Meet the 20-Year Old CEO Redefining Mobile Advertising

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The first thing you notice about Kiip CEO Brian Wong is how decidedly un-CEO he actually looks.

Case in point: I made two swervy surveillance laps around a not-at-all-crowded, lower-level concourse in 30 Rock before I spotted the 20 year old Digg alum alone at a table, scrunched over his iPhone. In nerdy black glasses and a halfway zipped navy hoodie (flecked with kaleidoscope colors on closer inspection), the young man who graduated from college as a fresh faced 19 year old could’ve very well been, you know, anyone.

Kiip is a start up venture that came out of stealth mode earlier this month. Wong and his team (which include former high-ups at Digg and EA) have raised just over $4 million dollars in initial funding.

So what does Kiip do? Essentially, it’s adding a whole new dimension to the mobile gaming ad model.

When mobile gaming started getting big, “Advertisers needed a solution really quickly,” Wong tells me over coffee. “And the only way we know how is to take a piece of your screen with a banner ad. And nothing about banner ads in mobile feels natural.”

What Kiip does is so brilliant it’s almost shocking. The rewards network provides game developers with a targeted advertising system that aligns in-game achievements with brands. In other words: score a thousand points, and a voucher for a bag of Pop Chips comes up onscreen.

“One of things that I realized is that with traditional advertising, like when you see something like Mad Men or when you see Ogilvy — the geniuses of the ad space — it was all experience, it was all about emotion. It was never about, ‘Hey how can I reach you in real time and blast you with messages.’”

Techland: As an advertiser, why is leveraging emotion so important?

Brian Wong: When you see an ad on TV that you don’t like, like a sandwich, you can ignore it. When you see an ad on an iPhone or an Android device that you don’t like – that you have to see – it’s going to annoy you.

What we’re trying to do is bring emotion back to advertising. We’re really trying to bring sexy back. We’re trying to tie your feelings for a brand with a parallel set of [positive] emotions.

How did Kiip come to you? Was there some big “A-ha!” moment?

It didn’t happen instantly. My epiphany was almost a month long, and… actually, I could show you. (He pulls out his Moleskine and flips to a page of scribbles)

I realized there’s something about how you’re addicted, and how you play, and how you’re incentivized to continue playing a game that can be tied directly to a particular behavior. I just didn’t know exactly how. At first, I was trying to make it really complicated, and then it hit me. There’s one thing in every game that’s universal: Every game has an achievement.

And that’s when I was like, “Holy f*ck, this achievement element is completely overlooked. I started thinking about virtual awards, and then leaderboards, and then badges, and I realized that companies like Scoreloop and Open Feint have started to merge rewards and gaming. And then I realized those are all virtual things. Why haven’t they tried doing it with physical things?

Techland: How about you yourself? Are you a big gamer?

I love casual puzzle games because it’s like they never end. Cut the Rope is a big one. Angry Birds of course. But beyond being cliché, there’s this game that just came out. It’s not really a puzzle game, it’s more of a strategy type: Sword & Sworcery.

It’s just an amazing game because of the level of detail that they put into it. Like for example, in the game they have this thing where it’s always nighttime and there’s the moon. The moon changes to the state of the moon on the day you’re playing it. I’m not even kidding you. I’m a designer by trade. I did business school, but I still really admire great design.

Do you see Kiip expanding onto other platforms? Do you see it going to consoles or to Facebook or anything like that?

I’m going to sit here and smile. (And he does.)

Did you see yourself doing this at a younger age? What’d you see yourself doing when you were a kid?

There’s one thing I want to share that fires me up every time: Every single one of us wanted to be an astronaut when we were young. And every time I say this, everybody goes, “Yeah, yeah.” I’m like, “What happened?” Like why did everybody just start deciding to be an accountant or a banker. Not to hate on them or anything…

But if you’re rich you can be a space tourist

Right. That’s the natural things to say. Our parents and friends were like, “Well you can’t do it because of this, this, this, this, and this.” I think what I ended up realizing very quickly through school (and this became a common theme) was: “Who decided that I should be doing this?”

I mean, who told me that I should do school when I’m 18? Who told me that I shouldn’t be starting a company until I’m “this age.” Or who told me that I have to be a consultant at Bain before I know how to run a business? In fact, everybody you see that’s truly changing the world broke the rules since day one.

So I don’t think I was at the university going, “Yeah, I’m going to go to San Francisco to start a company and use venture capital money and whatever.” Never. That did not happen. Didn’t even cross my head. (Laughs)

Is there anyone in the industry you look up to? Tumblr’s David Karp?

Yeah. David and I, we’ve known each other for a long time. And a “long time” in the tech world means a year.

There’s a funny story about that. John Maloney is the president of Tumblr, and I’ve known him since September of 2009. I actually made a trip out to New York with some friends as a vacation, which was the first time I’ve ever been to New York. Instead of being on vacation, I decided to be an idiot and emailed like 40 people. Folks like Fred Wilson [a venture capitalist] and John Maloney responded. I ended up having coffees with both of them, and John brought me back to the Tumblr offices.

I think he probably wanted to hire me as an intern or something at some point, but I don’t really know. (Laughs) But he was like, “Hey, you got to meet David here. He’s like your age and he’s kind of like you.” So I’ve known David since then. He’s one of those guys that you would never have known that he’s a frickin’ genius. And these things aren’t accidental. The guy works really, really hard and is incredibly in tune with how people like to express themselves.

Last question. Any idea who Fake Brian Wong on Twitter is?

I’m going to look you in the eyes and say I have no idea who this guy is. Like I really don’t know. My team follows him more closely than they follow me. They say you know you’ve made it when you have a fake account.

And it’s funny. I just look at something like that and I laugh because a year ago I was broke and I had no job [after being laid off from Digg].

And then seven, eight months later, when I call my mom up and I’m like, “Hey mom! We just got money!” And she’s like, “Oh. Now that your company’s healthy, you need to be healthy. Eat some more vegetables.”

Like my dad literally grew up in a village in the middle of China that had mud houses. And to him, what he has now — like he’s living in an apartment, he has a roof over his head, he has food to eat and he can eat whatever he wants, he can walk along the water, which is where [my parents] live in Vancouver — it’s like he taught me how to be appreciative of the little things. He taught me to remember where you’re from, and that as long as you have a beating heart and you’re not a lazy motherf*cker, you can make something out of yourself. That’s it.

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