Brian Wong graduated from UBC, launched an app, got laid off from his first Silicon Valley job and developed an innovative (and lucrative) mobile advertising model – all before he turned 21 years old.
What do smart-phone games have in common with the Ford Model T? Both have altered mass human behaviour, says Brian Wong, Vancouver transplant to Silicon Valley and CEO and founder of online awards company, Kiip Inc.
Wong believes that just as Henry Ford’s assembly line transformed personal transportation, Kiip will transform the world of advertising. The wildfire spread of mobile devices means that people can choose exactly when and where to entertain themselves and Wong sees no reason why our experience of ads shouldn’t be the same. “The ads people don’t like are the ones that are interrupting them, that are in their faces,” he says. Through Kiip, ads are instead presented as rewards that players receive from member companies for reaching new levels in mobile games. “I’m a fan of organic audiences,” Wong says. “I’m not making you do anything new.”
Wong’s venture has been going gangbusters since it launched a year ago. Over a hundred mobile games – including hits Mega Jump, Charadium and Unblock Me – incorporate his Kiip “rewards” model. With up to 10 million unique hits a month, Kiip has already nabbed clients such as Sephora USA Inc., Sears Canada Inc., Pepsi-Cola Co. and The Walt Disney Co.
Impressed? You should be. Wong is only 21 years old and got his business degree from UBC at the tender age of 18. He skipped four grades in school and started his first tech business at 16, when he developed an app called Followformation, an early attempt to sort information on Twitter.
Despite being a prodigy, he had envisioned a more traditional path. His Hong Kong-born parents have conservative jobs as a nurse and an accountant. Wong moved to San Francisco in January 2010 when he got a job at Digg Inc., the news-gathering website then dominating its social media niche. “I was expecting to be there a couple of years, build my career out, build my networks, learn,” he says. However, Digg faltered in the quickly changing tech landscape and laid off 30 per cent of its workforce, including Wong. “Getting laid off at the age of 18 is not really a good thing. I was very upset during that time. I ended up travelling to get my mind off it.”
Wong returned to Southeast Asia, his favourite part of the world since he had done a college exchange in Singapore. It was during this hiatus that the idea for Kiip hit him, after he noticed that almost everyone on the plane was playing mobile games. His marketing brain kicked in and when he returned to California he discovered what he had to do: find an angel.
Wong got his first venture capital pledge of $200,000 in August 2010, with $4 million following in April 2011.
Despite his business degree, Wong felt in over his head trying to figure out the differences between preferred, common, and diluted shares. “All these things are unique to smaller businesses that are privately owned. There was a period of time where I had to get coached by people in real time. I was like, ‘what do I do now?’”
He had studied blue-chip company finance at UBC, along with marketing from a favourite professor he met in his fourth year, Paul Cubbon, who is now developing courses in e-marketing with Wong’s feedback. “Paul is just a renegade,” Wong says. “He tells it like it is. He understands what the new form of education should actually be.” The benefits are mutual: Wong gets tips on businesses emerging from UBC, and the founders of those businesses visit him in California to network and learn.
Even in an industry accustomed to wunderkinds, Wong says he has to work hard to overcome people’s surprise. “I’ll still walk into meetings where the first question is, ‘How old are you?’ And then they spend the first five minutes going, ‘Oh my God, you were born after XYZ! In the ’90s!’ Then I have to realign the conversation. I have to say, ‘We can’t talk about my age if I’m going to do business with you guys.’”
Wong has made an impressive number of “top” lists already, from Forbes’s 30 Under 30 to AdAge’s Creativity Top 50. Scanning these lists, there are a few even younger than Wong – notably in Silicon Valley. “These are the days we live in, where an 18-year-old CEO is the norm,” he says, laughing.
Wong’s plans for Kiip are quickly scaling up. His original clients were companies offering cosmetics or flower deliveries, which work as giveaways on a mass scale. But what about automobiles, insurance and the travel industry? “You can’t really give away a million cars or flights,” Wong explains. “So we figured you could give away one and a lot of people would get excited about it.” That’s where his first Disney campaign last December broke ground: his “swarm” model invited hundreds of thousands of people to play during a four-day period, offering bigger prizes, like a 3D TV system, for top contenders.
Though Wong is cagey about future steps, expansion is clearly key and he notes that “we know that the model is working.” Of course, he also wants to increase the number of games on Kiip’s list and with his frequent travel to Vancouver and Toronto, he hints at a Canadian venture.
When we speak it’s Friday at 5:30 p.m., and Wong still has a lot to do before clocking out; 18-hour days are the norm for him and his 23 employees. “You really rely on every moment and experience you’ve had. Whatever happens is the blink of an eye. Things move so fast here, it’s not even funny.”