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.