Alumni Stories: The Entrepreneur
Max Ventilla '06 and his partners went about founding Aardvark, a social media company that they sold to Google in February 2010, in a highly systematic manner.
"There is this classic adage that it will be your fifth or sixth idea as a startup that will be successful," says Ventilla. "We had all done startups where we had worked on the wrong product for a long time. At Aardvark, we wanted to get those first five ideas out of the way as quickly as possible."
So Ventilla and his team committed to a user-driven, and data-driven, approach. They would only pursue ideas that could be tested with a small group of early users. "We tried out about a half-dozen things before we ultimately got enough of an enthusiastic response from people that we said, 'hey, this is worth pursuing.'"
The idea that the team pursued was a web service that allowed you to put a question to the person most likely to be able to answer it within your existing social network. "Among your friends, friends of friends, classmates, co-workers," Ventilla says, "you probably have tens of thousands of individuals who have lived almost everywhere, eaten at fantastic restaurants, made most of the purchases that you are contemplating. And if you can be connected to the right one in the moment, you’d have the fantastic ability to get the answer to your question from someone who is like-minded and whose opinion you really trust."
The approach that helped Ventilla create Aardvark — customer-focused and rigorously data-driven — can be traced, at least in part, to his experience as an MBA student at Yale SOM. He was the first student to enroll in the Silver Scholars Program, which allows talented college seniors to go directly into Yale’s MBA program.
Ventilla wound up at Yale SOM somewhat accidentally, he says. As a Yale College senior, he had already founded and sold a company, and had offers for a job after graduation. Then a friend mentioned a presentation on the brand-new Silver Scholars program. At the last minute, Ventilla went.
"It was Barry Nalebuff" — Yale SOM’s Milton Steinbach Professor of Management — "explaining the program and his motivation for pushing SOM to start it up," he remembers. "And he was just an incredible teacher, and it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Under the Silver Scholars program, students take a year of courses and then leave the school for an extended internship before returning for the second half of the MBA program. In Ventilla’s case, he found a position, with Nalebuff’s help, working directly for the CEO of a growing media company. He ended up staying two years and eventually became vice president of business development.
"It was an amazing job," Ventilla says, available to someone a year out of college only because of the Silver Scholars program. "What the Silver Scholars program lets you do is break out of the normal path. For someone who is entrepreneurial, it’s incredibly empowering. It’s an opportunity to get multiple years of experience in each year that you work."
After completing his MBA, Ventilla was offered a position at Google, and joined the company as a member of an internal strategic consulting team. "I worked on a number of exceptional cross-functional products, and formed relationships with some amazing executives," he said. A year later, just as it was time for him move into a more permanent role, a friend completed his doctorate and Ventilla convinced him to partner on a new venture.
"We started digging around at the intersection of search and social networking, which we perceived would be an increasingly prime area for innovation," Ventilla says. Around the same time, Facebook.com launched a "platform" allowing outside programmers to make use of the data stored in profiles, with the permission of users. "We saw that as a real bellwether event that would not only bring more and more of Facebook’s activities into a space where third parties could play with it, but which also would drive the rest of the industry to become increasingly open with their data and users."
For Aardvark (www.vark.com), that meant allowing users to capitalize on the social networks built up in Facebook in a new context. When a user puts a question to Aardvark — by email, instant message, or the web — the site looks for existing friends, and then friends of friends, who also belong to Aardvark and are likely to be able to answer the question because of their locations, backgrounds, or interests. The question is fed to the candidate by IM or email; if he or she doesn’t respond or declines to answer, the site moves outward through the asker’s network looking for another source. An answer generally comes back in less than five minutes.
The site went live in October 2009, and got significant positive press. "It was clear that if we wanted to take it to the next level, we would need to do a major business partnership with a large player in tech," Ventilla says. Eventually, the company agreed to be acquired by Google; Ventilla has returned to the online giant as a product manager.
Ventilla says that the Aardvark founders didn’t create the site hoping to be acquired, but neither did they rule it out. "I think the goal for an entrepreneur should be to keep as many paths open as possible, as late as possible. For us it came down to what was best for the product and what would ultimately have the most impact on the world."