Kiwi setting the world on fire

By Jamie Morton

Scotts Ferry, Harvard University, Wall Street, the White House - Victoria Ransom's journey from rural Rangitikei to an executive's chair at the Googleplex is one of New Zealand's most stunning success stories. And, as she tells Jamie Morton, it's not over yet.

Bulls was "the big town".

Far fewer people, just a couple of dozen, lived in nearby Scotts Ferry, where the Rangitikei River empties into the Tasman Sea.

A local hero was Chris Amon, Formula One racing star of the 1960s and 70s.

In the 1980s, the roll of its local primary school numbered just 25.

For one of these children, the world would grow much bigger than the windswept plains and valleys of Manawatu.

Cities like New York and London would become regular commutes. One of the planet's most iconic companies would pay hundreds of millions for one of her side-projects.

And people would come to know Victoria Ransom, the surfing, snowboarding 37-year-old founder of tech business Wildfire, who by now must be used to seeing her name on power lists, whether as one of Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs or Business Insider Australia's 50 Sexiest CEOs.

Yet she has hung on to who she is - the woman we chat with in a meeting room at the California headquarters of her new employer, Google, hasn't been warped by the astonishing success to which her old-fashioned Kiwi drive has led her.

"I like who I am. I really don't want to change. I think I was raised on certain core values."

There was hard work. And never turning away opportunity when it knocked. The first door might have opened at Wanganui Girls' College in the form of a scholarship to study at the United World College in Las Vegas.

"I went from Bulls in New Zealand to the Bulls equivalent in New Mexico," she says with a laugh.

But the experience, shared with 200 students from 90 different counties, taught her much about the American university system and life in the United States.

She graduated with a degree in psychology but took a left-turn to business despite never considering herself a dead-set entrepreneur.

"At that stage in my life, business meant either investment banking or consulting, so I ended up getting a job in investment banking with Morgan Stanley in New York ... and that set me on my journey for a couple of reasons."

Namely: she learned what she didn't want to do with her life.

"From the outside looking in, investment banking is very exciting and glamorous, and it was an excellent time to be in investment banking, but I really wasn't passionate about what I was doing when I looked at climbing that ladder. So that taught me that I had to look for a career where I'm really excited and passionate about what I'm doing."

It was the early 2000s, and she saw a little of the dotcom boom and much more of the dotcom bust, but it was the former that had more of an influence on her ambitions.

"We were meeting with a few start-up companies at Morgan Stanley, and that was the first time I really got exposure to the start-up world.

"I definitely remember feeling I wish I was on that side of the table, not the banking side, and just being inspired by what people were doing ... and frankly having this realisation that if they can do that, maybe I can do that too."

After two years she took another exit, flying back to New Zealand with a new dream, just days before the September 11 terror attacks.

She and Alain Chuard, her Swiss business partner and now husband, had spotted a potential market gap when they wanted to learn to surf, but could only find holiday courses aimed at kids or teenagers. The pair launched Access Trips, pitched as instructional sports vacations for adults, took off in New Zealand, then Switzerland, and quickly blew up into a global travel business.

She enrolled at Harvard Business School, where she continued to run the company - and in managing its website would find the clue to the much greater opportunity beyond.

"We looked for a tech solution and couldn't find anything, so we decided to build our own. That was our first experience of building software, and it was again one of these really pivotal moments."

She quickly realised that building software might have been more than just the side-project she saw it as - and immediately grasped the potential what such technology could mean for start-ups.

Their efforts to create accessible software for companies to better market themselves soon caught the attention of big players, such as online shoe merchants Zappos and travel search engine Kayak.

"We thought, let's create a platform that makes it very easy to get those campaigns off the ground - no coders required - and this could run on more than just Facebook. It could be on all kinds of social networks."

The couple drove west, where Wildfire was born - in a California living room.

She admitted there were times when the pain of launching a company from nothing, with no money, became almost too much.

"I recall saying in 2008 to Alain 'I'm sick of working all the time, I'm sick of never having any money, no sleep, I don't know where this is going, and I'm going to give this until the end of the year'."

But fortunately, she wasn't the only one who saw its potential - a $250,000 grant from Facebook was enough to hire more developers to realise the broader vision of Wildfire.

"We actually started in 2009 with six employees and, two and a half years later, we had almost 400 employees ... so at that point we started ramping up the sales organisations."

Branches opened across the US, Europe and Asia, with the company eventually reaching a client base including 30,000 businesses and 31 top US brands. Then another internet giant entered the picture.

The day the couple drove their Honda Civic for a meeting at Google headquarters (the Googleplex) in Mountain View, near San Francisco, she became a multimillionaire.

The acquisition deal, struck last year, was reported to be US$250 million ($313 million).

"Frankly, the very most exciting time was when we told the team, and how they reacted ... it was just mind-blowing."

And despite being bought, the company has been able to carry on much the same as it had been.

"They've offered us a lot of flexibility, so credit to Google. Some acquirers come in and they really slow companies down, so we've been able to keep executing in every part of our business, hitting our financial objectives and continuing to roll out products.

"It's actually working extremely well, and particularly when you hear other stories of what it's like to get acquired. My sense is that we've had a really good experience, and one of the best indicators to me is that we've retained almost 100 per cent of our team. It's remarkable how few people we've lost."

As chief executive, the change has seen her more involved with her company - and pushed her to think even bigger.

"You are thinking not about how you are going to reach tens of thousands of businesses, but how you're going to reach hundreds of thousands.

"It's not how you are going to reach millions of consumers, it's how you are going to reach billions."

But Wildfire has been able to retain its agility - a crucial weapon in the fast-moving technology game.

She said this had previously allowed the company to "redeploy focus" if a competitor like Twitter hit the market with a new product.

In Silicon Valley, she said, innovation meant the difference between life and death.

"It's such a nascent young industry that's constantly changing, so the industry is still figuring out social media marketing, and on top of that they've got all the different social media networks that are evolving."

And it's silly to believe there won't be another revolution on the scale of Facebook, Google or Twitter.

"I think past history would dictate there is always a room for companies to come in and change up an industry.

In May, she was honoured at a White House function for immigrant innovators, where she was lauded as among the best and brightest in the world.

But some things haven't - and won't ever - change.

She still has her Honda Civic and if it died she'd probably consider buying something similar. Adventure sport remains a passion and her newfound wealth has allowed her to do more of it. There have been trips to exotic destinations, but also home - she married at the five-star Cape Kidnappers resort in Hawkes Bay, and recently returned to visit her parents, who still live in Scotts Ferry.

While Wildfire is keeping her busy at the moment, she can't say her life won't bring more twists and turns.

"I feel like for the next few years, I'm very much committed to making Wildfire a really big success within Google, then we'll see."

Apart from that, Ransom says she's not sure she hasn't thought about what's next.

"I'm very much head-down right now, and there has been so much to figure out. It's funny how people say 'are you going to take a step back now and relax?' No."

"I have always believed that it's the people around you and the things you do that bring you satisfaction, no matter what's in your bank account."

What Wildfire does

* Wildfire builds online tools to help companies with their marketing over social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

* For example, if an online clothing retailer was setting up their Facebook page and wanted picture galleries of their products, Wildfire gives them templates to enter and update these effectively.

* Wildfire can also run an organisation's advertising campaign over social networks to direct traffic, for instance, towards their Facebook page. Within this it has tools to allow a business to target different demographics and to test different combinations of pictures and words in ads to see which are the most effective.

* When customers engage with a business on social networks, Wildfire has tools to track what people are saying about them.

Jamie Morton travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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