It was in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis that Victor Wong (YC’11) started a business to help print publishers take print advertising online. “Capital was a lot scarcer then and people didn’t want to work on startups. But after spending time in banking, I knew that I wanted to be my own boss so I can taste the fruits of my labor,” said Wong. He and co-founder Ka Mo Lau approached the newly formed Yale Entrepreneurship Institute, which offered them the YEI Fellowship in 2008.
Wong has not looked back since. Today, PaperG is rebranded as Thunder, a creative management platform where publishers, agencies and advertisers can create digital advertisements and customize them for target segments and advertising formats. It has more than 50 employees, has offices in San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, and is a platform that over 100 brands, publishers and agencies use. Its clients include Intercontinental Hotels, Kimberly-Clark and Holiday Inn, and it has raised more than $10 million in equity funding.
Wong had helped out at a few different startups and a social enterprise before beginning PaperG, but it was his experience working as a freelance advertiser online that inspired the idea for the company.
Reflecting on Thunder’s journey, Wong said he experienced the unexpected during the process of shaping the business. Whereas PaperG was set up for small print businesses to create ads, he had not expected the expansion of customer base from the “paper-generation” with PaperG to brands, publishers, agencies and advertisers who access the product digitally with Thunder. He had not expected either that his company would be rivaling Adobe. As he jokingly said, “Thunder comes after (Adobe) Flash.” The latter was most commonly used to create advertisements.
Today, he is rivaling another Adobe product: Adobe Creative Suite. “Adobe is still trying to figure out how to respond,” said Wong. “Their product is too general. A wedding photographer would be using the same software as advertisement designers. That’s a problem because the ad world is so different from wedding photography…Our design is intended for a ‘post-Flash’ world, in which it no longer makes sense to create one ad for one audience and screen,” he said.
Wong is hoping to expand Thunder to London and Singapore, and sell to international brands. “Our goal is to be the dominant platform for ad creation,” he said.
He noted that the path to success was difficult. He said that it was particularly hard to raise their first round of capital because when they first started, there were a lot fewer people doing tech. It was also hard to obtain their first company especially since they are a business-to-business (b2b) firm. “The challenge is even higher. If you sell to consumers and you give your product to customers for free, and the product is bad, people won’t be upset. But with b2b, other companies are depending on you for their revenue.”
Wong has no regrets, however, and encourages entrepreneurship with a goal. “Only start a business if you feel that there’s a problem in the world and you alone have a unique insight to solve the problem. It should be something you would want to dedicate your life to and something that you care so much about that if you didn’t do it, you’d feel it would be a waste not to…Also, do not overthink. To steal Nike’s phrase, Just Do It. I asked our early investors why they took a chance. They said that most student entrepreneurs didn’t execute their ideas yet because they think it’s too risky without the money. That is a bad needy mindset to have. Bias to action is not valued here in the startup world. Be more willing and take more initiative than others.”
To watch Wong giving a speech at the Yale Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, click here
This article first appeared in Yale Entrepreneurship Magazine.