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Immigration Policy Nearly Drives Entrepreneur’s $20 Million Company From America

Brian Wong is redefining mobile advertising. The Canadian co-founder and CEO of Kiip — a company that offers rewards to players who reach new levels on mobile games or apps — has raised more than $20 million in venture capital and counts Coke, Kellogg’s, and Unilever among his customers. And he’s only 25.

Wong’s precociousness was evident from a young age: He skipped four grades in school and graduated from the University of British Columbia at age 18. Today, Wong has made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list three times and, according to TechCrunch, is the youngest person to receive venture capital funding.

After graduating with a degree in commerce in 2009, Wong decided to move to the United States “in search of better opportunities.” He soon got a job with the Internet news aggregator Digg, which sponsored him for a visa for workers in specialty occupations. But when Wong was laid off five months later, he lost his visa. It was around this time that he came up with the idea for Kiip. “I was on a long-haul flight, walking up and down the aisle, and noticed that most of the passengers were playing games on their phones,” Wong says. “I asked myself what was so enticing about mobile gaming and realized it’s that ‘achievement moment’— when you go up a level or hit a high score.” But after this success, an annoying banner advertisement usually popped onto the screen, killing the player’s high. “That was my ah-ha moment,” Wong says. “I thought: Why don’t I build a company that would help brands capitalize on that feeling of excitement?”

So, in 2010, Wong founded Kiip with two former Digg colleagues. The company offers a way for brands to reward people with prizes for their mobile game or app achievements, ranging from virtual currency to free samples. Today, the company employs 85 individuals in its San Francisco headquarters — around 90 percent of whom are American — and has a yearly revenue of between $10 and $20 million.

Yet, despite Kiip’s extraordinary success, it has not been easy for its CEO to remain in the United States. Wong first considered applying for an O-1 visa, for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement. “I thought it would be relatively easy for me to get an O-1,” he says. “But USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] said I didn’t have enough sustained evidence of extraordinary ability because I was too young.”

Wong understandably started to panic. “The uncertainty inherent in the visa process is really scary, especially for a CEO who is trying to build a successful business,” he says. Despite the obstacles, Wong was determined to find a way to remain in the United States, and in San Francisco in particular. “The city is such a beacon for talent and has this huge appetite for risk — there are few better places to start a company,” Wong says. In 2011, the Kiip board agreed to sponsor Wong for a new visa. Fortunately, even though there is no visa specifically designated for company founders and executives in Wong’s situation, USCIS agreed that Wong’s position at the company was a “specialty occupation” and the visa was approved. Wong remained on this visa until it expired in 2016.

Wong recently applied for, and received, a special green card for foreign nationals with “extraordinary abilities.” While Wong is relieved, he is also frustrated by an immigration system that does not take individual histories and successes into account when deciding whether or not to grant a visa. “It was a relief to know I could remain permanently in the United States,” Wong says. “But for someone whose company has been so successful it really shouldn’t have been such a difficult process.”

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