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From teen to serial entrepreneur: Albert Lai shares secrets to success

Photo of OCE Admin February 24, 2015 by OCE Admin

As a lifelong, serial entrepreneur, Albert Lai believes it’s important that young people are exposed to the excitement and opportunities associated with entrepreneurship at a young age. His own early experiences with entrepreneurship as a high school student sparked his interest in entrepreneurship and led to his amazing and highly successful career.

Lai, who will be a judge at OCE’s Discovery conference for the Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch competition on April 27, shares some thoughts about his own career path and offers some advice to budding entrepreneurs.

With the March 6 deadline for the Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch contest approaching, Lai encourages anyone who thinks they might have what it takes to be an entrepreneur “to take a chance and give entrepreneurism a test run.”  He looks forward to connecting to contest finalists at Discovery, knowing they may be part of the next generation of great Ontario entrepreneurs.

While just in his teens, Albert Lai sold his first Internet company, the MyDesktop Network, to JupiterMedia (JUPM) for seven-figures. He was most recently the co-founder and CEO/President Kontagent, a Facebook funded analytics platform that tracked one out of every four dollars spent on Facebook connected games. Prior to Kontagent, he was the founder/CEO of BubbleShare, a photo-sharing company sold to Kaboose/Disney in 2007. A highly successful serial entrepreneur, Albert Lai is now co-founder and CEO of Big Viking Games, a disruptive social and mobile HTML5 games company. His sixth company to date, Big Viking Games is just over three years old with over 65 employees with offices in London, Ontario and Toronto, Ontario. The company’s games have reached tens of millions of players around the world and was recently awarded and profiled a Top 100 Employer in Canada and a Top 50 Employer for Young People in the Globe and Mail.

As someone who was drawn to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur in my early teens, I’m often asked about my motivation. The answer is simple: A youthful drive to gain independence and freedom.  It was really my way of rebelling against what was expected of me.  I got to combine my passion for technology and my inclination for challenging the way things are done with the opportunity to build new things while working with interesting people.  On top of that I was able to make money doing it.  What could be better than turning what really began as a hobby into something that I could do for a living?

Once I initially gained financial independence after selling my first company, my ideas about entrepreneurship began to evolve. My motivation transcended beyond my desire to create something cool to also building an organization that embodies an inspiring company culture.  This inspiring culture helps me attract the most talented people – people who I want to work with and learn from and who inspire me to do even better.  After being involved in starting a half dozen companies,  I’ve found the greatest reward comes from being a part of building an organization where you can help the people around you be successful and grow.

Value your early ideas for how they might shape future success

Ironically, my friend in high school who I worked with on a Yearbook on CD-ROM project, that we gave a dorky name called a “Yeardisc,” and then another project where we created what was likely the first real true “branded game” became my co-founder five companies later. Kontagent was a category leader and defined much of the industry around it today. After being recognized as a pioneer in social user analytics, the company was funded by Facebook. We developed a type of analytics that went beyond tracking pages to tracking people and even people’s influence on other people. So my high school friend and I went from creating a “viral” branded game on floppy discs when we were 16 years old to the development of an analytics platform, funded by Facebook and worth millions of dollars, that would process billions and billions of data points and track one of our every four dollars that connected to Facebook on our platform at the height of its success.  Now given my early exposure to making games, I’m back to making games again at Big Viking Games, in a way, going full circle.

Make good use of your innate tech skills

Being a digital native is a tremendous advantage that opens up many opportunities. Having grown up with the internet and technology in general and being so familiar with all sorts of facets of technology is something that young people might take for granted. There are high school and university students today who know a lot more about sub-segments of the consumer internet application ecosystem or software ecosystem than I do because they have had the opportunity to be socialized and embedded in those user behaviours. Each wave of young people has different technological experiences that lead to different insights and perspectives. This different perspective on the world gives them an advantage in identifying opportunities and thinking about how things could be.

Work at keeping a fresh and innovative mindset

I try new things all the time and I read a lot. I read a broad range of things.  When I was young, I would read magazines cover to cover on topics I was interested in. With the internet today, it’s incredible the amount of world-class knowledge that is available. The resources are everywhere. You just need to learn how to leverage them and how to creatively use them better than the next person. Lack of access to knowledge is no longer an inhibitor to success and that’s super exciting to me. Now you can collaborate and form partnerships with people around the world. It’s incredible. I would say that it’s ten times easier to be an entrepreneur today than it was ten or twenty years ago.

Think big!

It’s when you’re young that you have the most potential to think beyond the regular boundaries and set new expectations for what’s possible. In Ontario and Canada, we easily have one of the world’s highest levels of government support and access to some of the best creative and technical talent to produce world-leading technologies and products. On a six-month sabbatical a few years ago, I travelled many of the hotbeds of entrepreneurship and technology…San Francisco, Silicon Valley, New York as well as the Far East, South America, Singapore, India, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Japan. And it was rare to find a place with as much government support for research and development as we have here.   We are lucky to be located in both London, Ontario and in Toronto, Ontario - as we are not only given fantastic government support, but are surrounded by super talented people that we are able to recruit from that are building world-class products and technology with us.

Remember that anyone can be an entrepreneur

I’m a big fan of the book “Talent is Over-rated”. The key take away from the research is that it’s all about “deliberate practice.” Why did Tiger Woods or Steve Jobs perform so well in their respective areas? It comes from being hyper-focused in getting feedback on their craft, whether it’s about swinging a stick at a ball or identifying patterns and building great products. It’s about identifying where you need to improve and getting continuous feedback and working like crazy, and being maniacally focused on improving that one aspect you want to be better at.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Failure is absolutely a required ingredient of success. If you’re not failing, then you’re probably not taking enough risks. And if you aren’t willing to continue to fail then you’re never going to be successful—truly successful. Failure is the only way that you’re going to get feedback. And feedback is essential to improvement.

I highly recommend that you enter the Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch competition and give entrepreneurism a test run. I will look forward to meeting you at Ontario Centres of Excellence’s Discovery conference where I will be acting as a judge for the live pitches.  

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