Kyle Kesterson, 29, can pinpoint the start of his transformation – from formerly homeless high school dropout to CEO of a rising tech company – down to a single moment. It was the evening of February 28, 2009. Still reeling from the end of a long-term relationship, he’d become a corporate mascot at sporting events — the Geico gecko.
“I was at the [University of Washington] basketball stadium for a game, and had just changed into my costume for the first time,” Kesterson says. “Walking down the hallway from the locker room, I passed a mirror, and there it was: the gecko. I stop and wave my hand. It waves back. I do a little shimmy. The gecko shimmies back.”
“It sounds weird, but this was a pivotal moment. It sort of set the stage for everything.”
Last week, Kesterson’s Seattle-based tech company, Freak’n Genius, re-launched its iPhone app Yakit, as well as offshoot Yakit Kids. The apps allow users to become quick-and-easy animators, turning still pictures of friends, pets, or whatever else into short cartoons. Animated mouths are positioned on the picture, and conform to any dialogue the user speaks into the phone. Animated eyes, limbs, and so forth complete the equation.
Yakit Kids shot up the App Store charts immediately, driven by Apple’s designation of it as a Best New App. It became the number one free Kids app, beating out offerings from Disney and Barbie, and marks a great success in a highly competitive category.
Kesterson connects the accomplishment back to his gecko moment.
“Being in that costume, it brought out something I hadn’t felt since I was a kid,” said Kesterson, who spent hours pumping up the crowd in the guise of the insurance titan’s mascot.
“There was this freedom of expression I’d never felt behind that gecko mask. At the end, people were telling me how amazing I was, and I was just validated for being open and free and fun. That really stuck with me. … Other people should feel that way more often. That’s a good goal, helping them do that.”
Goofy and unstoppably exuberant in person, Kesterson speaks a mile a minute about the creative spirit, positivity and his dream of creating a cartoon series starring a tapeworm. Yes, a tapeworm.
That this demeanor clashes with his upbringing is something of an understatement. Kesterson’s childhood was a series of relocations, from one rough neighborhood to another. His parents were warm and supportive, but the family shifted in and out of homelessness, spending long stints in shelters. Food stamps were sometimes all that stood in the way of starvation, he said. Crime and drug abuse were rampant nearly everywhere he laid his head.
He moved from school to school — he attended 14 in California and the Seattle-area — and was bullied for his tattered clothing and continual “new kid” status. His mother went through a number of surgeries after an accident, and was left heavily medicated for an extended period.
Kesterson’s response was to become disruptive and ornery. Teachers grew to dislike him and kicked him out of classes, telling him he’d never amount to anything. He eventually dropped out of high school and entered a period of deep depression.
“I was labeled a complete failure in life pretty early,” said Kesterson. “When I left school, I’ll be honest, there were thoughts of suicide. There were thoughts that there was no way out for me. But I found one. … I created my own form of art therapy.”
A visit to DeviantArt.com, an online artist community, started Kesterson’s turnaround in 2001. He found illustrators there whose strange, experimental approach spoke to him. He mimicked their drawing styles, before moving on to develop his own.
In the years that followed, Kesterson jumped from illustration to sculpting to whatever discipline caught his fancy in a given month.
After he built up his abilities and netted a scholarship to Cornish College of Arts, Kesterson held down a janitor gig for years to make ends meet. The job was mindless in a good way, he said, allowing him to zone out and cook up his own ideas as he cleaned.
Not long after, he scored the gecko gig.
On the advice of friends, Kesterson eventually started attending Seattle-area tech events, finding his energy and ideas made up for his lack of programming expertise.
To form Freak’n Genius, Kesterson connected with Dwayne Mercredi — the “genius” in the name, he said, for his programming accumen — and they maneuvered their way into the Microsoft-created Kinect Accelerator program, becoming some of the Xbox device’s first independent developers.
Kinect maps the movements of the person in front of it, down to specific head and limb gestures. Thinking back to his experience as a Geico Gecko at the UW game, Kesterson helped devise a program that turned Kinect into a live-action animation machine, transforming users into cats, celebrities, or anything else on the Xbox’s display.
It became Freak’n Genius’ first product and it is still used at corporate displays, acting as a “funhouse mirror” as people pass. As Kesterson says, it serves as “the ultimate booth attractor.”
Microsoft expressed an interest in developing it further, but after a top-level reorganization at the tech giant last year, Freak’n Genius was left without a point person.
The company nonetheless raised $525,000 based on their idea, spurned an acquisition offer, and moved on to smartphones as their new canvas. Their funding currently clocks in at $775,000, with the recent success of Yakit likely to push it further.
“Think about all the creative moments or ideas you have throughout your day,” Kesterson said. “How many of them are actually realized? Not many.”
Kesterson, at his desk.
This concept, he said, is the reason the company refocused on the iPhone after Kinect.
“People have ideas all the time, but no action happens, because it’s too much hassle,” said Kesterson. “Technology should bridge that gap. And what piece of tech does everyone have all the time? Their phone.”
Yakit and Yakit Kids don’t incorporate motion translation tech like their Kinect product. However, he said, a great deal of programming goes into making its animated mouths match up with what users say into their phone.
While the kids version has skyrocketed up the iTunes charts, the app’s adult version is also finding a foothold. It incorporates a social feed that the kids version does not, akin to an Instagram for homemade animations. As of January, Kesterson said, a video was being posted once every 1.9 seconds.
He attributes the success of both apps to their ease of use, clean interface and the fact both let you incorporate talking bacon cartoons into pictures.
But the idea of easing expression, Kesterson said, taps into something universal. As Freak’n Genius moves into tablet apps, other smartphone systems, and possibly back to the Xbox, Kesterson wants to keep that idea front and center.
“Anything that can bring life out in someone, that’s a good thing,” he said. “A kid should never be depressed. If they can find an outlet, find opportunities to play, that small escape can be the key.”