once Rose knew who Brian was, Brian asked him for a job at Digg.
I emailed him and he forwarded my email to Bob, who was the VP of Business Development, and he forwarded my email to Matt Van Horn, who was their business development associate at the time, and he ended up taking me out to breakfast at 7 AM to test me to see if I could wake up that early.
I ended up having breakfast with him, and he was so impressed that he took me to the office to meet Jay Adelson (who was CEO at the time) and managed to get budget to hire me within the same week.
But it’s not a single email, or a single event, Brian says, that landed him the job.
It’s putting in the work over time.
People respect when you actually hustled to get in front of them.
I see that today, too. There are people who really want my advice or really want to get involved with Kiip, and when they do all these things to do that, it shows that they put in thought and time and effort and that they really want it.
If they’re just going to send a lame-ass email and say “hey, hire me”? I’m not going to hire you from a single email, that’s not how it works.
And Then Things Went South
Unfortunately, Brian’s time at Digg was short-lived.
Five months after being hired, the company began to hit trouble, and Brian was laid off.
But, the company was able to do him a favor, and Brian was able to keep networking.
In an effort to maintain my visa status [Brian is Canadian] while I was supposed to find another job, Digg gave me a grace period where I was still technically employed by the company even after I was laid off.
I used that as a way to wedge my way into speaking at conferences on behalf of Digg and continued to build my profile, even though I wasn’t really doing any work there anymore. It worked in my favor, and I continued building my profile and started meeting more and more people.
But eventually, Brian’s visa expired, and he had to go back to Vancouver.
Arriving at his parents’ house late at night, Brian wasn’t sure what to expect; he hadn’t told them that he was coming, or even that he had lost his job.
I just showed up at their door. It freaked out my parents; my dad came out with a shovel thinking I was someone breaking in.
When they realized it was me, though, they were very relieved. They were caring and supportive and understanding, so it was everything I could have asked for.
An Idea Appears
While figuring out what he wanted to do next, Brian remembers being on an airplane and being struck with an idea:
I remember seeing people on their phones, and I was like, ‘they’re all playing games.’
It got me thinking: why is mobile gaming so popular all of a sudden? And what exactly is causing this adoption?
Obviously it was many things like people getting more powerful phones, getting more game content, having more games available on Android and iOS, all these things were contributing to it.
And then I noticed a really big jarring problem: advertising was being shoved at these experiences in a very unnatural way.
And so the next question is, what is the solution? What are the things we’re going to do to solve that?
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the question still remained; how can something—banner ads and interstitials—be so ubiquitous, and yet so rejected by the consumer?
If there’s no demand, then why are there people supplying it? Well, it turns out that all of the demand was coming from the app developers. But if someone could create a different supply that the consumer actually wanted, then we could create a big win for everyone involved.
Within a week, Brian began to mock up some ideas for what he thought was a better alternative: having brands offer rewards (e.g., products, gift cards, etc…) inside mobile games.
I just started to design. I started creating mock-ups and sending them around to people and asking them if they thought the idea was a good one.
One of those people—who would become one of my co-founders—was, very conveniently, building a game at the time, and I was like, ‘well why don’t we try to put rewards into your game?’.
In the coming weeks, Brian would show his idea and ask for feedback from anyone who would listen.
I was showing baristas at Starbucks, asking them if they liked it. Cab drivers, practically anyone. And people were almost always responding with ‘yeah, I’d love free shit instead of a banner ad.
Deciding to Start a Business
While Brian was asking around, he was still looking for a job in business development. Kiip was just an idea, and he needed an income.
Interestingly, that job hunt led him to a different sort of opportunity:
There were a bunch of people that I was talking to about hiring me, and once I shared the Kiip idea with them, they were like, ‘you know what, I think you should actually build this company instead,’ and a few of them introduced me to VC’s, and one of the VC’s they introduced me to was True Ventures.
Now, I had no idea how this VC thing worked, and I didn’t want to pretend.
So I basically just showed them the idea, and said ‘tell me how it works.’
And they’re like, ‘well, we give you a term sheet and we give you money and you build a company and then we own a piece of your company.’
I had no idea what vesting meant, or cliffs, or anything like that. I had the textbook version of it that I learned in college, but I didn’t know what it meant in the startup context.’
Brian had a lot of work to do, and a lot of questions to answer.
I read blogs—AngelHack was a big one—and I interviewed people. I just had coffees with them and had them give me the whole lowdown on how this stuff works, and that’s how I learned all I could in the beginning. It was really helpful just soaking up as much information as possible, and I’m still learning now, but in the beginning it was just making sure I knew how the game was played.
Solving the Platform Challenge
The company, like any platform, would need to solve two sides of the puzzle: finding brand partners who wanted to offer rewards to gamers, and finding game developers who would host those rewards.
The game developers weren’t the biggest challenge—if there was money to be made, Kiip could attract them—but the brands were.
So Kiip had to get creative.
At the start, we falsely funded one side of the platform.
We bought gift cards from these brands, even though they weren’t our clients, and we’d use those as rewards.
It actually worked out really well, because then we could go to Nike and say, ‘hey, look how many people liked your reward, even though you didn’t actually spend money it?’.
That validation helped Kiip land some key early partners, as did, surprise, surprise, Brian’s tenacious networking, which scored them Vitamin Water and Pop Chips.
The founder and CMO of Vitamin Water and the founder of Pop Chips were really good friends, and they actually invested in Kiip together.
I met Rohan [Vitamin Water’s founder] at a party at South By Southwest in 2010 when I was still at Digg. We only talked for 10 minutes or so, but later on, someone re-connected us and he was like, ‘of course I remember Brian, we bet at South By,’ and he remembered that I was doing this company. He was considering investing and he brought in Keith [of Pop Chips], and both of them were like ‘I’ll invest if he invests,’ so I asked them both to invest and there you have it: we were able to use nepotism to land our first big brand deals.
Still, having the validation of a big brand or two didn’t make the company; a dangerous assumption that too many startups make about their own big deals.
It was big, but not as big as we thought it would be.
You sometimes think that you’ll bring these prospective clients in and they’ll be like, ‘wow, oh my gosh, you have Vitamin Water and Pop Chips, here’s all my money!’.
It never works that way. They’re still very skeptical, like ‘well your platform works for Vitamin Water but what about my brand?’
Nothing is ever as amazing as it seems, and nothing is ever as terrible as it seems. So you’ll do a deal that you think is going to be life-changing and that deal ends up giving you 10 grand, and you’ll try to do a deal and you’ll lose it and think ‘oh my god we just lost this really important deal my life is over’ and then nothing bad happens. That’s usually how life works.
Building the Kiip Team
Though they’re a 100-person team today, Brian and his co-founders started with the same challenge that every early-stage startup faces: how to get talented people to come work for a completely unproven company.
They weren’t heavily funded, and couldn’t offer the same benefits that bigger companies could.
So what was their pitch to candidates?
Honestly, it was being able to take on more responsibility than you would ever dream of getting elsewhere, mainly because of the way the company is structured.
People who are the right people should be exhilarated by the idea of taking on more than they can chew intentionally, and that helps them learn. There aren’t that many organizations that let you do that, and it should get a lot of talented people really excited.
If you work at a bigger company, you would get one little palette of responsibility because you’re inexperienced and you’re not allowed to take on other stuff. But in our case, it was like ‘I’m going to give it all to you, because it’s not like we have any other choice. We need this to get done and either you’re going get it done or no one’s going to get it done.’
In those early days, the team focused on hiring generalists rather than specialists.
In the beginning, you never know what their job’s going to be, and some people who are specialists need to know that they’ll be working on the thing that they’re best at, and if you can’t give them that, they’ll leave. So we had to bring in people who were comfortable with ambiguity.
Over time, the hiring process got smoother through experience and pattern recognition.
Eventually you begin to realize who might work and who won’t work.
The Power of Scenario Planning
One of the ways that Brian recommends dealing with uncertainty is to take it off of the table.
You can never expect to do anything right the first time. Be willing to fail, and know what all of the possible outcomes are.
This is so important as a founder: whenever you do anything important, lay all the possible scenarios out in front of you, from best to worst, so that you don’t get surprised when something happens.
The number one key to ensuring that you don’t react irrationally is to not let yourself be surprised.
Your Turn: Ask Brian Anything
Brian has (very) generously agreed to answer your questions in the comments of this interview. We’re going to be watching closely and trying to learn as much as we can ourselves, so don’t be shy.
Post your questions for Brian in the comments below.