Kyle Kesterson of Freak’n Genius Turns Lemons into Lemonade

January 15, 2014

12:13 pm

Kyle Kesterson’s childhood sounds ominously like the backstories of criminals that we hear on TV.

The town Kesterson was born in was known for school shootings and violent gangs, and dead bodies sometimes floated in the lake. His family was often homeless, and he spent his time standing in line at shelters, wearing tattered clothes, and using food stamps to pay for school lunches. His parents were always working several jobs, and he was shuffled around to 14 different schools. 

In class, Kesterson was a loner bulled by other students. Classmates flipped trash cans on his head, and he acted out by staging pranks and arguing with teachers – until he eventually dropped out. 

When he was a teenager, his mother suffered a serious accident and went through over two dozen surgeries. She had to take so much medication for the pain that she seemed “already dead” to Kesterson. 

While in college, he worked a job as a janitor for eight years to pay his way. 

Things looked so grim that even Kesterson’s teachers predicted a life of crime for him. “One of my teachers said, ‘Kyle, by the time you’re 20, you’ll just be flipping burgers, in jail, or dead,” Kesterson explained in a TEDxSeattle talk.

But somehow, that’s not how the story ended. Around age 17, Kesterson found an artist he liked and obsessively started drawing. After he copied a bunch of art, he was suddenly inspired to put his demons on paper in a drawing session that took three days.

“When I finished that piece, I was so – I mean, hungry – but it felt like there was this huge void within me that I had released,” says Kesterson.

Kyle Kesterson drawing

From there, he moved on to painting, sculpting, silk screening – anything he could get his hands on. He found self-worth in being a decent artist.

“I had to make things or I started to get agitated and feel down on myself, and it started to feed this weird cycle where I became addicted to making things,” he recalls. “It was almost painful. It created this really ferocious, intense whirlwind of creativity.”

That led to an application to the Cornish College of the Arts to study design and illustration, where Kesterson became a janitor to pay his way. And while others might have resented that job, he found it the perfect mindless activity to free his brain for creative thinking. He dreamed up new creations, then went home to bring them to life on supplies from his parents’ cleaning business. He cut carpet into squares and dyed them red, green, and blue; he used bleach to add a blast of white. Wood stains and wallpaper paste from the hardware store became his artistic tools.

After working jobs in design, Kesterson eventually settled into his current occupation: entrepreneurship. Freak’n Genius was founded in 2011, and their iPhone app YAKiT lets you turn photos into funny animated video messages. You can add props, special effects, and audio – for example, making your dog talk like Barry Manilow. Over 50,000 videos have been created this way.

Freak'n Genius screenshot

“Freakn Genius is an undying, endless amount of patience and love,” says Kesterson. Luckily, he learned those things growing up. His parents were always loving and supportive, inventing little games to make the constant moving around seem fun. When his mother got sick, Kesterson dug deep and became closer to her, not more detached. Today, she runs a dog rescue that has saved almost a thousand dogs.

For Kesterson, Freak’n Genius is about much more than a few laughs. He wants to unlock creativity in children, the same way his creativity was unlocked (and kept him sane and alive).

The story of his childhood is one that Kesterson didn’t share for awhile. But this year, he opened himself up to the world with an article on Huffington Post and the TEDx talk.

“Growing up being a little bit lower class with less access to resources or when there’s status involved, you just feel like ‘lesser than.’ Especially in the world of business, you want to project success and that you’re totally capable – put your best foot forward, fake it ‘til you make it, that sort of thing,” says Kesterson. “I started to feel comfortable in my own skin and I just felt like . . . I might as well just be me all the way through it.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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