Interview with Victoria Ransom
As founder & CEO of Wildfire, Victoria led the company to profitability in just one year and has built the company to tens of thousands of customers, over 100 employees, and five offices worldwide. Clients include major brands and agencies including Facebook, Pepsi, Unilever, Sony, AT&T, Ogilvy, Publicis and Digitas.
An Interview with Victoria Ransom
Date: August 1, 2011 [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Information Technology. With me is Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hi, Lucy. We are so excited to be a part of this series. At W3W3.com we support technology as well as business, and we have a particular interest in what we can do to help promote women and young girls into technology.
Lucy: Well, and this is a series of interviews with fabulous entrepreneurs who have started tech companies. They have a lot of great advice for our listeners, and so we'll get right to our interview today. We're interviewing Victoria Ransom, who is a serial entrepreneur. She has a very impressive track record. She has started three companies, all of which are operating today. That's very unusual.
Larry: [laughs] Yes, it is.
Lucy: And her existing company has been profitable after just one year. It totally blows my mind. [laughs]
Lucy: It's such a great accomplishment, and she is an adventuresome spirit as well as being a serial entrepreneur. She once spent over a month living with a remote Amazonian tribe, so we won't let her off this interview until she tells us what that was all about. Today she's the founder and CEO of Wildfire Interactive, which helps organizations leverage and engage millions of users of the social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Basically what they allow people to do is leverage the power of the social networks to do things such as branded campaigns, sweepstakes, contests, or giveaways and really getting into that viral nature of the social web. So it's not only the campaign, but they also provide tools and analytics so you know if the campaigns are successful or not, which is really important.
Larry: I love it.
Lucy: Yeah. So Victoria, welcome.
Victoria Ransom: Thank you very much. I'm excited to be involved with this.
Lucy: Well, tell us a little bit about what's going on with Wildfire. It seems like a lot.
Victoria: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, it has been a wild ride. We only started the company three years ago, and for the first year it was pretty much my co‑founder and I and a couple of engineers. Then once we launched our product, it really took off, which we launched the product officially in August of 2009. So really about two years ago. We hit a real need at the right time. Within the first month we had hundreds of customers, like you said, reached profitability, and now we've got tens of thousands of paying customers. We've got over 140 employees. [laughs] So it has been a really busy, busy time. In terms of what's new or what's happening at the moment, we actually just launched a pretty expanded version of our product. So the introduction that you gave about Wildfire is very accurate in terms of what we started out in terms of what our original product was, which is a social campaign builder that makes it really, really easy for companies to launch different kinds of social media marketing campaigns like contests, sweepstakes, give‑a‑ways, coupons, group deals. All sorts on different social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and others we select as well. But we've now expanded really to create what we consider is a software product that helps companies with all aspects of their social media marketing. So we are within that suite of tools. We have a product that really helps companies, like a content management system for their social properties like their fan pages, for example, helps them create really engaging content, edit it, change it, review the performance, the analytics, et cetera, which is really important because one thing that I think companies forget is that we can't just launch a Facebook fan page and put up some content and then leave it because then why would anyone ever want to re‑engage with you? So we have that product. We have a messaging product that really helps you understand what your friends and followers saying about you, helps you communicate efficiently with them, respond to them. Then a really robust analytics dashboard that helps companies understand not only how well are they doing with their social media marketing, but how do they compare to their competitors? How do they compare to their industry? So that's been a pretty major expansion on our product, which we're getting really great feedback on and yeah, a really, really strong response to, which we're very, very excited about.
Lucy: Larry, maybe you could use it for your fan page?
Larry: Boy, I love it.
Larry: I like that idea.
Victoria: Absolutely. Let me know. [laughs]
Lucy: OK. Well, so Victoria, you have a very interesting background, and our listeners always want to know how entrepreneurs first got into technology. So why don't you just spend a few minutes and say what led you to technology?
Victoria: Sure, absolutely. It's worth noting that I didn't study engineering. I'm not an engineer. I didn't have a tech background originally, so I think it's important that people realize you don't necessarily have to be a technical person or an engineer to start a technical company. Basically my first foray into technology or into software development was, of course, I think about five or six years ago when my co‑founder and I were running an adventure travel company called Access Trips. We had I think about over 30 trips in 18 different countries. We'd scaled that business up so that we had many, many clients. We got to the point where the tools that we were using were just not efficient enough for us to be able to manage all those clients. So we felt that we needed some kind of software to help us collect deposit, collect remaining balance, send out travel information, collect flight information. All the things you need to do when you run a travel company. We needed software for that. We couldn't find anything on the market, so we decided to build one ourselves and in all honesty made all sorts of mistakes with that. It was a good time building software, and I think there were some really classic mistakes that we made but learned a lot from it, which was great next time around. But also found that we really, really enjoyed that process and realized that to build a good software product, yes, you need engineers and good ones. But also you really need to understand a business problem. You need to be able to map it out, understand the processes, and just have a really good intuition for how you can create something that's simple and easy to use and really found that I enjoyed that process a lot. So that was the first foray into technology, really.
Larry: Wow! Now Wildfire, that's your third go‑around as an entrepreneur. What is it about entrepreneurship that really turns you on, and why did you become an entrepreneur?
Victoria: Well, again I think the first dipping of my toes into entrepreneurship, it wasn't that I was from age 11 I always knew I'd be an entrepreneur. I hear a lot of people that tell those kinds of stories. They had a lemonade stand from the time they were six. Actually, I hadn't intended entrepreneurship as a career. When I graduated college, my first job out of college was in investment banking actually. What I discovered is I just wasn't passionate about it, and I said, "OK, this moment, if I've got the rest of my life ahead of me and work is going to be such a big part of that the rest of my life, I really want to find something that I'm really passionate about." So I decided to move on from investment banking, and actually that's when we founded Access Trips. But in all honesty I think the initial idea was, "Well, let's create this travel company. We can do that for a year or two while I figure out what I really want to do with my life," and just found that I absolutely loved the process of building a company. Once you get your toe in the water of entrepreneurship, it's hard. It's pretty addictive because if you like it, it's just such a challenging, wonderful, exciting experience. So for me what keeps me in it, I think first of all is I just love the fact that I am having to wear so many different hats, and I'm challenged in so many different ways. One moment I need to think about our sales bridge, and the next moment I'm in a marketing meeting thinking about how we market the company. Now I'm involved with the product development and the product vision. I really drive on that level of challenge I think. It's just really exciting. So there are pros and cons to that because it's stressful, too, and you never have certainty about anything. On the same token, every day there is something exciting going on here, and it's really wonderful to have this big vision and goal that you're driving towards. Then the other thing I'd say, which is not the case when you first start your business, but when you start growing it and you build a team‑‑and like I said, we're now up to over 140 people‑‑what really motivates me today and inspires me is actually our team and the amazing people that are in the team and who are working so hard for the business. They're so fun to be around, and all of that is just incredibly inspiring and motivating and probably my favorite part of the business now.
Lucy: Well, along that path to become an entrepreneur, who influenced you? What special people can you point to and a little bit about perhaps what they did?
Victoria: In all honesty I haven't had one particular mentor that said, "This is what you should do. You should go into that." I think there are a lot of people along the way, once we got into entrepreneurship, who provided wonderful advice and wonderful help. But there wasn't one particular person in my life that put me on this path initially. Like I said, it was more the fact that what I'd been doing previously wasn't really exciting and so decided to try this path. But certainly there's been some wonderful people along the way that have helped advise us. Then there's other certainly companies that have helped shape the way we think about our business. I know Zappos has been a big influence in terms of just their dedication to their employees and their customers. Companies like Sales Force we've learned a lot from, just because they're such an incredible sales company. Mint is a company that we've learned a lot from in terms of their design. So I would say it is companies that have influenced us more than individual people.
Lucy: Well I think that's one of the things that's so special about entrepreneurship, it does seem to be an ecosystem where people get advice and give advice and I think that it's maybe one of the best ecosystem for that that I know of.
Larry: Victoria this is your third company, along the way I know we've had some of our businesses in the past be very successful, and some are learning experiences. What were the toughest things you had to do in your career?
Victoria: As I said before, entrepreneurship is exciting, but it's like riding a roller coaster, so there are lots of ups and downs. So there's definitely been with all of my experiences of entrepreneurship, there's been some tough times where you really weren't sure things were going to work out. But in all honesty, the toughest things I had to do is actually letting go of employees. It is just not fun, particularly employees where actually they were really wonderful people, they just weren't a good fit for the company. It becomes pretty emotionally draining I'd say that's something I haven't enjoyed doing in my career in entrepreneurship but it is a very necessary thing and at the end of the day you will not be a successful start‑up unless you build an absolutely top notch team and every person in the company needs to be top notch. So it's one of those necessary evils that you have to do sometimes if you're leading a company.
Lucy: Well, I think too that the people who are not a fit for the jobs they're in, most of them know it, it causes them a lot of stress, and they usually end up in a better spot.
Victoria: We try very hard to make sure anything like that is a mutual discussion and a mutual decision, which certainly helps for both parties.
Lucy: Well I think that's a great piece of advice and I'd like to follow along with that in terms of more advice around entrepreneurship. If you were talking to a young person today what would you tell them in addition to the things you've already said about entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them?
Victoria: The advice that I can give and I have been given. I guess one thing is people should just be very critical about their ideas. So before they even jump in they should think very carefully about this idea that they had to start this company, it's so easy to fall in love with their idea, but I think people have to really ask "Why me and why now? Why am I really the best person to bring this idea to market and why is now a really great time to do it?" If you're working on some kind of idea and there's already three companies out there that are doing it, you've really got to be able to answer the question of what special talent or advantage do you have that is going to make you better those other three companies. Or if you've got an idea and no one's doing it then you've really go to ask yourself why is no one doing it? Why is now a particularly good time to start this business that no one's done it before? And if there's not a good answer to that, it may be that people haven't done that business before because it's not a good business, or they've done it and failed. So I think just being really critical; because some people just love the idea of being entrepreneurs and will try to latch on to something. That's OK because a lot of people will start a business and pivot, and that's OK too. I think being critical about your idea is important, another thing is that if you're going to start out with a co‑founder, then choose very wisely. I have an amazing co‑founder who we balance each other so well in terms of our talents and our abilities and our interest. I have talked to way too many entrepreneurs who at the end of the day are going to fail because they didn't find someone who is a good fit, match, and balance for each others skills. Another thing is I think we really benefited from in our business is just being really careful about the first people that you hire. It's easy when you're a small company to actually be glad that anyone's willing to work for you because all you are is basically an idea and a few people in a room. But those first people you hire really shape the whole culture and somewhat the destiny of the company, and I know for us the first hires we made we were really lucky. They were great cultural fits that helped us build a really great culture. Plus, they had really strong networks so they were able to help us in addition to our own networks really build out the team and really hire additional great people. So being very careful at those early stages, I think, is really important. Another thing, to be honest, is to be aware that entrepreneurship probably sounds more glamorous than it is. I would not want to be doing anything else; I'm having the time of my life but it's a lot of hard work and stress and the vast majority of start‑ups do fail in the end. So you've got to really believe you're going to thrive on the challenge and not the potential glamour of what it might be like if you happen to build a multimillion dollar company.
Lucy: Now you see Larry, that's why she has three successful companies.
Larry: That's right, and that's why I had 12, only not all successful. Victoria, with all of the things you've done and been through how do you bring balance to your personal and professional lives?
Victoria: So honestly, this is an area that I'm not doing particularly well at, but kind of deliberately so. My feeling right now is this is an incredible opportunity that we have, to build this fast growing company, we're in a fast growing space and really I need to give it 100%. And so as a result I'm comfortable with the fact that work is everything at the moment and takes up a lot of my time. So I made that decision, and I'm not really trying to find a huge balance in terms of what requires balance. Having said that, try to eat well, try to exercise, try to take some time for friends and try to build in balance. But I would say the reality is, work takes up the vast majority of my time now.
Lucy: Well, we've heard that from a number of the people that we've interviewed who also talk about balance, not just on a daily basis, but over periods of your life, and I think that really reinforces that statement as well. Well Victoria, you've done a lot, you've achieve a lot, you've had an interesting life so far and you're consumed right now in your company, but do you have any sense of what's next for you?
Victoria: Right now it's very much just Wildfire. I've still got so much to achieve and I've got a big move‑in that we're going after. Truthfully, I haven't had a whole lot of time to even think about what could be next or when it might even be. For now, it's just very much focused on building this great business that I think we're on a wonderful path to achieve, but still have so much work to do. So for now it's pretty much living in the moment with Wildfire and thinking about the vision for Wildfire, but not a whole lot of focus on what will be after it.
Lucy: Now, I'm going to go back in time, like I promised at the beginning of the interview, and ask you what were you doing in the Amazon?
Victoria: It was an amazing experience. When I was in college, four other friends and I took a bus to pretty much where the road ran out in Venezuela, so basically the last town before you hit the Amazon jungle, and we managed to arrange with a local tribe that was in the village getting supplies, that we could travel back with them to their village. We spent seven days in their canoe traveling back to where their village was, every night we stayed with a different village, which was absolutely amazing. Then spent four weeks living in that village and participating in the life of living in the Amazon. So it was very remote and honestly, it is sometimes hard to believe that that world exists as the same time as the world that I'm living in now. It was an incredible experience.
Lucy: What was your biggest lesson from that experience?
Victoria: I guess part of it, it was just very humbling to see a civilization that's living in a very traditional way where I think a lot of people lived like that a thousand years ago, and how much things have changed here and what a happy society that was and what a happy community that was. I think another part, frankly, was just resourcefulness, it was pretty amazing, crazy thing that we did to just take a bus to a village and try to find a way to go deep into the Amazon and we were persistent and resourceful enough that we were able to pull it off. Which I guess you can pull right back into entrepreneurship, that you've got to be really resourceful and persistent if you want to pull off some amazing things.
Lucy: It sounds like it was a great experience.
Larry: You bet.
Lucy: Indeed, Victoria. Thank you very much for your time. We really appreciated talking to you and I want to remind listeners where they can find this podcast series you can find it w3w3.com and also at ncwit.org. Thank you, Victoria.
Larry: Thanks you very much.
Victoria: Thank a lot. I appreciate it.