Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Brian Wong. Brian is the founder of Kiip (pronounced “keep”), a mobile rewards network that has raised over $4.4 million in funding. Wall Street Journal called Brian the “youngest person to ever receive funding by a venture capital firm“.
He was an early Bachelors of Commerce graduate from the University of British Columbia, graduating at the age of 18, after skipping four grades in elementary and high school. He was recently lauded in Mashable as one of “The Top 5 Young Entrepreneurs to Watch”, and the Vancouver Sun called him “a budding internet visionary”. He was also recently a recipient of the Top 20 Under 20 awards in all of Canada.
While I definitely don’t feel as qualified as many others may be to write this, I figured I would share a few of the things I’ve learned in the past couple years during my whirlwind journey as a young entrepreneur.
Right after graduating from university, I started Followformation, a Twitter following tool (think Twitter’s suggested users list, on steroids), with a friend of mine, Lucas Lemanowicz.
Followformation brought me to many different places – and began a journey that I would have never expected. In October of 2009, I was invited to speak at 140tc (now known as Tweethouse) in Los Angeles. It was my first-ever trip to California.
I visited San Francisco, having already e-mailed key people that I really wanted to meet there, and ended up having the opportunity to sit down for breakfast with Matt Van Horn, who was managing the business development team at the time. Matt is now the VP of Business Development at Path.
Digg from start to finish
Matt and I got along quite well the first time we met. There was much more that we talked about, but beyond our conversations on relationship-building and creating futures for ourselves, Matt began to see an opportunity in having me be a part of the Digg team. That week, Matt put plans into motion to have me move down to San Francisco to join the business development team. A few months later I joined Digg full-time.
While at Digg, I had the pleasure of working with one of the most talented teams on this planet. Everyone I met was smarter than me, and gave me a bright vision of what was possible in Silicon Valley. I was responsible for building relationships with content and news publishers to work on integrating the Digg button and the Digg widget tools onto their sites. I was also, out of pure chance, put on the Digg Android app project, and was able to see the project from start to finish.
My time at Digg came to an end abruptly in May during the first round of layoffs. I was unlucky, but at the same time, cherished the time that I had there, and the relationships that I had built. Through them, many more opportunities arose.
Between Digg and Kiip
I travelled for almost a full month, then returned to San Francisco to assess my opportunities and options. I had companies who were willing to bring me on board to continue my work in business development. But I had the idea for Kiip burning a hole in my head, and the month of my return saw a series of events that led to the funding of the company by True Ventures.
It’s been a wild journey building this dream from scratch, it’s just like jumping off a cliff, and growing wings while you’re falling.
These are some of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way:
1. You are the most powerful force in your life.
Many of us forget – mostly through mental barriers and past experience – that we are truly the most powerful forces in our own lives. I’m a big believer in a true internal locus of control – being the master of your own destiny. Beyond the broad, all-encompassing forces that you control (like your path to success, the passions you pursue, etc), it all comes down to the little things you do.
For example, before I visit a new city, I reach out to 30 or so people I’d like to sit down with. I craft an e-mail to each of them, and time the message to go out at 6 or 7 AM — catching them during their commute or as they run into the office.
Who do you reach out to? Who do you go and meet? What do you build to show what you can do? What do you write to spread the word? No one will know how to help you unless you ask them, and they won’t help unless you’re capable. Most often than not this is the true epitome of action over talk. And we all forget sometimes that we can make a difference much faster than anyone else can make for us.
2. Trust your gut
Entrepreneurship is inherently instinctual – you’re devoting your life to something unknown and ambiguous. Your decisions and “strategy” are most often a result of a culmination of your basic instincts and parallel but not directly relevant data. It’s a very subtle feeling that can be mistaken for many other things – but once you can focus on it, you’ll find your decisions not only for the best, but consistent and wired to your thinking. That thinking, in turn, shapes the vision and culture of the organization you are trying to build. Deviation brings unrest not only internally for you, but externally among your stakeholders as well.
3. Use your youth
Being young isn’t all about age. It’s about curiosity, capacity, and ultimately, your limits. Test them. There might never be a time in your life where you can stretch your mind and your physical capabilities to their maximum without consequence. As a result, you can leapfrog your success, build amazing products, and live life to its fullest while bringing others along with you.
4. Relationships: don’t acquire when you can build
I believe that the context in which you acquire relationships affects their strength and quality, which is why like to spend more one-to-one (lunches and breakfasts, for example) instead of stretching my social capital through get-togethers.
Granted, it’s great to casually meet people who can open doors, but you’ll find, more often then not, that these become relational “nodes” that help you find others that share your passion and can truly help you grow.
5. If the fight’s hard, then it’s worth more to fight it.
If something is easy, someone else has done it. Without a meaningful, difficult entrepreneurial problem, we can’t show what we can do. What’s more, true defensibility is created knowledge that solves a unique problem that truly needs to be solved.
You’re not stretching your limits or your company’s potential when you’re not being rejected, questioned, or criticized.
6. Create fewer barriers, create more enablers.
People often ask me, “how has your youth prevented you from achieving certain things?”. I almost always view my youth as an enabler rather than a barrier. Many will assume the latter simply because business/experience/age has gone hand in hand in the last decade. But with the Internet, we are no longer operating on a linear curve of growth of knowledge and numerical age. We are now living in the era of exponential knowledge.
In fact, the younger you are, the more you are viewed to be innovative. Without abusing that preconception, it’s almost something that you owe to yourself: don’t conceal or hide your ideas – let them flow and mingle with others, especially during the conception stage. Being young is finally a good thing in the consumer web space. Let’s all make sure that we continue to honor the stage that has been set for us, and to continue to innovate incessantly.
7. Creating will always be better than taking.
What applies to Open Source and Wiki should apply to business knowledge and relationship building: it is almost always a positive return to create a new connection for someone else
We see this with open environments for sharing and learning: Quora, Wikipedia, and of course, Silicon Valley. Environments that have facilitated some of the most palpable changes in our world have come from open exchanges and environments where creations enter into a public pool of knowledge.
8. Create or seek an environment for yourself that will enhance your strengths.
I split my time in both Vancouver and San Francisco for many reasons. But one of the main reasons I tend to travel quite a bit, often internationally, is that I require a constantly changing environment to ignite and inspire creative thinking for me.
I find that having my mind shift and adapt to a new physical location incites me to observe and learn from nuances and patterns that I would not have noticed otherwise. We are always told to leverage our strengths and to build on top of them. But sometimes it takes a long time to find the right people to recognize these strengths and to be there to believe in you and to help you grow even more. It’s also even harder to be around the action that requires your skill sets.
You might have a big chainsaw, but without a forest to clear, it quickly becomes useless. Almost as it is important to find a proper product-market fit, it’s important to find a person-environment fit.
9. Generate serendipity.
Last, but not least, is the notion of “generating serendipity”. This phrase wraps up quite nicely the entire set of lessons that I’ve laid out above. Essentially, by creating your own luck, there is no sense of reliance. I really, truly, believe in people who understand how to build the right relationships, know how to thrive in the right environments, and believe in their own capacity and propensity to create. For me, the last few years of my life have been a string of events that have come from a few common forks along the path in my life where I could have chosen to stay still. But with any nascent period of your life – it may just be the serendipity – the doors that open for you – that you have to choose from.
And most of the time, you might just create your own door that guides you down the path that you didn’t know that you wanted.
If you’re a young entrepreneur and rocking it out, please leave me a comment below – would love to hear from you.