SAN FRANCISCO — The Horizons speaker series brings in experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and technologists to share their unique perspectives with the next generation of technology leaders.
TLDR of Key Lessons:
- Make your own job – Whether you join a rocket ship startup or decide to create your own company like Brian, you make your own destiny in the tech world. If you are looking for a particular job, Brian recommends writing customized emails to founders, high level C-suite executives, and hiring managers. Schedule the emails to go out at 6 AM local time while people are checking their phones first thing in the morning. Brian also recommends that you find ways to add value before you’re even hired, like designing product improvements or showing off your marketing prowess.
- Remember that you have a unique and valuable perspective – You may think that as a young person, you don’t have experience to bring to the table, but you always have a perspective to provide. You’re also at an advantage as a young person because of your natural curiosity – you have the ability to ask questions that others may take for granted.
- Determine your superpower – Startup teams are most successful when each of the cofounders have different “superpowers” – and sometimes, your superpower may be completely different than what you initially expect. Brian discovered that his super power was generating enthusiasm among customers, investors, partners, and for his teams – this superpower is what made him a natural CEO.
- Find focus and alignment in your career path – Aligning your career goals with your natural interests will guarantee that you have a story that makes you special – not only is this attractive for investors, but it’ll make sure that you are naturally excited about the activities you take on.
“This is my lunch – Lays chips and water!”
Chips and water in hand, Brian Wong waltzed into our space at Horizons donning purple and turquoise socks, a fashion statement that he also references in his book The Cheat Code: Going Off Script to Get More, Go Faster, and Shortcut Your Way to Success. It was clear that Brian’s easy enthusiasm was a powerful engine for his own success. Effortlessly fun-loving, the 26-year old Canadian Internet entrepreneur came to Horizons to impart advice to our Horizons One and Spring 2018 cohorts through the story of his company, Kiip, which co-foundedded in 2010.
“The first investment for Kiip was of course a big glowing sign for brand recognition!” Brian joked.
Brian had arrived in San Francisco 8 years ago having graduated from college at the age of 18. Wide-eyed, young, and excited, Brian geared up to pitch a Twitter app that got the attention of famed Digg co-founder Kevin Rose. Rose even offered Brian a job at Digg, which Brian proudly accepted. But neither Kevin nor Brian could have foreseen that it was the beginning of the end for Digg. Only five months later, Digg began a series of layoffs after a disastrous service redesign, and Brian was caught in the crossfire.
“It was very depressing. I lost my cool job, and I lost my visa,” lamented Brian, albeit with a smile, “But it’s okay – I have a green card now!”
On Starting and Developing Kiip
Brian got the idea for Kiip when he was on an airplane and watching what other passengers were doing on their mobile devices.
“People were defaulting to what they do when they’re bored: playing a lot of games,” says Brian, “There was clearly an opportunity to take advantage of the ‘payoff’ factor that people experience when they win a game – it’s when they’re most engaged, after all.”
From there, Kiip was born. Through strategic partnerships, Kiip began to send prizes from corporate sponsors to mobile gamers when they hit achievement milestones like high scores and level ups. Early on in Kiip’s business lifetime, these prizes physically arrived on gamers’ doorsteps in the mail. Kiip eventually transitioned to coupons and digital gifts. Today, they have strategic partnerships with more than 40 majors brands who pay to provide prizes to gamers.
When it comes to developing your own ideas for companies and startups, Brian warns to not just go for what’s “sexy”: “Blockchain, AI, AR, VR, these are all hot right now – unless you’re truly interested, don’t enter the space just because they’re sexy!”
Trendy markets are defined by what the masses are rushing into and talking about. But when those ideas are no longer trendy, companies are likely to fizzle out unless a vision is in alignment with both the market and what a founding team truly finds interesting. More often than not, the obvious consumer use cases tend to be deceptively difficult since many early stage companies rush into these opportunities. By contrast, commercial and B2B use cases (the “unsexy” ideas) tend to be the those which have product market fit.
Instead of rushing into trendy markets, Brian advises that you watch human behavior in order to find viable ideas. See what you find interesting and move into that space if it intrigues you.
“Always watch what people are doing – it’ll give you good ideas, especially in airports,” advises Brian, harkening to when he developed the idea for Kiip, “In airports or on planes, you know that that’s the best time to observe people!”
On Getting Hired
“Whether you create a startup or find the perfect role for you within a company, you have to make your own job,” Brian insists, “and I’m of the camp that you probably want to join another company first before you start one. That way, you can see what’s done correctly versus what’s done wrong.”
Although Brian only worked at Digg for six months, he knows from his experience and the stories of his peers that joining a company before starting your own gives you invaluable insight into the ways in which companies work or don’t work. You glean insight into the status quo of what management structures look like, how to market a brand, how employees communicate within the company, and other experiential learnings. (In Brian’s case, working at Digg also led to him meeting his Kiip co-founders.)
When it comes to getting a job or reaching out to others, Brian has many tips for how to network your way into talking to the right people (many of which are covered in his book):
- Build your own network if you don’t have one already – Shop around on LinkedIn and find profiles of people you find interesting. Determine who works around them and reach out.
- Guess a lot of email addresses – Generally, use “firstname.lastname”@“domain.com“, but you can also use online tools (like hunter.io) to determine people’s direct company email addresses. You can also guess permutations of a person’s email address in the “bcc” field when you send an email and see which guesses bounce back.
- Feel free to email higher-ups – Brian pointed out that C-suite executives of major Fortune 500 or 5000 companies almost never receive emails straight from potential hire candidates. If you write a great customized email to them, you have a good chance of getting a response from either the executive, someone in their circle, or even a hiring manager from the company.
- Schedule emails to send for about 6 AM local time – This is when people are just waking up, commuting, or getting to their first set of morning emails. You want to be a part of that batch when the recipients’ minds are fresh!
- Never go through HR or job boards – While this is certainly the minimum bar, know that everyone else also does this. If you want to stand out, you are better off going straight to the company founders or hiring managers either via email, LinkedIn, or another creative approach.
- Work to add value first – “People slide into my DM’s via email or LinkedIn with lazy, unimpressive one-line requests for me to hire them,” Brian points out. He shares a story of the opposite approach: a candidate took out Google ads with Kiip as a keyword knowing that Brian would be Googling his own company. The ad (which said “Brian, Hire me!”) linked to a YouTube video of the candidate explaining why he should be hired. And he was.
- This isn’t the time to be humble – When you reach out to a new contact, you want to make sure that you signal that you are a winner. “Trust me – as a Canadian, it was tough to not be humble! You do NOT want to be humble in these cold emails!” Says Brian. Take this time to point out and highlight your strengths and accomplishments.
When it comes to building out your network and becoming hirable, the bottom line is to ask for help and know how to ask for help.
“If you don’t know how to ask for help,” explains Brian, “then no one knows how to help you.”
On Hiring and Firing
Brian had certainly cracked the code when it came to building a network, but now that he is the CEO of an 8-year old company, what were his lessons when it came to hiring and firing?
“First of all, I don’t like the ‘fire fast’ mentality. I prefer hiring slow,” Brian insists, “If we hired you, we owe it to you to make sure that you are successful. If we ever let a person go, then it means that we made a grave mistake. We either didn’t hire you for the right role, didn’t put in the time or energy to make sure you were successful, or failed to find a new role for you. Firing fast means that we aren’t taking that responsibility of truly hiring the right people.”
Hiring the right people depends in part on the stage of a company’s growth. In the first year of a startup, hiring the right people means hiring those who are comfortable with ambiguity and great at wearing many different hats.
“In our first year, we literally had a guy named Jack who was, in fact, a jack-of-all-trades – from taking out the trash to writing basic code, he did it all,” says Brian.
As a company scales, the company’s needs become more specialized. The generalists leave or move into specialist roles.
“The generalists will either embrace the new, more defined roles or they leave because they feel punished by being pigeonholed in the growing company,” Brian points out. “As Kiip scaled, I also had to fire myself.”
As Kiip grew, Brian learned more about building the right teams and where new leaders could add more value to particular roles than he could. He would strategically rotate out his responsibilities, and in the process, Brian would “fire himself”, find people who were better at a given job, and learn how to abandon micromanaging and let go.
“I have learned that people have their own versions of perfect,” Brian says, “and when you empower others to create that, amazing things happen.”
On Using Your Superpower
From interviewing candidates to engaging in self reflection, Brian and the leaders at Kiip always turn to a key question: What is your superpower?
“You have to know what you’re really good at and focus on that” insists Brian. “Life is different from school, where you have to focus on making up for your weaknesses.”
Brian shares his own experience as someone who “wasn’t great at math, physics, or anything quantitative in nature.” Through the help of others, he was able to do well in school in quantitative subjects (otherwise he wouldn’t have skipped four grades!), but he eventually decided that the quant side wouldn’t be where he’d apply his focus.
“I thought that my superpower would be design – after all, I started my own web design company in high school and pirated a version of photoshop when I was 12,” shares Brian, “So, I thought I was good at design, but compared to my cofounder, I wasn’t!”
In the end, Brian discovered that his superpower was getting others extremely excited. Whether connecting with investors, teams, or partners, Brian concluded that this superpower is what has allowed him to grow into the CEO role.
With a chief of product and a chief technologist as cofounders at Kiip’s inception, Brian’s co-founding team had different superpowers that allowed them to complement each other. By contrast, if you have a set of people in the cofounder unit who have the same skills, there is bound to be conflict, especially if people perceive themselves to have skills that they actually don’t possess.
And if you don’t know what your superpower is?
“Determine what you do in your spare time for fun!” says Brian.
The things that naturally draw you in are clues to what your superpower is. This generation of employers values creators and builders, and when you show that you can produce, you’ll naturally find a job that’s in line with what you’re excellent at.
One more thing: “Anytime you give a co-founder the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’,” says Brian, “that person is probably gonna be gone pretty soon!”
On Building Confidence and Focus
Along with stressing the importance of focusing on building your superpower, Brian speaks at length about the importance of building confidence in your perspective.
“If you walk into any conversation thinking that they’ll underestimate you, they will,” he points out.
As such, it is important to know what kind of focus you bring to the table, even if it isn’t in the form of explicit experience. Being young can actually be an advantage not only because youth brings natural curiosity, but also because of the digital native mindset that comes with being young.
“Remember, you have 5 years of experience on Snapchat, and that’s probably useful for anyone who is older than you are,” Brian says Even later millennials may not have that kind of experience on the Snapchat platform.
Once you reflect on your unique skillsets and experiences, Brian advises you to go deep on a given idea if you want to start a company – you won’t know if it’s a perfect idea until after you’ve tried it and given the idea all of your energy.
“If you’re the kind of person who dabbles and abandons an idea if it doesn’t make money in two weeks, that’s not great.” Brian declares, “Ideas fail. People don’t. Don’t be a serial entrepreneur – that’s code for failed entrepreneur!”
Instead of cofounding a lot of companies, determining idea-founder alignment is more important. If your idea is aligned to your unique set of interests, superpowers, and focus that only you have, then it will feel right to you. You’ll have a great story that only you can tell, and that’s the beginning of a great sale to investors, clients, partners, and customers alike.
“I did a lot of gaming as a kid, majored in advertising, and became a web designer,” points out Brian, “Is it any wonder that I design exciting gaming-based advertisements through rewards on Kiip?”
Well, that’s a story we can all buy.