How Did This Phoenix Tech Company Achieve a Staggering 36,000 Percent Growth?
They started with a swimsuit calendar. Their first big move didn't work out. Today, they're running the No. 1 company on the Inc. 5000.
The story of the fastest-growing private company in America, a profitable technology startup called Freestar whose revenue growth since 2015 has been a staggering 36,680 percent, starts with a calendar.
Not a buzzy new calendar app. Not a life-altering meeting request. A printed wall calendar. One of those relics with pictures of animals or landscapes that we all used to tack up in the kitchen.
This particular calendar--Tempe12--had, well, swimsuit models. Arizona State University co-eds in bikinis, to be exact. "All the girls had to have a minimum 3.0 GPA, so they had beauty and brains," explains Freestar co-founder David Freedman, without a trace of sheepishness. Freedman, who launched the calendar when he was a 22-year-old fifth-year senior at ASU back in 2004, has come a long way since then. But he draws a straight line from that fairly crude start to his current success.
Freestar, you see, sells solutions and services that help publishers make more money online by optimizing their advertising operations. When Tempe12 was just getting started, Freedman sold all its ad space to local businesses. The calendar took off, expanded to 21 other colleges by its third year, and drew attention from Playboy and Howard Stern. Tempe12 had a website with photo archives and decent traffic--but no efficient way to make money. In 2008, Freestar's other co-founder, Chris Stark, joined Freedman, taught himself to code, and started scaling Tempe12's online ad business. Other publishers noticed and asked for help, so Freedman and Stark launched a consultancy--DigitalMGMT.
"Smaller publishers would get requests from an advertiser to spend money on their website, and they didn't even know how to sell it or how to serve it," Freedman remembers. He and Stark could help. They had no secret formula, no proprietary technology, but they were crafty and entrepreneurial and understood an industry that was evolving every month.
"The biggest problem we had at that point was that we'd take a client from making five grand a month to 50 grand, and some other company would come in and buy them," says Stark. "Our success meant having to always find new clients."
In 2014, Freedman and Stark set out to raise around a million dollars and then spent most of it purchasing nine small publishers--webdesignledger.com, webresourcesdepot.com, a stock photography site called lostandtaken.com--thinking that they'd "juice the revenue and sell them off," Freedman recalls. It was the birth of Freestar--and it was a big mistake.
Almost immediately, Freedman and Stark realized that publishing a swimsuit calendar didn't give them any real editorial expertise. They also realized that focusing on scaling their own websites put them in competition with the sites for which they consulted.
But around the same time, Stark began experimenting with a new technology that was revolutionizing online advertising: header bidding. Until then, many Web ads had been bought in a split-second auction process that went like this: A publisher sent out a request to advertisers to bid on an ad space, and the software would automatically accept the first qualifying offer. Ads could be sold in real time--but publishers couldn't weigh offers against one another, potentially missing the best ones. Publishers also had little sense of who was buying ads, which left their sites vulnerable to shady operators. "It was as if you were selling your car at an auction, and they let only one person into the room at a time," Stark explains. "That person could offer whatever they wanted--and you had to either accept or reject their offer."
With header bidding, a snippet of code sent a request to all potential advertisers simultaneously--and then selected the best offer. Suddenly, publishers earned more from each ad, and they had more control over which ads ran on their sites. A decade after Freedman started dabbling in ad sales, Freestar took off like a rocket.
"The beautiful thing is, when you start making people more money and helping them run their businesses better, they typically have pretty big mouths," says Freedman. "Word travels quickly." Today, Freestar works with more than 300 publishers, including Barstool Sports, Snopes, and Fortune.
Coindesk, which covers all things cryptocurrency, saw ad revenue increase 300 percent in the first month it worked with Freestar, says Jacob Donnelly, the publisher's managing director of digital operations. Freestar, he says, has made it unnecessary for Coindesk to hire anyone to handle advertising operations. "That lets me think more strategically about revenue generation," he says, "which is huge."
Freestar generates its own revenue by taking a small percentage of the ad dollars that flow through its technology. The company hauled in $37 million last year and expects to cross the $100 million mark soon. It now employs 40--including a new face up top. Freedman and Stark aren't big on job titles, and neither was ever formally CEO or president. About a year into the company's breakout growth, the founders tried to hire Kurt Donnell, a well-regarded media executive in their hometown of Phoenix, but failed to bring him on.
Two years later, they tried again, and Donnell joined as president this past January. What changed Donnell's mind? "They had executed on everything they said they were going to do two years prior," he says. And, he adds, "the growth was just astonishing."