“He’s always so busy. He’s always been this way,” Brian Wong’s mother says with a laugh, apologizing for her son’s (minor) tardiness. One can only assume that establishing a multi-million-dollar company before your 25th birthday will quickly fill your calendar.
Sitting criss-cross-applesauce in a studio in Vancouver’s Railtown neighbourhood, Wong, founder of mobile advertising platform Kiip, isn’t afraid to act his age. In fact, in Silicon Valley—overrun with peach-fuzzed entrepreneurs—being young can be one’s greatest asset. “I would say that looking young and being young is an advantage these days,” Wong says. “People expect you to be digital-savvy and innovative, so it’s very important to focus on what is traditionally perceived as a weakness and turn it into a strength.” After skipping four grades in secondary school, Wong enrolled at the University of British Columbia at just 14 years old. While his older classmates were busy finding themselves, Wong was founding his first company, Followformation: an app that helped Twitter users figure out who to follow. After graduating at 18, he moved “to where the nerds were gathering, and that, of course, was the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Relocating there at the height of the recession proved to be more of a challenge than Wong anticipated, and within five months, he had lost his job at a promising start-up. “I was 19, first job out of college and laid off, not really a good thing. But I got the idea for Kiip while I was unemployed,” Wong says. While in an airport, he noticed an overwhelming amount of people on their phones playing games, and pegged a persistent nuisance for both the players and the advertisers. “It hit me that gaming was a rapidly growing phenomenon,” he reflects. “And I realized—as an entrepreneur you’re supposed to solve problems—that no one ever looked at a banner ad and tapped them.” Wong’s solution to this inefficiency was to reward users with advertisements rather than bombard them, offering products in line with their interests. Using a running app? Kiip makes it so that Gatorade is there to reward you for your last mile. Wong made waves in the Valley by securing $4 million in venture capital to launch the product, making him one of the youngest people ever to do so.
“[It] was such an addictive, simplistic idea that we started to bring on app developers to use technology on one end of the model, and then on the other end we brought in brands to inject into the system,” he says. This is the way Wong thinks: straight-forward approaches to complicated, nuanced problems. It’s precisely this logical, assessment-based approach that Wong has written about in his book The Cheat Code: Going Off Script to Get More, Go Faster, and Shortcut Your Way to Success. Based on the premise of cheat codes (hacks used by gamers to get ahead the virtual world), the book is aimed directly at millennials to help them strategize their lives through similarly short but effective means. “What I noticed was a lot of people did come to me with questions about the age thing, the: ‘How did you get started?’” Wong explains. “I would classify them as mental barrier-type questions, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to repeat myself too many times, so I might as well put it in written form.’”
Wong’s cheats include the superficial “Get a trademark haircut”, the petulant “Piss people off”, and the obvious “Don’t get drunk at work”, along with more dynamic advice that he has garnered over his short but impactful time (thus far) in the business industry. Sound tips such as cold emailing resonate as practical, real world advice that could be used to conquer fears. Peppered with expletives and straight-up talk, the book is clearly aimed at young kids looking to put down their games and enter a playing field similar to the one Wong finds himself in today.
Still, the literary world isn’t exactly where Wong thought he would spend some time. “I actually wanted this book to be purely an app, completely digital. I mean, it is kind of ironic that some Silicon Valley guy is like ‘Yeah, here’s a friggn’ book,’” he laughs. “But what I learned in the literary industry is that you have a lot of very established processes, and one of them does happen to be the necessity of the book, so I was like, ‘Alright, whatever.’” There are some things you just can’t hack your way out of—but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the script.
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