Brian Wong is the CEO of Kiip (pronounced “keep”), a category-creating mobile rewards network that is redefining mobile advertising through an innovative platform that leverages “moments of achievement” in games and apps to simultaneously benefit users, developers and advertisers. Backed by Hummer Winblad, Relay Ventures, True Ventures, Verizon Ventures, and others, the company has raised $15.4 million in funding to date. Kiip has been listed by Forbes as one of the 4 Hot Online Ad Companies to Put on Your Watch List, and been named to the Dow Jones FasTech50 List.
Called the youngest person to ever receive venture capital funding by TechCrunch and the Wall Street Journal, Brian received his Bachelors of Commerce degree from the University of British Columbia at age 18, after skipping four K-12 grades. He has been recognised with many awards for his accomplishments and leadership, including: Forbes’ 30 under 30; the Top 20 Under 20 awards for all of Canada; Business Insider’s Top 25 Under 25 in Silicon Valley and 18 Most Important People in Mobile Advertising; Mashable’s Top 5 Entrepreneurs to Watch; and the AdAge Creativity Top 50.
Before starting Kiip, Brian led key publisher and tech partnerships at the social news website Digg.com, where he accelerated the company’s mobile presence by launching the Digg Android mobile app.
Q: You have quite the extensive list of achievements. Not only have you raised $15.4M for your startup Kiip, but you’re also one of the youngest entrepreneurs to receive venture capital. What traits make you different then most people your age?
I think to understand what led to everything I’d have to look back on my upbringing. My childhood was full of sports (I know, surprising – but trust me I used to be super buff), speech arts & drama, FPS gaming (PC), and incessant amounts of graphic design. I also studied marketing & consumer behaviour in university. It’s no accident that these things combined led to some level of contribution to my ability to succeed with Kiip. My design obsession led me to becoming frustrated with the state of mobile advertising in the frame of user experience. My gaming background helped me identify the components of gaming that were truly “moments” and potentially a trigger for a reward. My consumer behaviour curiosity led to bringing in some innate psychological principles that are built into the Kiip model that has helped it preserve intrinsic motivation amongst users whilst rewarding at a frequency that is the most ideal for brand engagement overall. In hindsight everything is clear, but I’m hoping this explains some of it.
But to pinpoint a couple things that I use as principles that may be different from others my age:
- Generate Serendipity: this is more of a discussion of how your view your locus of control: is it internal or external? I truly believe that you have the ability to generate your own luck and serendipitous outcomes. A lot of this has to do with the environment you’re in. I chose to move to San Francisco because the people in the city and the socioeconomic traits of the region were the most conducive to my strengths: tech and design. I wouldn’t need to explain what I did three times to get my point across. People spoke the same language. Similar to how Einstein once said: you can’t judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree; you have to find the right environment to help you swim freely.
- Asking is Underrated: most people forget (usually with age) that asking for advice and asking for help is one of the most underrated ways to grow, learn, achieve, whilst showing humility, respect, and admiration for someone. It also signals to your network that you’re in the need for something. The law of attraction is typically triggered by asking. People will remember and help. Just remember to reciprocate.
- Use Your Superpower: try not to focus too much on your weaknesses and focus more on accentuating your strengths. I usually ask in interviews with potential candidates at our company: “What’s your superpower?”. My intention is to try to uncover what that person thinks they do best. This could be super simple as: “reading people”, “dissipating arguments”, “dealing with high-stress”, “weaving blankets with yarn” – and in my case, “getting people really excited about shit”. Take your superpower and use it well. It allows you to brand yourself consistently, allow people to pinpoint on something that ultimately makes you you. Stop trying to fix weaknesses that don’t need fixing. In fact, in certain situations weaknesses can be perceived as strengths.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing Kiip today? And how are you overcoming it?
One of our biggest challenge lies in focus. I think the idea of “moments matter” really governs how we feel about our opportunity. Moments can be everywhere – mobile apps, games, and even offline. We are clear as a company about our ambition to “own every achievement moment on the planet.” But for now, there’s a need to focus on mere digital platforms. Even within mobile we are greeted with opportunities everyday. We started with gaming, expanded to fitness, and are now in cooking/recipes. These were all calculated approaches based on brands’ demand. But we are approached with ideas to reward employee goals, energy consumption goals, paying bills on time – an endless flow of ideas.
We have systems internally to allow sandboxing, but for our core business, it is important that we focus.
The other challenge is continuing to educate the marketplace of truly what makes Kiip unique. There are a handful of companies that have looked at Kiip’s solution on the surface and have decided to copy what they see. But that’s not everything that makes our model seamless. There’s a lot beneath the hood.
This means educating the marketplace of the true meaning of the “moment”, and also what a meaningful “reward” is. Folks have decided that moments can be completely insignificant triggers and instead should be tasks like watching a video ad, or sharing content, or loading an app. Those things are moments. They’re meaningless activity that shouldn’t be rewarded. Meaningful moments should be serendipitously rewarded, and that’s that.
Rewards are also being diluted in definition. Rewards aren’t a separate layer of meaningless points that have to be taken to a convoluted store to redeem. Rewards aren’t badges and stickers. Rewards have to be trusted, relevant, meaningful, and representative of the brand. What happens too often is the dynamic of “disjointed incentives”; meaning that a brand may reward you with an incentive that means nothing to the brand itself. It’s a distraction and a negative effect on brand equity.
These are just two ways that we’re clarifying the model in the ecosystem. It’s important that the market understands that there are companies that are constantly focused on short-term metric building vs. long-term metrics. Short-term metrics are the result of poppy markets – like CPV’s (cost-per-views), CPL (cost-per-likes), and the like. You’ve seen them. Even impressions and GRP’s to some extent have filled this bucket in the past (and even now). We can’t focus on short-term metrics when the world’s respected brands are trying to continue to build and extend hundreds of years of brand equity. A thousand likes in one day never built a FedEx, or a Nike.
Challenges aside, I think we’ve made ridiculous progress in the past two and a half years. We’re now working with 20% of the Fortune 100. That’s ridiculous and I would’ve never imagined it.
Q: The best decision you never made was when Digg let you go along with 37% of its staff and you were left unemployed. A few months later you founded Kiip and have had enormous success. Was there one particular advice from a mentor that helped you during that time and from who?
There were so many people that really stepped up and helped guide me during that rough time. A few of the major tidbits came less from people’s advice or desire to give me advice, but rather their actions. A few startups didn’t want to hire me because they knew I would be better off starting my own thing, and told me so. Those founders and CEO’s and I laugh about it now. But at the time, it was nerve wracking – whether it be the visa issues, or my future in tech, or my confidence in pursuing the Kiip vision heavily.
Matt Van Horn, who originally hired me at Digg, was instrumental in helping set me up with the right connections to get back on my feet. Scott Kveton from Urban Airship also offered me a job but later decided that it’d be best that I start my own thing. He could tell that I was more passionate about Kiip. There are too many to name them all.
Q: Kiip is now at series B funding and growth is on the rise. What would you say is the key strategy to raising funding?
There is no one strategy. But the three core ingredients still matter: vision, people, market conditions.
There are different strategies and different aspects to highlight of your company at various stages. At the beginning, it is definitely a lot more about the people. Jon Callaghan from True Ventures always said: “ideas fail, people don’t”. Remember that you want funders that truly believe in you. That’s crucial, and always important if you want partners that sail with you through calm and rough waters.
At Series A, you’re focusing more on your product market fit, and the growth potential your company could have on revenue and users, or sometimes one or the other.
At Series B, you’re taking a working business model and projecting how you can scale it with a cash infusion.
But all in all, remember you’re selling a piece of your company. Every dollar you raise should feel like a drop of blood. Don’t spend it unless you mean it. Fundraising is also not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Take care of your health, stay balanced. Communicate clear goals with your team. Be realistic. Once you’ve gotten the money, the internal perception should be that you’ve now enabled a new chapter in your company – it is not something to be popping bottles about… it is just another rite of passage that has helped move your company in the direction of greatness.
It is incredibly difficult to ignore the zeal and scale of a founder’s passion about his/her vision. Make sure this excitement is communicated in the best way you know how. You want someone to feel how you feel: that there is no option but to continue forward with your idea. You get to build it, they get to fund it. It’s that simple.
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