Logo: University of Southern California

Fanning the Flame

Armed with curiosity and flexibility, alumnus Vishal Sankhla seeks startup stardom
By: Rosalie Murphy
January 10, 2014 —
Viralheat began as a platform for YouTube analysis. Now, it provides a nearly complete social media toolkit to marketing teams. The company hopes to eventually provide insights to its clients about how they can better use the platform to engage with audiences. 

Vishal Sankhla started Viralheat as a weekend hobby. But in the eight years since Sankhla and co-founder Raj Kadam met, the company has grown into a venture capital-funded social media management platform with all the trimmings. Clients can monitor Twitter hashtags and Google keywords, measure positive and negative sentiment in posts, and communicate with users on an unlimited number of accounts. Now Viralheat is starting to go viral itself.

Viralheat has 25,000 subscribers, including Amazon.com, Men’s Warehouse and Six Flags, and nearly 200 more join every day. Forbes lauded Viralheat’s May update as “the best new app for social media on the go,” and the company plans to close a second round of funding by this time next year.

USC Viterbi alumnus Sankhla didn’t arrive at the engineering school thinking of Silicon Valley. But when he earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2004, he knew he could succeed there.

“USC really helped me explore and find out what I liked,” Sankhla said. He took computer science courses and wrote a master’s thesis advised by USC Research Associate Professor Clifford Neuman.

“It has to have some implication beyond educating yourself,” Neuman said. “Very few people choose to do that.”

That research led Sankhla to a career in computer programming. Without it, “I wouldn’t have joined that startup, and I wouldn’t have met my co-founder,” he said.

The startup was Network Chemistry, where he developed Wi-Fi security systems, the subject of his thesis. He and Kadam worked closely with one another as engineers, but popped into sales and marketing discussions as data analysts. Sankhla had attended USC Marshall presentations on entrepreneurship and marketing during his time on campus, and now he supplemented those discussions with practical knowledge.

“I had that startup exposure very early on,” Sankhla said. “Meeting MBA grads, going to presentations at USC, really helped plant that seed.”

That seed sprouted, cultivated by Kadam’s and Sankhla’s shared fascination with YouTube.

“We were really trying to understand what makes a video viral,” Sankhla said. “We started looking at views, comments, people favoriting it … and we started putting out these little charts every week. That’s actually how we got our first customer”—Coca-Cola, which asked the duo to measure the success of its commercials online.

Network Chemistry’s owners sold the company in 2007; Kadam joined the new team and Sankhla took a job at Cisco. Throughout 2008, they met on weekends to tinker with algorithms. They consulted for political firms managing Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaigns. Then, in December 2009, they received their first $75,000 in seed capital. Suddenly, Viralheat was real.

Fortunately for Sankhla—who grew up in India and studied at USC Viterbi on a student visa—Kadam was a U.S. citizen. Sankhla’s H-1B visa did not permit him to start his own company.

“The whole issue around being an immigrant and being a startup founder is a big one,” Sankhla said. “There are a lot of smart people out there, from USC and other colleges, who don’t even try starting a company.”

But Sankhla couldn’t leave the project now. He applied for a long-term visa while Kadam became CEO. In early 2011, Viralheat closed its first round of funding with $4.25 million, led by venture firm Mayfield Fund.

Today, many of its 25,000 users pay for their subscriptions, and some request the highest-tier, customized “enterprise” suite, which costs about $2,500. The vast majority of Viralheat’s revenue comes from subscriptions, but clients can also pay for “Developer” status, which gives them access to Viralheat’s APIs.

And despite his duty as co-founder to address business concerns, Sankhla remains the company’s chief technology officer.

“Try to imagine 500 million tweets sent out today, millions of communications happening on Facebook, large amounts of video uploaded on YouTube. Taking data from all these and analyzing them quickly is a very, very interesting technical problem,” he said. “Having the technical background and skills I developed at USC has really helped.”

Already with 13 employees, Viralheat plans to double its staff in the next year. And as he did at USC, Sankhla is eager to keep exploring until he finds a perfect fit.

“We are in this for the long run, absolutely,” Sankhla said.