Syracuse University junior Peter Kistler was livid when he learned that a standard Google search of his name had derailed his application for a coveted internship at Microsoft. The company nixed him after seeing the links to stories about another Peter Kistler, who happened to be a drug dealer and convicted sex offender.
That mix-up was the impetus for BrandYourself.com, a DIY platform to help people take control of their online profiles.
After leaving school in 2009, Kistler and college friends Patrick Ambron and Evan Watson cobbled together a rudimentary site. It went live in early 2010, showing users how keywords and regular updates could boost the search engine rank of their own content from networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
Syracuse, N.Y.-based BrandYourself built up a base of 20,000 customers in its first six months, despite a clunky interface. But the team knew streamlining the user experience and offering a free version, along with a more robust premium site, would expand the user base and revenue. For that, they needed capital.
Enter Jay Levy, a partner at New York-based Zelkova Ventures, who had been monitoring the site from the beginning. Levy was impressed by how quickly Kistler, Ambron and Watson learned and how well they worked together. "There are three things we look for when investing: team, market and product. And it's 85 percent team," Levy says. "We loved their tenacity."
Zelkova led a $1.2 million Series A round that closed in May 2011 and left the founders with a majority stake.
They quickly put the money to use rebuilding the site, unveiling the redesign in time for the March 2012 SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. By June they'd signed up 125,000 users.
The main draw to the new site is the free BrandYourself profile, on which users submit three links about themselves they wish would appear higher in search engine rankings. BrandYourself's software analyzes the links and spits out an action list of specific tasks designed to boost SEO, such as removing nicknames or building a more descriptive URL. The killer feature: The site monitors the profile to let users know when someone has clicked on it, how they found it, where they're based and, according to Brand-Yourself, "who they work for."
"Our biggest users are real-estate agents, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, social media marketing people and, by a decent margin, job applicants," Ambron says. "With 75 percent of HR departments required to do a Google search on every applicant, it's easy to see why."
Revenue comes from the "several thousand" customers (the company wouldn't reveal specifics) who've opted for the $9.99 monthly BrandYourself profile, which allows users to place, analyze and optimize an unlimited number of links on their profiles.
And as for Kistler's online reputation, he now appears in the first several pages of search results, along with other reputable men who share his name, including a cardiologist and an engineer--but he no longer needs that Microsoft internship.