Posted on March 30, 2017
For tech startup CEO James Heller, being a trailblazer isn’t a recently honed skill. “I’ve been entrepreneurial my whole life,” says Heller, who just barely made the cutoff onto the 2017 Forbes “30 Under 30” list of innovators at the ripe age of 29. The co-founder of Solana Beach-based Wrapify, which creates out-of-home advertising by way of wrapping cars in advertisements, lays out the jobs he’s had like links in a chain that have culminated in Wrapify.
As a teen, Heller started a digital marketing consulting company, which led to a marketing role in cloud computing, followed by a global digital marketing post at Ingram Micro. He left that cushy Fortune 100 executive gig to launch Wrapify, which celebrated its two-year anniversary this past January. For many, the thought of walking away from so much success (not to mention security) for a startup might seem crazy, but for Heller, it was begging to be done.
“This was something that was just eating away at me,” he says. While planning a large tech event in the San Diego area, Heller felt there was a shortage of outdoor media (i.e. billboards) available to broadcast his message in key geographic areas to hit his target audience. “I thought, ‘how cool would it be to push wrapped vehicles into a tech sector and have those cars driving around to raise awareness?’ It just made so much sense,” he says. He spent his own money doing discovery and due diligence, and when he found no one was successfully executing anything similar to his idea, he seized the opportunity. “I realized that the timing for this is now because of the advent of the sharing economy — Uber, Lyft, Air BNB — and because of technology, and the toolbox that we have to be able to build these types of businesses,” Heller explains.
Co-founded with business partner Tim Flack, who left his post as principal engineer at GoPro to build Wrapify, the company revolutionizes advertising by delivering another medium for clients’ campaigns, then uses advanced technology to provide an accurate measure of who’s seeing the cars bearing their ads, where, and in what quantity — all at a fraction of what a billboard would cost. The company experienced rapid growth in its first year, raising $3 million in seed money (another funding round closed earlier this year). As one of the fastest growing startups in San Diego, Wrapify has already booked $2.7 million in revenue since its inception, and is live in 29 cities and counting, with 40,000 independent drivers on the platform or awaiting campaigns.
While he is enthusiastic about Wrapify’s place in the local business arena, he’s less excited about what he perceives as a lackluster acknowledgment that area entrepreneurs — himself included — receive from the media, perhaps indicating a level of apathy toward innovation here. “That’s kind of a bummer because we’re shedding light on the city,” he says. And this city is where he wants to be. “Once you live here and you go somewhere else, you’re constantly comparing it to San Diego. You ask youself, ‘Can I live here? No, I can’t! I lived in the promise land,’” he laughs. On a more serious note, he adds, “There’s a lot of talent here, and not just from an engineering perspective, but quality of people. It’s an amazing hub for bringing on top talent and not paying the San Francisco or New York ‘tariff,’ if you will, so that is very startup-friendly to San Diego.”
Though the Wrapify rise has been swift, Heller hasn’t been blinded by early success. “It’s been an amazing ride. It’s great to see that people are really valuing what we’re building.” wrapify.com Deanna Murphy