Find your superpower: career advice from Kiip’s Brian Wong
Looking for some career inspiration? Look no further than Brian Wong, the Canadian founder and CEO of Kiip, a moments-based mobile advertising platform based in San Francisco.
Wong finished university by the age of 18, and within a year had raised more than $5 million in venture capital funding (a number that has now risen to $32 million). Since then, he’s helped grow Kiip to an annual $20 million in revenue, and written The Cheat Code: Going Off Script to Get More, Go Faster, and Shortcut Your Way to Success, a collection of tips for new entrepreneurs.
How does he do it? We spoke to the man himself to find out.
Workopolis: You graduated from university at a young age. How did that happen? And what was that experience like?
Brian Wong: Through a few programs in BC, the Ministry of Education identifies what they call “gifted children,” and they then help you skip ahead. In all, I skipped grades 2, 7, 9, and eleven.
The experience was great actually. I never got shoved into a locker, which is a good thing. I’m Asian too, so they have no idea how old I am – I can be 12, I can be 30. I always had a burning desire to get out of school. Some people with that desire choose to drop out, so for me, this option worked out well.
In your book, you talk about how you had to be a follower at first, if only to fit in and learn the ropes. Do you think that approach is useful in business?
Yeah, it’s sometimes better to not be out in front. That way you can learn from people. It just makes sense to reach out to those that have been through it all before you. Especially in business. There is always someone you can learn from, someone that has done it already, who can guide you when you’re looking for office space, hiring your first HR person, setting up commission structures … whatever it might be.
At what point did you start FollowFormation and Aer Marketing?
Both companies were started while I was in university, and they were my first forays into business, dealing with clients, proposals, collections, project management. I wanted to learn more, though, so I came down to Silicon Valley and took a job at Digg. What happened, though, was that I got laid off. That forced me into a situation where starting a company was one of the only options I had, so that’s what I did. The rest is history.
Getting laid off can be difficult for a lot of people to deal with. How did you manage it?
Actually, I think getting laid off is one of the best things that will ever happen to you. Getting laid off means that it was never your fault, which is very different from being fired. In my case, I realized that I had no control over it. I was paying for a mistake that I never made, and that realization is very important. I could not have done anything to make the situation better.
So when you get laid off, you suddenly can do anything. The world is your oyster. I think that people sometimes get married to the idea that their job is what they’re always going to do. “I’ve done this job, so I’m going to do another job like it. I studied Accounting, so I’m going to be an accountant.” But you don’t have to stay on that path. The skills you learned in one experience are applicable to other companies and jobs, especially in the world of tech. In fact, a lot of the jobs that you’re perfect for may not even exist yet … and when you get laid off, you now have the freedom to go out there and explore.
There is a chapter in your book about pitching yourself as opposed to your experience or business. Is that something that you learned when raising venture capital for Kiip?
Yes. I think that’s the foundation of everything. Anyone can walk into a room with a big job title, but that’s not what makes that person or pitch successful; it’s the unique perspective they bring to the table.
When you’re raising money for your company, how much evidence do you have to prove a hundred per cent that your company will be successful? Not much, other than the fact that you will be successful, that you will persevere. You won’t take no for an answer, you will be relentless … that’s really the only card you have.
The idea for Kiip came from watching people on a plane playing games on a tablet. Was this a flash of inspiration where you knew exactly what you had to do? Or did it have to percolate for a while?
It’s a mix of both. The idea of rewarding someone in a game came quickly. I asked myself, “Why don’t people get real rewards for things they do on the phone?” And the question evolved to “Can our solution go beyond games? What about fitness apps? Productivity apps? Music apps?” That’s where it started to percolate and become bigger.
You’ve said that your superpower is “getting people excited about stuff.” What suggestions could you give to introverts that struggle in the interview process?
Be yourself is a clichéd answer, but you have to take what you have and own it. You don’t have to act like someone you’re not. And if you have to be someone that you are not to get a job, that job is not for you.
And if you’re an introvert, it’s totally okay to go in there and say “I’m not a super ‘bombastic’ and outgoing person. I’m very cerebral, I like to be by myself, and that’s who I am.” That sets the stage and expectations.
I think this is really important. In fact, I even had a Cheat Code for it: “Say it before you do it. It will make it accepted.”
You’ve written about having the “X-Factor.” Some people have it, some don’t. What do you think that “X-Factor” is?
I think the “X-Factor” is obsession.
Are you capable of being obsessed about something? Are you obsessed about movies? Art? Sports? If you can get passionate about something, anything, it means you’re allergic to apathy – anyone that is apathetic is incapable of being obsessed.
The “X-Factor” is what drives people further. It’s not a normal thing; not everyone is obsessed about something. They don’t have that thing driving them, and that thing compelling them to push on means they’re able to do this at a level that others can’t.
In the book, you write about being ready to piss people off, to show that you care and are passionate. Has that ever backfired on you?
Yeah, but I would say that people that are not receptive to that type of thing are more focused on bedside manner and political correctness versus just being straightforward and respectful of people’s time.
I’d say it’s often better to be the one who gets to the point, without wasting time, versus someone who is clearly sugar coating something.
Aside from reading the Cheat Code, what advice would you give to job seekers looking to stand out from the crowd?
Your resume and LinkedIn are only 5 per cent of the battle. The key is really to figure out what makes you different. What differentiates you?
When I’m looking at a resume, I’m looking at the things that are most interesting about you. What are your hobbies? Where have you traveled? What makes you who you are? The accounting degree and the internship proves you can do the job, but it’s everything else that makes you stand out.
The more you can differentiate yourself, the more indispensable you become, and that’s everything.
The Cheat Code: Going Off Script to Get More, Go Faster, and Shortcut Your Way to Success is out now on Portfolio Penguin.