Then & Now: Youngest Person to Raise VC Shares His Growth Path

Brian Wong is one of the coolest entrepreneurs you’ll ever come across. He holds the record for being the youngest person (ever) to raise VC. He launched his tech career running publisher and tech partnerships for social news website, where he grew the site’s mobile presence by launching the Digg Android mobile app.

In 2010, Brian founded Kiip, 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 American Express, the company has raised $15.4 million in funding to date.

In 2013, we had the chance to interview Brian about his experiences raising VC and defining the Kiip brand. One year later, he’s another year wiser, and we’re ready to check in.

Here’s Brian’s story continued – how the youngest person to raise VC has refined Kiip’s focus, overcome his company’s greatest challenges, and built a clear path for his company’s growth.

1. Fundraising

Clarity (2013): 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.

Clarity (2014): Another year has passed, and you’re another year wiser. What new fundraising trends are you excited to see? 

Although we haven’t been fundraising, we revealed the last investor in our $11M round from 2012 – American Express Ventures.

Although we’re now executing from the trenches, I can see that the fundraising landscape has changed immensely, especially as the crowdfunding landscape continues to evolve. AngelList is making it easier for investors to find startups and vice versa, and Indiegogo and Kickstarter are making it possible for new projects to exchange funding for value.

Over the next few months, the SEC will be evaluating Title III of the JOBS Act, which will open up new fundraising waters for startups to test. The rules are still in flux, but the ability to seek investments from non-accredited investors will present flexibility previously unseen to startups. I am looking forward to seeing how this landscape evolves in providing mobility to new businesses.

2. Your Biggest Challenges

Clarity (2013): 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.

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.

Clarity (2014): Last year, you mentioned that Kiip was struggling to maintain focus. What progress has been made from this challenge, and what key takeaways have you learned? What insight has really ‘wowed’ and motivated you?

Since last year, we have increased our focus on bringing value to moments throughout your day, essentially owning lifestyle moments across many verticals: rewarding consumers for bookmarking a recipe, completing a to-do list, making a playlist, etc. In addition to gaming, we now have six additional app verticals: fitness, health, productivity, food, cooking and music. AMEX is obviously a huge inspiration for creating amazing rewards program.

Late last year, we launched Kiip Self-Serve to allow any brand to boost its customer acquisition efforts by rewarding 60 million users across our network of 1,500+ games and apps. It has seen amazing metrics and it continues to blow us away. Opening up our network has enabled scale, international expansion and a favorable increase in our customer pool.

We also locked down major deals with Yahoo! Japan, the largest media company in Japan, and Cut The Rope, one of the most recognized mobile gaming brands in the world.

Our overarching goal is for true platform ubiquity, which means expanding beyond mobile to new environments. We also want to begin to see Kiip rewards showing up in wearables and connected devices. Now that we’re live in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia and Latin America, we also want to continue to expand our rewards network and begin to see Kiip deployed into even more countries.

Now, our challenges are mainly around continued execution in growth, product innovation and platform ubiquity. The more partnerships we nail down, the more our ecosystem grows.

3. The Path to Success

Clarity (2013): What traits are most responsible for your success?

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 behavior 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 behavior 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.

Clarity (2014): What key points of advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are struggling to find their own paths? 

Dig a little deeper and identify a third solution.

Most problems have two very obvious solutions. The key is to look for a third answer – it’s the tougher one that needs more thinking, but it’s usually hiding in there. If you can find it, it will help set you apart and differentiate your company.

Brian Wong is the founder of Kiip, a category-creating mobile rewards network that is redefining mobile advertising. His experiences include:

  • Being the youngest person to ever raise VC, with more than $15 million in funding to date. 
  • Running partnerships at Digg
  • Being recognized 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
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