From growing up together at school in Armstrong to launching a global tech company in their early 20s, the past four years have been a whirlwind for Austin Walper and Kieran Eglin.
The two Pleasant Valley Secondary School graduates saw a shift in the advertising world in 2017 and turned it into PLAYR.gg, a Kelowna-based startup that’s thriving while helping brands make smarter marketing decisions.
“It’s a technology platform that enables content creators to grow their audiences and capture customer data,” Walper said of the company that’s been used by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and EA Sports.
Well before PLAYR.gg secured those and other big-name clients — before Walper was travelling to international conferences raising $2.3 million in venture capital, and also before the company was sold to Toronto-based social intelligence platform Trufan last November — it was a re-connection with Eglin that kicked off the journey to tech startup stardom.
“Before I knew it I was both feet in.”
Walper was working in retail full-time in 2017, and he was at a breaking point.
“That’s kind of when I hit a rock-bottom moment in my life where I wasn’t very happy and really wanted to start a company,” said Walper, now 25. “And I needed a software developer to partner up with to help me build the tech.”
After quitting his job, selling his car and going ‘all-in,’ Walper reached out to Eglin, who was already working as a software engineer.
After months of designing, the two rural North Okanagan kids had a product that would soon capture international attention in the gaming industry and beyond.
“Kieran was the brains behind the technology. He unfortunately didn’t get to come to any of the shows, but he was the one at home working long nights making sure our app didn’t crash during any events,” Walper said.
For Eglin, now 24 and the senior software developer for the acquiring company, leaving behind a more conventional engineering job felt like a major risk. But as for Walper, the decision to get on board came down to being in control of his work — even if it meant a total collapse in work-life-balance in the near term.
“You almost get lost in it sometimes,” Eglin said of the countless hours he put into the initial designs.
It didn’t take long for their efforts to pay off; immediately upon launching at a conference in San Francisco in 2018, the company saw massive growth.
“I think we had something like 75,000 users in our first weekend on the app,” Walper said, describing the “hockey stick” line graph all start-ups dream of in their first quarter.
“I felt like I was in a movie, but it was my life.”
While his co-founder was in the spotlight, Eglin was likewise feeling invigorated — and exhausted — at home in Armstrong working on the tech, work he continues to do with Trufan on its SocialRank platform.
“It was very stressful but very rewarding,” Eglin said. “And being able to see just day-by-day that the product you want to build is getting built — and people are using it? It’s a good feeling.”
With over a million active users on the platform they created to date, the two are onto their next chapters.
Walper has had time to reflect on the life and career path he wants to chart from here. It’s helped that he’s no longer on an airplane every month and working 100-hour weeks, having left the company on April 1.
“I realized I wanted to focus on things that make me happy, now that I’ve kind of had this moment of creating something big,” he said. “When you run a big company with lots of people and lots of investors and customers, it becomes very hard to have a life.”
He said he wants his next venture to make a positive impact in the world, but having some free time for skiing, hiking and camping is also a welcome change of pace.
Looking back, the ups and downs of entrepreneurship have created a lasting bond between the two former schoolmates.
“In many ways Kieran kept me sane and I got to witness him become a better technology leader but also become a much more mature individual as well.
“We’ll probably have a lifelong friendship because of it.”