How Three College Friends Turned a Case of Mistaken Identity Into a $4 Million Company
Horror was the mother of invention for BrandYourself.
Pete Kistler needed to find an internship during his junior year at Syracuse University back in 2009. Despite a fantastic résumé, he was striking out. A friend recommended he Google himself, and the results were shocking. The world, he learned, was packed with Pete Kistlers doing bad, illegal things. Many of them fit his general description, and he was certain his internship prospects were mistaking him for one of his evil doppelgängers.
He set out to find a way to banish the bad Petes from his search results. He contacted a few of the big reputation-management companies, all of which wanted to charge from $5,000 to $8,000 to pretty up his online appearance. That was not really in Kistler's price range; it's not in most people's price range.
He asked his friends if they knew anyone who understood search engine optimization, and they steered him to Syracuse senior Patrick Ambron. Together, the two devised a rudimentary program to push bad Pete results down and off the first page of Google and raise good Pete results up. It worked like a charm.
That invention was the genesis of New York City-based BrandYourself, which Ambron predicts will have revenue north of $4 million in 2014--a 400 percent increase over 2013, its first full year in operation. The company is on a hiring spree, bringing on one to three full-time employees per month.
"We set out to fix the online reputation-management industry," says Ambron, 26. "It was just for wealthy people, and it did a very bad job."
By giving away their entry-level online reputation management, or ORM, service, which uses a self-service online interface, BrandYourself attracts customers. When customers require more intensive levels of reputation management, the team converts them to its higher-end products, which offer varying levels of professional ORM assistance. But even the company's most hands-on and expensive concierge level of service tops out at $700 a month, nowhere near the $8,000 that Kistler was quoted.
The company's customers include colleges that offer the service to students and companies that buy the concierge service for their executives. Ambron, the company's CEO, boasts of an 89 percent customer retention rate, because, unlike competitors, he says, customers at BrandYourself move between tiers of service as their needs change. "We see it as a complete business eco-system," says Ambron.
Yet, it's also one that's changing, seemingly daily. To keep up with new challenges, Ambron, Kistler, 26, and the other co-founder, Evan Watson, 25, are plowing recent funding into looking past online reputation management.
They just closed a $3.3 million round of funding. Their first round, which came in 2011, brought in $1.5 million. Current investors including Zelkova Ventures and Soraya Dorabi, CEO of Zady.
In addition to moving to a bigger office and boosting marketing of existing products, the team will spend some of the second-round cash to roll out several new products that will be their first step toward the company's future. The goal? Becoming a one-stop shop for clients who want to protect all of their personal information, no matter where it lives.
"We want to create a company that allows people to get control," says Ambron. '"If you don't define yourself and proactively maintain your identity, someone else will do it for you. The idea that you can be invisible is a myth."
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KRIS FRIESWICK | Staff Writer
Kris Frieswick is senior editor at Inc. She is an award-winning journalist and editor whose work has appeared in a wide variety of national publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Boston Globe Magazine, Departures, and Hemispheres.