By Lynn Dai
The Stanford-founded startup Viralspace is gaining recognition for its work using artificial intelligence to help marketers make data-driven decisions about which images and videos to use for social media advertisements.
Viralspace’s two products, Viralspace Plan and Viralspace Optimize, allow clients to target specific audiences and products and use artificial intelligence to create ad content that drives performance.
The startup’s success landed two of its founders — Apoorva Dornadula M.S. ’19 and Michelle Lu ’19 — on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list. But before gaining recognition, the founding team struggled to find a product-market fit.
In early 2019, co-founders Hiro Tien M.S. ’19 M.B.A. ’19, Dornadula and Lu teamed up during their second quarter of Startup Garage, a hands-on, project-based course in which students design new business concepts.
The team had fought with a “painful problem” that many companies face in ad creative generation: the guesswork, testing and subjectivity that comes with advertising a product on the internet.
Viralspace talked to over 100 marketers and tried multiple ways to build a product around their problems. In its first iteration, Viralspace combined several ideas into a variation on a social media platform –– a marketplace for user-generated content, an influencer community and a prediction tool for when content would go viral. Later that year, Tien, Dornadula and Lu pivoted the company to focus on the creative intelligence tool.
David Hornik, a lecturer in the 2019-20 Startup Garage course, said that the trio is very thoughtful and careful about getting ideas and determining what would be most valuable for their customers.
“They were a very thoughtful team, they worked very well together, which is a key to success in the entrepreneurial world,” Hornik said. “They’ve been great at that, and they will continue to be great at that and it will gain evidence.”
Viralspace’s customer advisors — including Ogilvy, an advertising company; Chubbies, a shorts retailer; and Minted, an online marketplace of independent artists and designers — taught them about the Facebook Ads landscape and tested out early prototypes of their products in weekly meetings.
When the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted their plans to finalize long-term contracts with their advisors, the team offered free consulting to businesses and created free COVID-19 marketing resources, including a marketing trends dashboard on their website. Lu said Viralspace is working with all three of their advisors as clients.
“I think [the pandemic] hit marketing pretty hard, especially in those early days,” Lu said. “But we really made the most of it.”
Since 2019, Village Global and Lightspeed Venture Partners have invested in Viralspace.
“They were incredibly engaged throughout the [2019 Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Summer Fellowship program], helpful to others, and were laser-focused on making Viralspace a success,” said Saqib Awan, who is a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Awan was impressed with the “diverse makeup of the team” and their backgrounds and accomplishments. He said that Viralspace has been progressing better than he expected.
Dornadula said that Viralspace is working closely with its clients and implementing feature requests to customize and improve their products. Although they specialize in Facebook ads at the moment, the team hopes to expand its product into other platforms and smaller businesses.
Six to 10 years from now, Tien said there is an opportunity to use AI to optimize creative generation beyond applications for digital media, ads and marketing.
But even as the team looks towards the future, they’re still grateful for the Stanford resources — Startup Garage and a network of connections — that helped get their company to where it is today.
“There’s no better place to start a company than at Stanford,” Lu said.
This article has been updated to reflect that Viralspace is now focusing on creative intelligence, and to remove a mention to a contributor who is no longer with the company.