Internet is accelerant for teen startups

Rick Spence
© National Post Inc., 2010–11–22

What did you accomplish last summer? Here’s how Vancouverite Brian Wong sums up his mid-year crisis: May: Laid off from job at Digg.com; June: Travelling. July: Look for new job. August: Decide to start a company. September: Land $200,000 in venture capital. October: Top it up to $300,000 after meetings with angel investors. Prepare for launch in first-quarter 2011. Best of all, Wong is just 19. When he made his first trip to Silicon Valley last year, he had to take a train from San Francisco because he’s too young to rent a car. But this is life on the young-entrepreneur edge. Wong graduated from UBC’s Sauder Business School in April 2009—at age 18. At 16, he had started a Web design company, Aer Marketing, with friends, and they then developed a networking application for Twitter—FollowFormation.com—just to prove they could.

When Wong graduated, he tried to talk his way into a Silicon Valley conference for app developers. Shocked they hadn’t reserved any free tickets for students, he asked if there was a way to get in free. Told only speakers get in gratis, he volunteered to speak—as developer of a Twitter app earning several thousand dollars a month.

He leveraged his Valley debut into meetings with various tech luminaries, including Digg founder Kevin Rose, which led to Wong’s first real job. His subsequent layoff wasn’t personal; Digg, a content-surfacing company past its prime, laid off 10% of its employees last May, and another 30% last month.

Wong felt adrift, wondering where his next paycheque would come from. It took time to realize he had built up enough savings to support himself for two months, which is a long runway when you’re 19. So he started working on a business idea he’d been nurturing, for a new model of embedded advertising in mobile gaming. (When you’re 19, you believe, as Wong says, “everyone and their mothers is playing Angry Birds.” That animated puzzle game is now the No. 1 paid iPhone app from Argentina to Vietnam.)

The result: Wong launched Kiip.me (pronounced “Keep me”), a stealth-mode startup dedicated to replacing banner ads with more organic, effective ads for games on the iPhone and Android. “We’re trying to leverage the unique aspects of each game to create a new advertising model,” say Wong. After raising $300,000 from True Ventures, a “very early-stage” VC in Palo Alto, Calif., and a number of angel investors, Wong hired a design team to develop the concept while he brashly lobbied game developers to come on board.

After lining up five game companies, he turned to Madison Avenue, commuting to New York to meet with big brands and agencies. In a presentation last week, Wong mentioned how he had hit it off with Pepsi’s social media marketing leader, and how keen they were to work together.

How does anyone get so confident so fast? Wong says skipping four grades helps. “Ever since grade 3, I started hanging out with people older than me,” he says. “I picked up things very quickly. That’s sort of my talent.” When pressed, he admits his IQ was measured at 156—five years ago.

At university, Wong spent more time trying to meet interesting people than fretting over class work. His advice to young entrepreneurs is to network like a big shot. Wong has become an expert on figuring out e-mail addresses of chief executives, then asking them for a meeting or help.

Wong knows he’s in a special place and time. Today’s teens, who have grown up with all-access Internet and know no other sources of information or entertainment, have a huge advantage when it comes to killer business apps. “Because of examples like [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg, everyone realizes a kid can come out of puberty and change the world. The Internet is the accelerant that allows young people to do this on a mass scale.

”On the Internet. there’s no such thing as countries. No approvals, no signoffs. Anyone can get on it. It’s like the perfect society that only exists in virtual space.”

That confidence separates Wong from earlier Internet prodigies, such as Albert Lai, a 32-year-old Toronto entrepreneur who was one of Canada’s first teen Web heroes with 1990s startups My Desktop and BuyBuddy. Lai now divides his time between Toronto and Silicon Valley, where he labours on his fifth startup, Facebook analytics firm Kontagent. “They are far more savvy than my generation of young entrepreneurs,” he says.

”The Internet today provides anyone with massive amounts of knowledge via direct dialogue and content produced by thought leaders around the world via their blogs, and videos from top business leaders around the world,” including live lectures from Stanford University.

”When I was 20 or 21, I had to go pay a Silicon Valley lawyer US$400 an hour to get an education into so many things that are now available on the Internet, in higher quality and more depth,” he says. “It’s truly awesome to see how much a decade or so can mean.”

Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship. His column appears weekly in the Financial Post. He can be reached at <rick@rickspence.ca>.