In Living Colour: Brian Wong, BCom 2009, takes Silicon Valley by storm
Brian Wong has been described as “a budding Bill Gates.” To date, he has started four companies. He has worked in marketing, developed an iPhone app, created a widely successful online social media tool, and most recently a mobile advertising platform bridging advertising and gaming, called "kiip" (pronounced wii-style "keep").
With this latest venture, he broke the record set by Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame) as the youngest entrepreneur to raise venture capital, by raising over a quarter million dollars in seed funding from a group of investors, including San Francisco-based True Ventures.
And he just turned 19.
Propelled by a restless curiosity and playfulness, an uncanny ability to tap into the Zeitgeist, as well as what he laughingly and incisively calls his "genes" and an "inability to grow facial hair" that make him seem even younger than his 19 years, Wong has been widely celebrated as the new Wunderkind of the digital age. And he is thoroughly relishing his momentum.
Wong entered the Sauder School at 14, as a graduate of the University Transition Program, a highly competitive early college entrance program funded by the BC Ministry of Education, the Vancouver School Board, and UBC. “My parents actually discouraged me from doing this program, they were concerned about me taking on too much, but I was bored,” Wong says matter-of-factly. “I figured that a lot of the things that I was doing in school, I could do quicker. It was a stressful experience, but incredibly valuable – and then a lot of doors opened for me.”
At UBC, Wong majored in Marketing, with a minor in Political Science. He says his decision to pursue business studies was influenced by his father, an accountant who started his own firm. “He showed me what was possible in this mysterious, elusive business space,” Wong says, “and it became very intriguing to me.” And as for his Political Science studies? “I always wanted to be a public figure, so I wanted to have that formal educational experience. And for four years of those classes,” he laughingly adds, “I sat across the room from some PoliSci students who really didn't like Commerce people and thought business was the root of all evil, so that provided me with a very interesting additional perspective.”
In person, Wong is charming, articulate, quick-witted and yes, young. But in talking to him, it quickly becomes apparent that his youthfulness and playfulness are balanced by keen self-awareness and intense determination.
“This opportunity I was given [through the Transition Program] gives me the responsibility to abuse my youthful curiosity and energy for other pursuits,” he notes. “I owe it to myself and to the people around me who have supported me and have gone out of their way to help me out, to make the most of the opportunities that have come my way.”
While still in university, together with fellow Sauder students, he started a web design company to leverage his programming and graphic design experience. He says they didn’t expect many clients.
“And then clients started coming in, and we learned our lesson the hard way: don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he says.
In their scramble to meet demand, Wong and his partner developed a unique framework.
“We had to make our processes much more efficient and build our internal project infrastructure. Because we didn’t have an office, we communicated over Skype, MSN Messenger, or the phone. We used online project management tools like Basecamp and Central Desktop, an internal communication tool called Yammer, and web conferencing tools like DimDim and Adobe ConnectNow. That was our arsenal of tools.”
That first experience, as well as his post-graduation internship with 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, working in public relations, helped Wong realize that social media was a powerful new platform. With a friend, he started FollowFormation, an automated Twitter user discovery tool. Soon after launch, they were covered by Mashable, the world’s third largest blog.
“That was a lucky hit, and I leveraged it tremendously,” Wong says. “I pitched hundreds of journalists, because I knew PR was going to be a huge part of promoting the service. It triggered a tsunami of publicity.”
Wong was an instant hit. He spoke at conferences, from Los Angeles to Singapore and from Kuala Lumpur to Colombia, and got to meet prominent figures in the industry, including venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, one of the Apple employees responsible for marketing the Macintosh in 1984; Gary Vaynerchuk from Wine Library TV; Digg co-founder Kevin Rose; and Alex Hunter, who served as the global Head of Online Marketing for the Virgin Group.
He moved to San Francisco (which he fondly calls “Nerdtopia”) for a brief stint at Digg, where he worked in partner relations. He then set off on his own again – this time, with Kiip.me, a mobile advertising platform allowing game developers to monetize and reach consumers in the mobile gaming space.
Wong is working with Sauder marketing instructor Paul Cubbon on enhancing Sauder’s e-marketing courses. “I want to show people how they can use the knowledge they already have about social media, little nuances that we understand that older generations might not, and lend that knowledge to companies, in a formalized space,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities in social media, and students are not taking advantage of them because they think they do not have enough experience,” he adds. “But they spend hours every day on Facebook and Twitter and others. That is valuable knowledge.”
He continues to speak at conferences all over the world. “It helps to have someone like me, a kid who looks like he’s 12 years old, speaking on youth marketing,” he laughs. “But I know that novelty will wear off as I get older, so I’m trying to make the most of this amazing period of time.”
In June, he was named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 – an award presented by Youth in Motion and which rewards young Canadians who demonstrate significant innovation, achievement, and leadership.
So what keeps him going?
“My sandbox mentality,” he says. “I love playing around, and seeing things come to life, and as long as I can continue to do that, I will be forever driven.”
By Cristina Calboreanu - Photography by Camera Verona - First printed in Viewpoints, vol. 30, no. 2.