Entrepreneur Spotlight: Brian Wong
September 23, 2010
We were recently able to steal a few minutes with Brian Wong, a young entrepreneur who at the age of 19 already has more experience and knowledge than many who are years his senior. But it’s his infectious drive to create and produce that we’re most excited about sharing with you.
Grasshopper: Give us a little background. How did you first get interested and excited about entrepreneurship?
Brian Wong: Honestly I didn’t even really know entrepreneurship was a formal thing or category to be in when I actually started to do it. I’m a designer by trade. I started designing when I was 11 years old with a pirated version of Photoshop and I began making wallpapers and little websites.
Then I realized I could start selling my services and make a little cash to buy Gameboys. I’ve been designing very actively since I was young. It’s a hobby in a way – I’m a very aesthetically driven guy, very visual. So, that time was a key part of my growth and development.
So, what happened was, I decided to go to business school. When I finished high school everyone was bum-rushing sciences and the arts, and wanted to be in a traditional type of learning structure. But in my case, I hadn’t learned anything about business or economics before, so I thought I would try that. I was one of only a few people in my accelerated program to go into business school.
While I was in school I learned about marketing and I very quickly realized that marketing and design have very strong connections and overlap with each other, and that kind of gave me that background. At that point I started to use both those skills to develop something and I realized I could start making companies. I started my first company in 2006. That was a web design firm called Aer Marketing. We were servicing clients and building websites, etc. and that worked out well enough to give me the cash to get through school.
So around that time, Twitter had become really hot and the API was recently out there. I saw that there was a huge database of free information, aka the Twitter API, so I decided to utilize that to build something – and it grew out of my passion for design and business. Also, my father owns his own accounting firm and he proved to me that you don’t really need to join a company, but that you can start something and make something very significant out of it – being your own man so to speak. So that’s kind of how I pushed forward to make these things happen during the periods of my life where I was either confused about what I was going to do, or unsure of how I could make something out of it.
Grasshopper: You are the brains behind @followformation and Rocketkick. Can you tell us a little about these ventures and how these companies were born?
BW: Really, Followformation came along when Oprah had joined Twitter. I remember thinking that there would be a huge influx of mom’s that would join Twitter just because Oprah told them to, but they would have no clue about one of the biggest things: who to follow. So that was the problem I wanted to tackle.
I realized there was a lot of information online about the top people on Twitter and the types of Tweeter’s they are, like if are they a celebrity, an athlete, etc. I figured I would make a tool that automates the process. Followformation is an automated way to pre-populate your following list with people that you’re guaranteed to be interested in because they relate to the topics you’re interested in.
Rocketkick kind of spun out as an iPhone app development shop. It really didn’t last too long. Again, this was my foresight and I didn’t really realize it was going to be this hot. But this was around the time that app stores starting becoming really viable and people started make money on the apps they made.
I thought that we should start to service some companies and build apps for them. We actually ended up not doing any client work in Rocketkick, but we ended launching three of our own apps. Out of our own shop we launched the To-do list app, the Nexus Clock app and the followformation iPhone app. These three got pumped out in less than a few months when Rocketkick was still active.
This was sort of us building an infrastructure to be able to service big-ticket, brand-related clients. But we realized that having our own IP and building our own stuff would be more worthwhile. That’s what a lot of app development houses end up being right now because the ideas and the infrastructure you can build and types of apps and change you can make is so powerful. What’s the appeal of doing it for a big money when you can actually own the app and earn money off it yourself?
Grasshopper: As a 19 year old entrepreneur, what do you feel are the biggest challenges and also benefits of being so young?
BW: I love how you mentioned challenges first. In my mind I think of things in the form of enablers rather than obstacles. So for me, challenges actually become enablers; they become things that help me push forward.
Sometimes people view the fact that I’m immature or I don’t know enough about life as being a bad thing. I actually think that’s a really good thing, and it’s what I usually promote when I speak on youth entrepreneurship. I believe that when you have no knowledge of the boundaries that exist, you’re able to think big; you’re able to be truly, genuinely audacious. That kind of audacity doesn’t come from being jaded or being experienced, it comes from being completely unaware of what lies ahead of you in terms of boundaries.
Right now, being a young entrepreneur is a sexy thing. In a Techcrunch article about me they placed me beside Matt Mullenweg from WordPress and then of course Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. So, if someone can identify you early on and they know you’ll make something as big and earth-shattering as Facebook and WordPress, then it’s the sexy thing to pursue.
Being young hasn’t really been that big of a disadvantage – it’s been more about asking how I can make things happen and actually execute. There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs that like to talk a lot. I like talking too, but I’d rather show and prove my ability without actually talking.
When I worked at Digg, the Digg Android app was my project from beginning to end. You would imagine that you would need to be an experienced and seasoned mobile project manager to be able to launch something at that magnitude, but I managed to do it without any significant project management experience. I learned a lot from that experience… more than I ever would have without actually jumping into it head first.
On top of that, with the previous company, with Followformation and the launch of the iPhone app at the same time, those were all examples of execution. For me, I like to prove through action that this is something that’s possible, that when you’re young, even if you don’t have that specific experience, you have the ability to learn things quickly.
So, I’m sprinkling the challenges and advantages together because of what I mentioned earlier, how I don’t really think of it in black and white as challenges and advantages. When we’re young we have the ability to just pick something up and instantly absorb it. When you’re young you can learn a language in a month, but when you’re older it’s so much harder to pick these things up. I try to take full advantage of that.
I’ve seen it in front of my own eyes – a transition over the last couple years in the tech space where now young people can actually make a palpable change and actually shift the world to a better place. That’s compared to before where a lot of the initiatives put out into the youth related circles were about giving away a little prize money because they saw what they were doing as cute. Well it’s not cute anymore! It’s actually guys making multi-billion dollar companies when they’re young because they just don’t see any boundaries.
So in essence that’s kind of what I see as the benefits of being young. And the challenges really aren’t challenges unless you view them as challenges. It’s all about perspective. Young people usually say to themselves, “I’m young. No one is going to take me seriously. I don’t have enough money. No one is going to let me do this. I don’t have enough knowledge.” You can solve all those things yourself.
Grasshopper: How do you think social media has changed the way entrepreneurs promote their ideas or causes – and how have you used it to promote your ventures?
BW: That’s a very interesting question. I think the Internet in general has made it phenomenally easier for anyone to create companies, period. People have expressed very frequently how social media itself was the revolution. I personally believe that the social media element is just a conduit to the revolution that’s blowing up which is youth entrepreneurship.
Social media is an enabler that’s helped us do that. We have this ability in our generation, literally with the click of a mouse, to send a message to thousands of our friends instantly about something, and that is powerful. But, unless at the end of the day you’re creating a message that can be actionable, there’s no reason for it.
With all the new campaigns out there that companies are putting out, people are trying to make change by saying “Hey, vote for me, tweet about this, click on this, etc.” If you think about it, that’s very insignificant and almost sounds like a joke. Tweeting about something or clicking on something does not actually make a change, or at least it’s not the kind of change I want to see. So that’s what I have against people over-utilizing and abusing social media to make it look like they’re actually doing something worthwhile.
So, in my case, what I’ve done is I’ve actually refused to write a blog – and people don’t always understand why I wouldn’t be blogging. I refuse to blog for several reasons. First, I hate to talk about myself all the time. I’ll do it on interviews, but I won’t actually make a blog that formalizes me talking about myself. Second, I think that if I have my presence scattered on different locations, that’s a better way to display my brand – by being lucky enough to have other people talk about me.
Through social media I’ve created a powerful close network of friends that I use new technologies to reach out to. So for now I can DM people on Twitter and make things happen really quickly. That’s how I see it: social media has made it easier and more convenient. But at the same time, having these strong ties, as opposed to weak ties, is still paramount and will become a very important thing that young entrepreneurs need to focus on.
Entrepreneurs need to have a close network they can truly trust, an actionable network where people will actually do things rather than just talk about you all the time. I think the talking follows the actions that have followed your ideas that have been baked and put together and pushed forward. The end result is the talking; that’s the virility and what’s important. The hype and the buzz is important, but it doesn’t make you a successful entrepreneur.
You probably might notice too that a lot of the most successful founders I know have very small followings on Twitter, but they’re close followers – hundreds of followers that actually look at every one of their tweets. That type of strength and connection is worth it compared to someone who has like a million followers but has only 5 people regularly following and replying to their tweets.
Grasshopper: How do you balance work and play – or are they one-in-the-same?
BW: This is my playtime. They are one-in-the-same. I’m so in love with what I do. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to travel around the world, to speak, to reach out to youth, to have the opportunity to actually see the motivational aspect translate into real action – that’s the thing that I enjoy the most.
Of course I have hobbies, I hang out with friends and I go out to dinner, I do social things. My focus is not just on being productive, but it’s working smartly. I met my friends over in Hawaii at the end of August for a small vacation. But those are the types of things that can only be enabled because when I know I can control my work flow. That’s an advantage of being an entrepreneur: that I know how to arrange my schedule, I know how fast I can work, how efficiently I can work, then I can make things happen that will make my life more fun and enjoyable.
Right now I’m loving ever single second of it. I think the ultimate vacation is actually enjoying “The Ride.” I get warned a lot by a bunch of fellow founders that I need to stop to smell the roses once in a while. For me, it’s all about smelling the roses sometimes, and that’s part of the ultimate enjoyment that I get.