03 Sep 2013
Success Spreads like Wildfire
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Victoria Ransom, MBA 2008, never expected to start a company. She talks to Brian about her journey from a small New Zealand farming community to co-founder and CEO of social media marketing company Wildfire, acquired last summer by Google for $350 million.

The Business is a Harvard Business School podcast. Twice a month during the academic year, host Brian Kenny will bring you a new take on the business world through unexpected stories, and conversations with business leaders, entrepreneurs and faculty members. Subscribe on iTunesU.

 

Transcript

Brian Kenny: Victoria Ransom is the kind of person who fills voids. When she tried to plan a vacation around learning to surf, she couldn't find any trips that met her needs, so she started a travel company specializing in instructional sports vacations. And when she began marketing that company on Facebook, she realized she needed more tools than they provided. So she built an application. That app turned into Wildfire, a social media marketing company that Google recently acquired for three hundred and fifty million. I'm Brian Kenny, and today on The Business: Victoria Ransom. Growing up in rural New Zealand, Victoria never expected to start a company. We talk about how she pursued her passion, recognized opportunities, and became a very successful entrepreneur.

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Brian Kenny: So Wildfire is tremendous success story. For those who aren't familiar with it, can you describe Wildfire and what you do?

Victoria Ransom: Wildfire is a social media marketing company, so anything from keeping track of what people are saying about you on Facebook and Twitter and other social networks, to creating engaging content, to analytics to keep track of how well you're performing across your social media marketing.

BK: So I want to hear more about your views on social media, coming up, because I think that's an area of great interest to most people. But I also want to hear about your journey and how you got here, because it's pretty unique.

VR: Yes, I actually started Wildfire while at HBS. And the truth was, I had no idea how big it was gonna end up being. It wasn't the case that we had this great idea that social media was gonna be huge -- what happened was that I had a company in the adventure travel space, targeting young professionals. So when Facebook launched their fan pages, we thought that's going to be a fantastic place to market our company trips. We created a fan page and thought, now what? How are we gonna get fans, how are we gonna get people to share? And we thought, well, why not give away a free trip? We'd done that on our website previously, it's a great way to grow a mailing list: let's do that on Facebook. Seemed like kind of a no brainer to us. When we tried to do that we realized we'd have to build an application, and we thought, 'Okay, we have to go and find developers to do that, there's technical expertise required. That's a barrier to entry for us; other businesses are gonna have that problem. So we thought, rather than just solving that problem for ourselves, let's create an application that other businesses could use, in a self-service way, to run this kind of campaign on Facebook.' It turned out, we created it and suddenly we started hearing form all kinds of different businesses, including Zappos and kayak.com. At that point we thought, 'Hmm, this may be more than a just side project, this could really be a big opportunity, it could be for more than just Facebook, it could be for all different kinds of social networks, it could be more than just running a sweepstakes, it could be all kinds of engaging campaigns.'

BK: Take me back to last summer, I think it was: you're sitting in Google's offices, in Mountain View California, and they walk in and sit down. What was that moment like for you?

VR: It was very exciting and nerve-wracking, because of course you're trying not to show any emotion or any reaction, but inside you're really having a moment of saying, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm here.' This transaction with Google has been phenomenal in so many ways, obviously financially but probably even more than that it's been so great to be able to take four hundred employees. The whole company was acquired by Google, they were so excited to be a part of Google. And I feel really good about taking the company to that point.

BK: So your path to entrepreneurship I guess has been more of an evolution than a lifelong ambition, because a lot of entrepreneurs will say, 'I always knew I wanted to two this, this is where I wanted to go. It's been said that you have great timing. How much of that is luck? How much of it is really just being a keen observer of an opportunity? Like you said, a seed of an idea?

VR: So you're absolutely right, I was not an eleven-year-old kid who always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, who had their first lemonade stand…

BK: No, but you did sell asparagus! We learned that about you.

VR: Yes, I did sell asparagus. I did, I did. Yeah, and I think that's an important point, because I sometimes think, it's a little disillusioning for people when they hear that these entrepreneurs always knew that they wanted to be entrepreneurs, because then they feel, 'I didn't know that, so maybe I'm not destined to be an entrepreneur.' In my case I had no idea that's what I was going to do. Coming out of college, I did two years at Morgan Stanley, great experience but was not passionate about that. And so I said, 'I want to do something I'm excited about.' While at Morgan Stanley, I caught some of the "dot-com boom," (I actually saw a lot more of the "dot-com bust,") but I saw enough of the boom that there were a bunch of entrepreneurs coming through Morgan Stanley at that time, and I think that was inspiring, and a little eye-opening where I looked at these people, creating interesting companies, and I said, 'Well if they can do that, I can do that.'

So that planted this seed of an idea to the extent that I was exposed to entrepreneurs and to the extent that I realized that, from the outside looking in, Investment Banking looked kind of like a dream career. On the inside I realized it doesn't matter what the pay is, what the career trajectory is, if you're not excited about it, it's not going to be fulfilling. So it also sort of got me to really think differently about my career path and what I wanted from it. I ended up creating an adventure travel company. We'd wanted to learn to surf, and couldn't find a company that did the kind of trip we wanted, and ended up creating a travel company focused around instructional sports vacations. Timing is critical, and there's probably not that many huge entrepreneurial success stories that you could look at and say there wasn't some kind of timing element. Did we have great foresight that others didn't have?… You know, there's a little of that, but more than that I think it's jus that we had the guts to just try it. I think a lot of people identify interesting opportunities, and then they look back and say, 'I had that idea.' It's a lot to do with just having the idea, and then giving it a go. And you may find you had the right timing, and you may find you didn't.

BK: And it's hard work. I would imagine that a lot of people would, you know, want to do a trip and couldn't find what they needed and just would throw up their arms and say, 'Well, that's too bad.' But tell us a little bit about the work ethic that it takes to build the kinds of enterprises that you've built.

VR: You need absolute dedication to what you're doing. At least that's how it was for me. I actually observe other people who I think were able, or are able, to have better work-life balance while running a start-up. But in my personal case, particularly with Wildfire, the way that I thought about it is, 'This is an enormous opportunity. The opportunity is now. I may not have this opportunity again and I'm gonna put my heart and soul into it.' And it was a seven-day a week, not quite 24 hours a day but sometimes felt like it, endeavor. There was definitely not work-life balance but it was a conscious choice. If nothing else I was leading by example as well. I kind of felt like the founders of the company, my co-founder and myself, should be the ones that even more heart and soul in the business than anyone else.

BK: Has the Internet changed the playing field in some ways for women business leaders?

VR: It's a great question, and the honest answers is that I don't know for sure. It could be just that the Internet is coming a time where things are anyway changing for women. They've been changing for women over a period of time and I think with every generation, there's more and more opportunities for women, and women are getting more and more into leadership positions. So the Internet has come around in the past generation, or couple of generations, and that may be why we're seeing more women. But it could also be that… you know, the great thing about the Internet and entrepreneurship is that you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You go in and it's not such a climb the ladder kind of thing, where if you haven't got in early and climbed your way through an organization then you're not going to be in a leadership position. In some cases, if that's the way it works, then if you weren't a woman in there, 20 or 30 years ago, climbing your way up the ladder, if there were not a lot of women there who've done that, then they're not going to be in leadership positions,. The internet in my case is an example of that. I came in with no experience and I proved myself, and I ended up leaving a pretty large team. So there could be an aspect of that to it, as well.

BK: Let's talk about social media a little bit. I think even as recently as a few years ago, businesses didn't quite know what to make of it. Businesses weren't taking it seriously anyway as a way to promote or drive revenue. That's all changed, but I still don't know that businesses really truly understand how to use social media in a productive way. If you were giving advice to a business leader about how to think about social media, what would you say?

VR: I think you're absolutely right that lots of businesses don't understand, and the truth is the industry is still nascent. It still hasn't entirely figured out the right metrics and what's the right way to measure success. So I think that a general issue. Social media is great because in many respects it's really democratizing marketing, in that it's not the company with the biggest budget that wins anymore, it's not the company that can spend the most on a Super Bowl that's gonna get the attention. It's a lot to do with, 'Do you really understand your audience?'; 'Are you providing them with content and interactions that are valuable to them?'; And, frankly, 'Are you the kind of business that people admire or like and want to talk about?'. So it has a lot to do with thinking about who's your audience, how can you provide value to them, and ultimately social media is about building a loyal base and encouraging them, hoping that the base brings the word to others. So why would someone want to spread the word about you? It's often to do with either what the content expresses about someone: 'I'm passionate about the environment and I'm going to spread the word about something I learned in social media relating to the environment'; or, 'I believe that this content is going to benefit my friends so I'm going to spread the word about that.' So you really have to think about why would someone want to engage with you, and why would they want to spread the word about that. Businesses that really understand their audience and think about that are the ones that do the best.

BK: So if you were telling somebody where to place their bets in social media… there are so many different aspects now: we've got Twitter, we've got Facebook, we've got Pinterest… What's the next big thing?

VR: If I knew that I'd probably be doing it, so I don't know what the next big thing is. I think it's probably more the delivery mechanism of social media more than it is some new form of social media marketing. I think social media itself is more of a way of interacting, and a way of socializing, and a way of communicating, that's new and there's different instantiations of that, whether it's Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. And there will be others, I don't know what they are, but clearly the delivery mechanism: that's changing, and clearly that's having a big impact on the way businesses need to think about how they need to reach people. It's much more in the moment, location-specific. That's really changing the way that businesses have to think about marketing and social media marketing.

BK: That's free advice from Victoria Ransom, founder and CEO of Wildfire, now a division of Google. Victoria, thank you for joining us today.

VR: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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