In fall 2009, QR codes were not yet ubiquitous. But the founders of mobile commerce startup Branding Brand—Christina Koshzow (DC’01, HNZ’03), Christopher Mason (DC’01), and Joey Rahimi (TPR’01)—were about to become very familiar with what the codes could and couldn’t do.

An executive from Dick’s Sporting Goods asked them whether—to mark the launch of Dick’s mobile platform, which Branding Brand had built—a QR code nearly as big as a football field would do what it’s supposed to do: open a mobile platform or Web page for smartphone users who took a picture of the matrix barcode.

“Uhh,” Mason stalled. “We’ll get back to you on that.”

The trio got to work. They had been a team since the early 2000s when they worked at another Carnegie Mellon startup, College Prowler. When they moved on from the college guide company and founded Branding Brand, an interactive marketing firm, they monitored their clients’ web traffic as part of overall campaigns. That’s when they noticed a sliver of purchases coming from mobile devices.

Remember, back then the iPhone was only months old and cost around $500 and mobile commerce accounted for less than 1% of online retail. So it was a hard sell when they decided to bet big on mobile commerce and began cold-calling Fortune 500 companies, asking to speak to their presidents about exploring this new opportunity. Most of the time the answer they got, if they got one at all, was “You expect people to buy stuff on their BlackBerries?”

Finally, Dick’s took their call and made Branding Brand an offer. Build us a mobile platform in 30 days, and we’ll see. After drinking lots of Red Bull for the next month, the Branding Brand team succeeded. Dick’s was impressed enough that the leadership wanted to unveil it in a big way: during a college football bowl game at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

“They wanted the QR code displayed on that stadium’s 25,000-square-foot Jumbotron—the world’s largest HDTV, which hangs over the field. And, oh yeah, the game was the next day,” recalls Mason.

They got back to the Dick’s executive, letting him know that they thought it could be done. For that game, Mason, Rahimi, and Koshzow were sitting in the stands among 75,437 fans, watching what turned out to be one of the most exciting college games of the decade (Oklahoma versus Brigham Young University). During halftime, the Jumbotron broadcast a 72-foot-high, 120-foot-wide QR code as part of Dick’s announcement of its new mobile platform. Throughout the stands, fans got out their smartphones: Click…Click...Click...Click…Click…

It worked.

Four years later, Pittsburgh-based Branding Brand has gone from four employees to 120, and the company has more than 150 clients, including several national retailers. And that 1% of online retail via mobile devices hit 30% during the 2012 holidays, according to a Branding Brand study, with their startup being the largest and fastest-growing mobile commerce platform provider in the industry.
—Bradley A. Porter (DC’08)

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