We continue our “3 Things I Didn’t Learn in School” series, this time with Brian Wong, an inventor and entrepreneur who has appeared on Forbes Top 30 Under 30 three times already. Brian skipped four grades of school, graduating from Business School at 18, and was the youngest person to ever receive venture capital funding, when he was only 19 years old. He is currently the CEO of Kiip, a mobile rewards platform.
In today's conversation, Brian reminds us of the importance of curiosity, grit, and creation in forging your own path.
Where do you get the spark for your ideas?
My ideas are 100% from experiencing something new, whether it’s travel, meeting new people, or reading books: I get ideas from everywhere. To me, planes offer peace and quiet; my brain prepares itself for meditation for ideation. It’s how I get most of my ideas. As well, I continually meet people who push my boundaries.
Is that why you are a nomad by choice?
That’s exactly it. I like to be lost. I like to be challenged. It’s appealing to go to a new, unknown city, to arrive and not know where to go. I prefer to go someplace new. It’s about discovery. Once I have been to a city several times and I know it a bit, it is less exciting.
Exploration and discovery: how do they lead you to “aha” moments?
I think I have a lot of “aha moments”, probably once a week, because I get to explore so much. I am lucky, I get to see and experience new things a lot. I’m an evangelist for what I’m doing.
We’re starting to work with connected devices and wearables. For example, we are extending in-the-moment rewards to connected cars. We are looking ahead to integrate with Apple Watch. It’s super exciting. That’s my recent aha moment.
You skipped 4 grades in school and graduated from university at 18. Tell us what was missing from your schooling?
When I was in school there were interesting programs to help gifted kids, like the Challenge Program
My Grade 3 teacher recommended me. I went on to a multi-age cluster at University Hill (another alternate program). My teacher came in nonchalantly and asked who wanted to skip a grade and I said “I do”, and so I joined the Transitions Program to compress 5 years of high school into 2 years. This accelerated program worked well for me because I caught on quickly. And I graduated from high school at 14, and went directly into Business School.
It sounds like you had a pretty unique experience in school, compared to the average student.
I was bored. My teachers saw my boredom more than my parents did. I hand it to my teachers who were so observant to see that if a child is bored it’s not because they are doing terribly it’s because they need to be challenged. My talent was the ability to pick up subjects quickly. The repetitive nature of schooling, the one-size-fits-all dynamic didn’t work for me. I didn’t need repetition and therefore had a lot of free time. I did random side gigs, such as web design and sold Pokemon cards in my earlier ventures. For me, it was worth exploring accelerated schooling.
In a previous interview, you have discussed your grades at university. How important was traditional university to opportunity creation for you?
University was normal for me. I started when I was 14. I went directly into the Commerce Program at UBC (Business School) and I chose Commerce by default: I didn’t enjoy other subjects. It was a process of elimination in choosing. Sciences and arts were not for me. I didn’t get to take business or economics courses in high school because of my compressed schedule of four years of high school courses into two. At UBC, I majored in marketing, because my grades couldn’t get me into accounting. (laughs)
Let’s talk about your grades at university: you could have gotten better grades, but you did a cost-benefit analysis and determined it wasn’t worth it. You’ve said you would rather use your time to be productive.
I didn’t get fabulous marks: I viewed higher grades as diminishing marginal returns. The grades weren’t excellent, but were sufficient to finish school, which was my goal.
So did you learn anything at university, or has everything you’ve learned been self-taught?
I am actually an advocate for a good academic foundation. A lot of things I learned in Business School provide the core foundation for how I run my business today; things like financials, Human Resources, marketing. From a day-to-day operating knowledge, 90% of what I use daily comes from what I have picked up along the way. 10% of how I run the business is the basics I learned in university. I see other entrepreneurs who don’t have these foundations, or even the basic understanding of profitability. The 10% is important.
And grit plays a role in education?
Finishing college was important to me. I wanted to finish something. I don’t support the trend of “dropping out.” Grit and determination are important. One thing youth are accused of today is a lack of loyalty and follow-through. I believe we have to finish what we start. I hope the new generation continue to persist. Persistence is important.
What 3 things didn’t you learn in school that are essential now?
I didn’t learn how to:
1. hire and retain talent
2. navigate the world of business relationship building
3. be malleable when working with different cultures
The Academy of Tomorrow's mission is to help cultivate a 'hacker' mindset, which is not a skill set but rather a mindset. Building on three key principles - curiosity, tinkering and grit - as the components to this equation. You created your own path. How do we help young people to be opportunity creators rather than opportunity seekers?
The only way we can have young people be creators is to show them what’s possible. I think what is inspiring for youth is knowing that everything that somebody has told them is not possible, is actually possible. Youth have to see it to believe it. Today there is actually a huge generation of creators. We have to say: “See, these people have done it. It’s possible.” We need to celebrate creation. Creation also means improving something that is already there.
How do you stay focused?
Focus (laughs). People around me keep me focused. I want to encourage people that if they do have an issue with focus, it’s not a bad thing. Embrace it! If your brain is so quickly able to focus on many things it makes you very versatile. Use it! Being able to focus on many things at once leads to innovation, and constant curiosity. You just have to learn to control it. Curiosity is a character trait that has to stay. Don’t lose it!
Brian, what’s next for you? What’s keeping you busy and motivated?
From a core business perspective, my focus is still 180% on Kiip. But in addition to that, I volunteer my time on a few initiatives. I am on the Digital Advisory Board of American Express OPEN, which is a team of entrepreneurs who help advise businesses. I also serve on the Mastercard Youth Advisory Board to promote youth entrepreneurship. I mainly like to get involved in things that are related to the industry and youth entrepreneurship. Because of that, I’m working with The Next Big Thing (TNBT) with Ryan Holmes of Hootsuite. TNBT is a non-profit to help young entrepreneurs under 23 start “the next big thing” and help young entrepreneurs grow, learn, and imagine what it means to succeed. I advise these entrepreneurs and give them some ideas. The goal is to empower youth.