On a summer morning earlier this year, Victoria Ransom and Alain Chuard pulled their Honda Civic into Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Over four years they had grown Wildfire, their social marketing startup, to nearly 400 people, 21,000 clients, and had become closely tied with Facebook. Google wanted in.
An hour later, a team of senior Google (GOOG) executives shared details of their offer, reported at $350 million plus $100 million in retention bonuses. “That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to remember this for a very long time,’” says Ransom, 36.
Ransom was in the right place at the right time with the right entrepreneurial play. The company she’d founded with her then partner and now fiancé Alain Chuard, Wildfire, was one of a series of enterprise social software companies that specialized in helping brands reach customers over social networks. In the space of three months, half of them got bought earlier this year. Oracle (ORCL) shelled out $300 million for Vitrue in May, and Salesforce.com paid $700 million for Buddy Media in June. Then in July, before the search giant missed its chance, Google paid the reported $350 million for Wildfire.
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The story of how Ransom and Chuard saw a need for Wildfire long before most companies took social networking seriously, and then built a business strong enough to command that high price, is one of smart strategy paired with flat-out tenacity— the stuff that earned Ransom, who served as the company’s CEO, a spot on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 (she shares a spot with Buddy Media cofounder Michael Lazerow). It begins not in Silicon Valley, but in New Zealand.
Ransom grew up in Scott’s Ferry, a rural village of just 65 people on New Zealand’s North Island. Her father worked as an asparagus farmer; her mother was the office manager at a farming equipment company. To earn pocket change, Ransom picked asparagus at the family farm, loaded it on a red wagon, and sold it to fishermen on the banks of the nearby Rangitikei River.
As a teenager, Ransom grew restless, and at age 17 she won a scholarship and left New Zealand for the United States. At Minnesota’s Macalester College, she became the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She also met Chuard, a professional snowboarder who would later become her business partner, and eventually her fiancé. After a short stint on Wall Street, where she worked as media analyst for Morgan Stanley, Ransom struck out on her own. “Going through round after round of layoffs, I decided that there had to be something better in life,” she says. In 2001, she was planning a vacation, searching the Web for surf camps that offered a way to explore the country she’d be visiting. Finding none, she and Chuard— then an analyst at Salomon Smith Barney— decided to start their own travel company, focusing on snowboarding and other activities they loved.
At night and on weekends from their Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment, they wrote a plan for their business, which involved taking small groups of travelers, age 20 to 45, to remote destinations. In 2001 they quit their banking jobs, moved to New Zealand, and built the company while working out of Internet cafes, youth hostels, and the back seat of “Lambert,” their 1980 Toyota Corolla named for one of their snowboarding pals. They called their venture Access Trips, and in 2002 launched their first product: a 14-day ski and snowboard trip on New Zealand’s South Island.
After a few years, Ransom and Chuard entered MBA programs, he at Stanford and she at Harvard, where they experimented with new ways to promote Access Trips online. They decided to give away a free trip on Facebook, but couldn’t find software to do so. So they sketched out how the software would work— both for Access Trips, and other brands— and hired developers in Estonia to build it. In 2008 they launched Wildfire as a separate business: a downloadable app that would allow users to design sweepstakes, contests and other promotions that could run on Facebook, without having to hire a programmer. Clients soon ranged from two-person catering shops to Sony and Unilever. They paid as little as $5 a promotion for $.99 a day, up to $15,000 for a campaign that Wildfire would design and execute.
Although social media was growing in the fall of 2008, Wall Street was in turmoil and investors were reluctant to do deals. So Ransom and Chuard bootstrapped Wildfire, working out of their living room for as long as they could before moving to an office above a Mexican deli. They built a sales force on the cheap, hiring a mix of recent college graduates to prospect and pass along leads, and more senior salespeople, whom they paid minimal base salaries and a generous commission. Within a year Wildfire was profitable, without having raised a dollar in outside funding. (In July 2010 Ransom and Chuard sold Access Trips.)
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Ransom and Chuard worked hard to develop a relationship with Facebook (FB). First they tapped business school friends who worked there, and made the case that Wildfire could make Facebook a more effective marketing tool. Then they did marketing campaigns for Facebook’s legal and international growth groups. They spent four months competing for— and winning— a $250,000 grant from fbFund, the company’s in-house business incubator. (Even their staff has ties to Facebook: They eventually hired Mark Zuckerberg’s brother-in-law and younger sister.)
Investors like Summit Partners and 500 Startups soon followed, injecting $14 million into Wildfire. With the additional funding, Wildfire built out its software; companies can now track their fans and followers, monitor what customers are saying about them on Facebook and Twitter, and do other social media analysis.
Wildfire’s connection to Facebook is a huge draw for Google, which has tried with limited success to build its own social platform with products like Google Buzz, Google Wave and Google Plus. “What would be interesting to Google is seeing what kind of data Facebook has access to, having a peek at how the technology works, and understanding how Facebook is communicating information about social users to third parties,” says Nate Elliott, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. At Google, Ransom and Chuard will continue to lead Wildfire, reporting to Susan Wojcicki, who runs AdWords and the rest of Google’s advertising products. After a few years, Ransom says, they might start another company, or focus on philanthropy.
As Facebook and Twitter grow, so has the demand for social marketing companies, hence the recent round of high-profile startup acquisitions. Ransom never expected be a part of that club. “In the case of Google, we were not looking to get acquired,” she says. “It’s always been, ‘Let’s just build a great business, and then let’s see.’”