Followformation is a Vancouver-created Twitter application turning heads
Brian Wong has left the building, so to speak. Wong and I hooked up by phone, as the 18-year old UBC Bachelor of Commerce (he was an early graduate) was on the phone from New York. He's now employed by Digg.com, the famous social bookmarking company based in San Francisco, and quite literally living out of a suitcase. Wong graduated just in 2009, and after a "tsunami of publicity" for his Twitter-based startup, FollowFormation (thanks to coverage from the massively influential Mashable.com), he decided to pursue his dream of branching out as a well-connected technology entrepreneur. Regrettably, at least for now, Wong's dream forced him to leave his hometown of Vancouver for the USA.
"[After the Mashable story] I got invited to a ton of tech conferences around the US and in the UK. One of those conferences was known as the 140TC (now Tweet House) conference in Los Angeles. "I contacted the conference organizers, hoping that I could get a free ticket, saying I was a student, no money, recent grad, and all that," says Wong. "They told me the only way I could get a free ticket was if I was a speaker. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I asked if I could be a speaker at the 140TC conference. They mulled it over, looked at FollowFormation.com, saw what we had achieved and said, 'you know what, you should come down here at speak.'"
"I went to L.A. and while networking down there I ran into a bunch of folks from Digg.com. I've been huge fan of Digg for years, and an active user since 2005. They invited me to come say hi if I was in San Francisco, so of course I decided to visit the city as part of my trip to California," adds Brian. "After that trip, and meeting that team, I came away that I really needed an excuse to be in the USA, and I wanted to be down in San Francisco. Working now with Digg has been one of the best things that's happened to me."
I asked Wong about the fact that B.C. had just lost another talented, tech-savvy businessperson to the USA, and what we need to do so that it doesn't become more commonplace. "I very much intend to bring back my network and what I gain down here in terms of experience and knowledge back home to Vancouver someday. In the end, I am a Canadian citizen. I'm down here working under an H1B work visa, which is probably one of the most complicated and alienating statuses I've ever been endowed with. I just don't feel welcome under an H1B. And if you read the press, Americans right now don't really want non-US citizens working here. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here, of course, but it's important to keep things in perspective."
For Brian, he describes a bit of a wild ride since arriving in the US. "I'm still living in a hotel. Before I left for New York, I had to ask the guys if I could leave my bags in the office because I've got no permanent living space yet. Now, after only 2 weeks on the job, I'm in New York meeting with media executives that I could have only dreamed of meeting before. However, I knew that I was signing up for something exciting when I moved down here."
FollowFormation is the brainchild of Brian Wong and Lucas Lemanowicz. They describe it as a tool for novice Twitter users (they call them "chirpers") to get started with following the top people in the categories of their interest, and top people in the cities in which they live in. They created it because they saw an opportunity to enable users to follow the top users based upon their interests. "We saw that one of the big needs for Twitter was that once they got signed on, they really wanted to know who to follow. Our tool helps you with that."
Wong says it's like Twitter's suggested users feature, but on steroids, or even the Alltop for Twitter - with an opportunity for anyone to be a part of it.
I asked Brian if he felt that he could really grow if he was still back in British Columbia. "There are a lot of great programs, like the BC Innovation Council and IRAP from the Federal government. They're helping many companies, but in many ways they've not matured yet. It's going to take more time. By comparison, the entrepreneurs down in the Bay Area are making huge deals in the multiple millions of dollars. There are folks down here who think really big, even bigger than I ever imagined. I'm looking for that "feel" which is something that BC cannot provide - yet."
"In the Bay Area, everything here is geared toward web startups," comments Wong. "All the best investors and advisers are located here. Back in BC, I think even the non-governmental programs they're not quite sure yet what they're funding. There are a couple of guys in Vancouver who are doing great things that I have a lot of respect for – Boris Wertz and Boris Mann. Those guys have access to those networks, and those investors and advisers from abroad. But again, that's just two people in the whole city. So I said to myself, I could rely upon the two Borises to help me find advisers to help me build my business, or I could do that myself."
Brian Wong's story is not very typical, but over the years I've had many friend and colleagues in the tech business follow a path across the border. It's interesting to hear of another young and talented Vancouverite going abroad, and at the same time a little disappointing. Someday it's hoped that British Columbia and Canada will provide all the tools for success in the new economy, as well as access to the great investors and advisers Wong describes.
Considering that so much energy is being devoted in suites all around the city to woo business here, I thought it was a bit ironic that we've not found ways to keep guys like Brian from leaving.
FollowFormation.com is running an "Olympic edition" that Twitter users are recommended to check out before the Games are over in a few days. After that, stick with the site and see how it can add value to your Twitter experience.