This Product Will Change Your Life
How a game, an actor, and a mentor-driven startup program helped alter Seattle tech entrepreneurship (and maybe celebrities) forever.
IN 2007, two years into a gig at Microsoft, a 27-year-old programmer from Michigan named Kevin Leneway began keeping a blog of every startup idea, good or bad, he dreamed up. He conceived of coughr.com (cough into the phone and an app determines whether you have a minor cold or bronchitis), Cross Stitch This (“a site where users can virtually cross-stitch an image and gift it to your friends and loved ones”), and iAllowance (parents deposit money into an iTunes-like account for kids’ weekly spending money).
“I was working as a developer platform evangelist—essentially technical marketing—not the most creative job in the world,” he explains. “The blog was my outlet.” One idea stirred his imagination more than any other.
You don’t remember them as gods, but they were. Think late ’80s. Think Fridays at 8pm. ABC television execs called it “TGIF,” a lineup of family-friendly sitcoms. Out of that meticulously researched programming—designed to lure what was then advertisers’ most desirable demographic, baby boomers and their latchkey kids—emerged Jesse Katsopolis, aka Uncle Jesse, the mulleted twentysomething Adonis played by John Stamos on Full House. Rebel Jesse’s avuncular advice to his three motherless nieces—the youngest played alternately by twins Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen—often clashed with that of their father, a by-the-book square. The dynamic presented a sort of children’s fantasy: stability and safety from one parent, fun and cool-kid cred from another, and court jester antics from yet another.
In those early days of cable, Americans were all essentially watching the same programs on the same three big broadcast networks. The characters, Uncle Jesse included, were characters we all knew, beamed into our living rooms every week like houseguests who could do no wrong.
But then the television screen changed. And more screens entered our lives. We mind-melded with the World Wide Web. With electronic mail. The culture changed, too. We no longer needed multiple father figures. Or our father figures betrayed us. Planes flew into buildings. War. Facebook.
And the very kids raised on shows like Full House, kids like Kevin Leneway, started to run the world.
Inspired by the handheld Tamagotchi digital pets popular in Japan, Leneway asked, What if you could keep America’s favorite uncle as a pet? “Instead of raising a cute little fuzzy animal,” he mused on his blog, “you would instead start off with an egg that hatches into a baby John Stamos. Your job is to nurture your little Stamos from a fussy little baby into an international superstar.”
This idea, which he envisioned as a social network game, deserved more than a forgettable blog post, Leneway thought. But it would never come to fruition, he reasoned, until he could find someone with whom to share the vision, someone who would not only get the idea but could help bring it to life.
Today Kyle Kesterson is a bearded, rail-thin 26-year-old artist and toy designer. But a decade ago, he was the last person you’d want designing anything for your impressionable child. When he was in third grade his family moved to Issaquah from Yuba City, California, once declared one of the most gang-ridden cities in America. But Kesterson—a self-described “total problem kid”—brought some of that Yuba City terror with him.
“I would get expelled from the bus. My fourth and sixth period classes were [forced] janitorial services. I once evacuated the science wing with this thick green smoke…. It was a cry-for-attention kind of thing.” In and out of 11 different schools on the Eastside before he finally dropped out altogether in the 10th grade, Kesterson enrolled at Lake Washington Technical College, where there seemed to be little point in trying to act up and get attention. He focused on design classes and learned software technology, but didn’t get a degree. “I was more interested in what drives me passionately, not what I have to do to get a piece of paper.”
He enrolled at Cornish College of the Arts to further hone his illustrating skills. “I used to redraw all my friends as Simpsons characters. And I started to create my own characters.” Red reptiles, their heads capped with crowns like herpetological royalty. Anthropomorphized tomatoes, bug-eyed and flying through the air as if on a kamikaze attack commissioned by an angry mob. A dollop of spilled paint? That would become a creature, too. “I can’t see a crack or a stain without seeing a character in it.”
And then there were the giant canvasses, five feet wide; the negative space of one creature gave way to another, and another, until every inch of the canvas was occupied by a hellish figure.
His work caught the attention of a Seattle toy company, which hired him to design bobble heads. The kid from Yuba City had finally found his place. Or so he thought.
MIT business school grad Andy Sack landed in Seattle in 2000, a move fueled by the recent illness of his mother-in-law, who lived here, and the sale of his first startup, a proto social networking platform called Abuzz, to The New York Times. He quickly got involved in the Emerald City’s budding entrepreneurial tech scene, launching a number of startups, most notably a Yelp-like site called Judy’s Book—named after his mother-in-law. Seattle, he thought, “was not living up to its potential of tech entrepreneurship, given the presence of Microsoft, Amazon, and UW. The infrastructure is here, but it’s kind of weak. It’s still sleepy, compared to my experience in Boston.” He started Founder’s Co-op, a super angel fund run by well-known tech entrepreneurs, but that still didn’t achieve the critical mass he wanted in Seattle.
The 43-year-old, who looks like a youthful version of Law and Order’s Eric Bogosian, had long admired the work of TechStars, a mentor-driven incubator program for startups that had enjoyed wide success in other investor-rich cities, including Boston, New York, and Boulder, Colorado, where it was founded in 2006. TechStars awards 10 fledgling companies seed money, shared office space, and access to mentors and potential investors. For 13 weeks the startups perfect their products and hone their pitches. In return, TechStars owns a small percentage of the companies. Of the 39 startups that had entered the program since 2007, 27 were still in business in 2010, and five had been purchased for more than $2 million.
Sack approached TechStars founders and convinced them to give his city a try. When it was announced that TechStars Seattle would be held in the fall of 2010, in South Lake Union, Sack’s inbox flooded with applications from all over the country—400 in all.
One application was like nothing he’d ever seen.
The first time Kevin Leneway pitched his idea to anyone, “pretty much the whole room laughed at me.” He was at Startup Weekend, a 54-hour brainstorm session for would-be tech entrepreneurs that occurs in cities around the globe. Seattle’s Startup Weekend was held last March in Fremont. Leneway showed up to find recruits for his John Stamos pet idea, which by then had evolved into a “Raising Uncle Jesse” Facebook game, similar to Farmville, in which players post updates and solicit help from their friends. He wasn’t having much luck. “But this one guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I love your idea. I can’t do character drawings, but my buddy is amazing. He’s a bobble head designer.’ ”
What the guy should have said was that his buddy was a bobble head designer. Kyle Kesterson had recently quit his job. One of the reasons: plastic. The bobble head company used too much of it, he complained. “The amount that company is responsible for is astronomical. Our inside joke was about how many bobble heads are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
The friend called Kyle around 1am on Saturday. “You’ve got to get down here tomorrow. I really want you to meet this one guy. He has this really bizarre idea.”
“I walk in,” recalls Kyle, “and I meet all the different teams, hearing all their ideas, and I look over, and Kevin’s in the corner by himself. He pitched the idea. And I’m like ‘Huh, I can actually kind of see that.’ ” Kyle spent a half hour sketching an infant version of Stamos.
“I look,” says Kevin, “and it was this amazing rendered version of John Stamos as a baby. And my jaw just dropped. Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
The two stayed awake all weekend, brainstorming the character and the game. By the time Sunday night rolled around and it came time to present the concept to the other Startup Weekenders, plus a handful of judges who would be awarding prizes, the Raising Uncle Jesse game was ready for its debut. Players would nurture the bundle of joy on their Facebook accounts, checking in every day to feed him—lest baby Uncle Jesse shrivel up and die—earn points and ascend levels in the game for various tasks, and ultimately raise the little guy into a B-list celebrity. Judges awarded the pair the prize for Most Likely to Make a Million Dollars.
Kevin and Kyle became fast friends, working late into the night, drinking beers, coding, further developing the game. They called their enterprise Giant Thinkwell, after a website Kyle had created a year earlier as a showcase for talented, like-minded illustrators from around the world. The duo agreed to apply to the inaugural session of TechStars Seattle in the fall. The competition would be fierce—and the application deadline was coming up fast.
“We decided instead of doing a boring product demo to make an old-timey video,” Leneway recalls, “but instead of Raising John Stamos it was Raising Grover Cleveland, in black and white with silent-film subtitles.”
The video helped Giant Thinkwell beat out hundreds of applicants to make it into the top 30. Now they just had to survive one more round—into the final 10—and they’d be in the program. “And we thought, Man, we’ve got to do something even bigger,” Leneway recalls.
Kesterson came up with the idea of writing a ransom note to TechStars Seattle executive director Andy Sack, with letters cut from magazines and typewriter-written demands.
Mr. Sack. Listen carefully. We are a group of individuals that represent a small faction. We respect your business. At this time we have your baby Uncle Jesse in our possession. He is safe and unharmed. If you want to see his first birthday, you have to follow our instructions to the letter.
One. A dozen “Trophy” cupcakes.
Two. A gallon of Molly Moons ice cream (surprise us)
Three. A grande bottle of Makers Mark
Lastly, admission into TechStars.
Kesterson had taken the extra, perhaps ill-advised, step of modeling the letter after the note left in JonBenét Ramsey’s kitchen in 1996. “We were either going to get into TechStars,” Leneway says, laughing, “or we were going to go straight to jail.”
Over the next several days they kept up the campaign, sending subsequent notes that included a lock of hair and a Polaroid of a baby John Stamos cardboard cutout. If Sack ever wanted to see the baby grow up, they threatened, he’d have to keep Giant Thinkwell around.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010, started as an unremarkable summer day for Kevin Leneway. Blue sky. The mercury rising to the mid ’70s. He drove the traffic-choked 45-minute commute from his home in Phinney Ridge to Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters, grabbed a coffee, and reported to his manager’s desk for what he thought was going to be a routine meeting. Instead he was greeted by an HR representative who handed him a stack of papers. Leneway was being laid off. He rolled back to Phinney Ridge in a daze. What now? How were he and his wife going to live?
Then his mind turned to TechStars. Would he and Kesterson be accepted? He dashed off an email to Andy Sack, asking about the status of the application. Then he waited. And waited. Hours ticked by. His inbox lit up. Sack. “You’re in.”
“I went from sitting in traffic on the way to my ordinary corporate job in the morning,” he wrote on his blog, months later, “to being an official full-time founder of a startup by the end of the day. Pretty incredible.”
Making good on their ransom note, Leneway and Kesterson presented Sack with a cardboard cutout of baby John Stamos, safe and sound.
A stiff La Niña breeze blows off Lake Union and throws darts of rain at a pack of fleece-clad Amazon employees cutting a beeline back to the office. Paper cups of java in hand, the workers lean into the wind, squinting with determination, like it’s the last coffee break of their lives.
And maybe it is. Amazon’s new South Lake Union campus is where all of our old ideas—which is to say, life as we knew it—go to die. Brick-and-mortar-style grocery shopping buried alive and resurrected as online retail. The Cineplex reimagined as a web page on which any movie is a click away. Memory swept off disks and floated up into a virtual cloud.
And now, finally, it’s also where the TV icons of yesteryear become our pets.
Next to the corporation’s 11-building complex sits TechStars, in a second-story bullpen filled with computer monitors and the men who stare into them for hours, headphones bracketing their skulls—dead to the world but for the singular task of writing code. Among the 10 teams accepted into the program are three high school friends from Gig Harbor who founded highlighter.com, which allows readers to highlight and comment on online content; Deal Co-op, a sort of boutique Groupon, led by two brothers from Alabama; and a content-curator platform called the Shared Web, created by a trio who describe themselves as “from all over the world, including Canada.”
During the first month of the TechStars program, teams are encouraged to take risks, fail, and even scrap their business idea and start a new one.
The biggest challenge for Giant Thinkwell? Stamos. They had created a product centered around one man, a man who was proving difficult to reach. Emails to agents went unanswered. Phone calls were dead ends. But a TechStars mentor with contacts in Hollywood soon had Kesterson and Leneway on the phone with Soleil Moon Frye, who played the title role in the early ’80s sitcom Punky Brewster. Kesterson sketched out a prototype of Raising Punky Brewster and they emailed it to Frye.
“She said she nearly peed her pants when she saw the demo,” Kesterson says. “She totally understands the nostalgia.”
“I think what’s key about her is that she’s really big on social media,” Leneway adds. “She has over 1.4 million Twitter followers.”
Another TechStars mentor connected the duo with George Lowe, the voice of the Cartoon Network’s spoof late-night talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast. He agreed to record an introduction for Giant Thinkwell, to be played on Demo Day, the final day of the TechStars program, when teams pitched their products to a crowd of investors at the Triple Door theater.
Lowe’s intro: “Hello Investors… I’m here to introduce you to two guys I’ve never heard of before. The first is Kevin Leneway. It says here he’s a computer engineer who played the tuba and worked at Microsoft for several years. Hehehehe. Come and get him girls. The skinny one over here is Kyle Kesterson…. Anyways, I heartily endorse everything these two idiots have to say.”
A quick succession of lucky breaks followed. A friend of Kyle’s was at a startup convention at Stanford that ’80s and ’90s rap star MC Hammer was reportedly attending. (Why not a Raising MC Hammer Facebook game?). The friend tweeted Hammer, saying he had something he had to see. “MC Hammer finds my friend in the middle of the crowd during lunch,” recalls Kesterson, “and said, ‘Hey, walk with me.’ And he spent 20 minutes giving him the Giant Thinkwell pitch, and the guy totally got it.”
Kesterson and Leneway flew to Hollywood and met Soleil Moon Frye in person at Katalyst Media, the company run by Frye’s husband and actor Ashton Kutcher. “My boys!” Frye screamed as soon as she saw the Seattleites. They talked about how to get Raising Punky Brewster off the ground—and how to get around one midsize hurdle: Frye doesn’t own the rights to the Punky name. Kesterson was midsentence when Ashton Kutcher walked in the room. Frye blurted: “Oh, AK, AK. Sit down. You have to hear these guys!” The actor leaned over Kesterson’s laptop and listened intently to the pitch.
“Dude is sharp,” says Kesterson. “He starts rapid firing questions that all of our investors had asked. If not more. And it was just like: ‘If you’re thinking about this, you might want to think about this.’ ”
“He also said ‘Celebrities are a pain in the ass,’ ” adds Leneway.
A groundswell was building behind Giant Thinkwell, but they still hadn’t connected with Stamos.
Then, a few weeks after the LA trip, they received an email from Nate Schmidt, one of the brothers at TechStars mentee Deal Co-op, who was back in Alabama visiting his family. It sounded like a joke: “My wife’s hairdresser’s best friend is friends with John Stamos. Want me to get a message through?”
“And I was like, ‘Sure. It’ll never happen,’ ” says Kevin. “A day later, we hear back, and it’s John’s agent saying, ‘John wants to talk to you.’ ”
Two days later they were on the phone with Uncle Jesse.
On one of those recent January days in Seattle when the rain torturously flies at you sideways and the wind cuts through however many layers you packed on your shivering frame, Kyle Kesterson and Kevin Leneway ducked into a corner coffee shop a block from TechStars. Kyle carried a giant plaster and fiberglass nose, a prop, he says, for a startup idea he has for an iPhone app that could record and evaluate different kinds of snoring.
TechStars Seattle officially ended months ago, and weeks have passed since Giant Thinkwell’s groundbreaking visit to Hollywood. Not a lot of investors have written them checks, but they have some verbal commitments, and they believe they’re well on their way to making their $500,000 investment goal.
But there’s a problem. The call with John Stamos wasn’t what they’d hoped. The actor was amused by Raising Uncle Jesse as an idea. And he was unbelievably nice on the phone. The thing is, John Stamos doesn’t want to be Uncle Jesse anymore. He’s focusing on a new phase of his career, which included a multiepisode arc on Glee last season. So his message was, essentially, Sorry guys, I can’t help you.
Can Giant Thinkwell survive the blow? “We knew it was a risk,” Kevin says. “We built it from the beginning to be a platform so that we can swap those images out really quickly.”
They have a list of other ’80s and ’90s celebrities to approach. Mr. T. The guy who played MacGyver. Urkel from Family Matters.
So, Giant Thinkwell is just about has-beens? No one who’s relevant now?
Kyle and Kevin both go rigid in their seats, stunned by the question. Haven’t you been paying attention? Kesterson cracks open his MacBook Pro and slowly turns it around like a Lazy Susan, as if offering a dinner guest a dish made from a near-extinct animal.
The illustration on the screen is classic Kesterson. Exaggerated features. Sinister eyes. A character imbued with the mischievous streak that scuttled the artist in and out of nearly a dozen schools.
Behold: Baby Lady Gaga.