In 2007, former Bain consultant Stuart Wall, 31, wasn’t looking for startup ideas–especially not among the knickknacks of his sister’s pick-and-paint pottery studio in Indianapolis, IN. His first year at Harvard Business School well underway, Wall had set his sights on a future in finance or private equity. Then, he offered to help his sibling set up an account on Google AdSense to attract more customers. How hard could it be?
Wall and his sister, who holds a Duke MBA and an undergraduate degree in computer science, were stumped–the advertising results were dismal. “It was really complicated, and frankly we wasted a bunch of money,” Wall recalls. Then, the epiphany hit: “If a Harvard MBA and a Duke MBA can’t advertise and get results, then the average small business definitely can’t get the results they’re looking for,” Wall says.
Local businesses were “getting left behind” in the Internet age, but few had the time or resources to figure out a solid online strategy. They needed a platform that would automatically manage their advertising on sites such as Facebook, Google+, Yelp, and Yahoo. Wall expanded on his idea for a marketing software that would accomplish this during his second year and enlisted the help of HBS classmate John Buchanan. They pitched the idea to the Harvard Computing Society and attracted the attention of undergraduate computer scientist Shaneal Manek, who signed on as founding CTO.
The trio entered the idea under the name Postabon in Harvard’s 2009 New Venture Competition. They didn’t win (CloudFlare stole the show), but the experience proved pivotal in getting the business off the ground, Wall says. After graduation, the team bootstrapped, pouring in their own funds. Wall turned down offers at Bain and several private equity firms. It was a tough call to make–he had student loans and an unproven business on his hands, but putting his startup on hold wouldn’t help. “A lot of MBAs, in my opinion, want to be entrepreneurs, and most of them don’t do it directly after they graduate–the problem is the opportunity cost only gets higher,” he says. The gambit paid off. In 2010, the company attracted the attention of Spark Capital and Google Ventures, which both backed the startup. It also got a new name, Signpost, and a deal-digging mascot, Max the Mole.
For Wall, Signpost’s biggest achievement is providing a necessary service. “We think being online as a small business is just as important as paying your electric bill,” Wall says. “There needs to be software that helps them … I’m proud to say that I think we’ve really executed on that vision.” Investors clearly agree. To date, Signpost boasts some $15 million in funding, including a recently closed $10 million Series B. The new capital will be used to expand the startup’s Denver team from 30 to some 100 employees in 2014.