Poets&Quants’ Top-Ranked Startup: Wildfire

The idea for a new startup developed in school out of an existing challenge for Access Travel. They wanted to run a sweepstakes contest on Facebook to drum up more business for Access but couldn’t find the ideal marketing software to do it. Eventually, Wildfire became the answer.

If you had to find a case study for how business school can be the quintessential incubator for a startup, you don’t need to look much further than Wildfire. Besides smart advice the pair got from professors and fellow students, they made the kind of contacts in business school that allowed their social media marketing company to quickly reach a tipping point.

In four years, Wildfire had more than 21,000 paying customers, including 30 of the world’s 50 most valuable brands, when approached by Google last year. Lady Gaga had even used Wildfire to launch a new album. The search engine giant reportedly paid $350 million plus $100 million in retention bonuses to acquire Wildfire, which is still run by the MBA pair as a division within Google.

Crucial to their fast start was a connection Chuard made at Stanford with a fellow classmate. “One of my best friends from business school joined Facebook after we graduated and he opened a lot of doors for us at Facebook,” says Chuard. “He was trying to grow Facebook internationally at the top. Now he is one of the top executives overseeing growth and other important projects. When you start a business, you often hear what was the unfair advantage a business has. I think that was one of our unfair advantages, to have an insider at Facebook.”

They also plied the alumni lists of both schools to land early clients that would impress others and bring in still more business. “We used the HBS and Stanford networks to reach out to companies that could be potential clients,” says Ransom. “I remember reaching out to Expedia, Sony, and others. That was really helpful. We had classmates who were in some of the key networks we had to deal with like Facebook and Twitter and MySpace. The network was really helpful for that.”

The classroom played a critical role in the launch of Wildfire. “HBS was helpful in that you could design a lot of your own projects in your second year,” explains Ransom. “I was able to structure a couple of classes around the business. So what I was doing on the business actually fed into my classes and got me credit as well and professors’ advice.”

The MBA experience helped in other ways, too. It made both of them more ambitious for their new enterprise. “Business school made us think bigger,” insists Ransom. “You are told you are going to change the world and you can do anything. You are urged to think big. I think there might have been an element of really stepping it up. For me, when everyone was going through the recruiting process, I didn’t participate in it. I saw my only way as starting a business. It put pressure on me to deliver. By the time I graduate, I thought, this thing needs to be running and taking off. It put pressure on me to really go for it during the last year.”

The business school environment also helped to shape their expectations of the kind of business they could create. “Being in Harvard and Stanford probably exposed us to the Silicon Valley world and this idea of building a software company,” adds Ransom. “We ultimately created Wildfire because we were trying to market Access Trips on Facebook. But would we have quickly reached this point of building a product others could use? I think business school helped broaden our minds to what was possible because we were actually coming from the travel business–not the tech business at all. And our classmates and alumni helped us when it came to getting clients and building relationships with partners. Maybe we would have gotten there anyway. I don’t believe you need to go to business school to be a successful entrepreneur. In my mind, that’s pretty clear. But would we have ended up doing what we are doing if we didn’t go to business school? Maybe not. We might have veered off in a completely different direction.”

Chuard agrees. “Going to Stanford really changed me,” he says. “Before I did my MBA, I was very much into building a business but along more traditional lines. Going to Stanford and being here in this ecosystem of technology startups really helped me to get very passionate about building software and technology. Before I kind of looked at technology as something just for geeks. But products become really successful when you look at problems customers have and then try to use technology to solve those problems–and not necessarily putting technology first and then trying to find a problem.”

At Stanford, Chuard says he found a mentor in George Foster, who teaches Entrepreneurship: Formation of New Ventures. “In the class, you are able to create your own business plan and do all the things you need to do to get a business off the ground. That kind of helped me a little bit to think about how do we acquire customers. I also got feedback from peers. That was one class that helped me.”

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