Co-founder of online rewards platform Kiip, Brian Wong graduated from business school at 18 and recently wrote a book on shortcuts to success
Although he says he doesn’t want to play the race card, Brian Wong can’t help rebelling against his conformist Asian upbringing.
Vancouver-born-and-bred Brian Wong is one of the youngest Internet entrepreneurs to raise venture capital: US$31.4 million from 2010 to 2016. Yet over sushi in Yaletown’s Minami restaurant, the fast talker abruptly changes the subject from raising money to the notion of guai and its double meaning of “good kid” and “submission” in Cantonese. “So it’s about people just taking it and being taught not to be the one that stands out,” he says. “I subconsciously rejected this so heavily that when I moved out, I said, ‘I’m going to do it my way.’”
He’s done just that for the past seven years in San Francisco. After skipping four years in elementary and high school and graduating from UBC’s Sauder School of Business in commerce at 18, Wong rejected a traditional career path such as accounting. In 2010, he co-founded Kiip Inc. (pronounced “keep”), a global mobile platform that creates reward apps and games for advertisers.
Now with seven offices worldwide, including one in Vancouver, the outfit partners with the Coca-Cola Company and the BMW Group (Bayerische Motoren Werke AG) among 700-plus consumer brands and reportedly brought in US$20 million in revenue last year. Still, the Kiip CEO doesn’t rest on his laurels—success is exciting but not necessarily permanent.
“It can just go away—so as long as you continue to innovate and give consumers what they need, that’s when you remain successful,” says the 25-year-old, adding that landing the venture capital never went to his head. “I wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, I’m a total baller, I’m going to go nuts in Vegas.’ I was just so possessed by this idea that it had to happen; people seeking a monetary gain in a moment of creation is a very misguided approach to getting the best ROI.”
Now he’s the author of The Cheat Code: Going off Script to Get More, Go Faster and Shortcut Your Way to Success, published last September. He acknowledges the irony of a tech guru producing a physical book, explaining that he was approached by Penguin Random House LLC to “bottle his energy.” The code explains how to thrive in business through actions such as distinguishing yourself with a trademark haircut and knowing your superpower—his is getting people “really excited about stuff.”
Wong thinks his relative greenness is an advantage because it means he’s not afraid to give things a go. He has respect for people with experience but believes there’s also a new era and way for business. So in millennial, anti-hierarchical style, his 100 employees boss him around, he says, and treat him like their “bitch” while Kiip offices offer Silicon Valley essentials: Nerf war games, hammocks and free meals.
Wong also created FollowFormation, the Twitter tool that allowed users to follow the top people in their areas of interest, in 2009 and worked the next year in business development at Digg.com, the social news aggregator, where he lost his job. It meant he had plenty of time to play games, and his annoyance with online ads led to Kiip, which sends achievement-based rewards such as coupons to 100 million consumers monthly. “Inevitably, being retrenched was a huge motivator, and it made me want to have control over my own destiny,” he says.
Today Wong is living up to his Twitter tagline of “nomad by choice.” He’s in from Mumbai and Rajasthan to speak at Vancouver’s Rogers Talks and see his parents, who live in Coal Harbour (they’re “supportive,” he says, but would still like him to get his MBA). He envisions segueing into politics in a few decades, believing he can help improve people’s environment and livelihoods, whether in the U.S. or Canada. Or, by that time, perhaps he’ll have created a digital disrupter for politics, too.
THREE THINGS ABOUT... BRIAN WONG1. He never works on planes (“I take the time to recharge”), and he keeps alert with “well-timed lattes,” but only in the afternoon. “In the morning you’re naturally rested–this way you can plow through to midnight.”
2. Wong broke his knee in a hockey game when he was 16. He now plays the sport in San Francisco, as well as skiing at Sugar Bowl Resort in northern California, as much as possible because he knows it may be too difficult and painful when he’s older.
3. He loves watching superhero fiction TV such as The Flash and Arrow. “It’s a great way to relax, not that I have much time to do it, and I have a huge man-crush on comedian Trevor Noah, who’s the coolest bro.”