Two professionally dressed individuals, one seated and one standing, pose next to the text: "GENERATING BUZZ: Startup launched at MSU is making waves in tech, e-commerce.

Calvin Waddy was sitting in a Mississippi State business law class in spring 2018 when his phone made a surprising noise. The “cha-ching” from the Shopify app meant the online clothing store he launched with a fellow student had made its first sale.

“I thought we were on to the next big thing,” said Waddy, a Georgia native who moved to Madison County in high school before enrolling at MSU. “We were super excited and optimistic. Then we went probably two or three more months without a single sale.”

Business was slow that spring, but Waddy and his business partner, Shelby Baldwin, used influencer marketing to ultimately grow their clothing brand to the point of bringing in more than $50,000 in sales in one month.

That success was the prologue to the team’s current business venture, Buzzbassador, which has not only secured venture funding from the Bulldog Angel Network but is also backed by the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund.

Discovering a Need

Waddy and Baldwin successfully leveraged social media influencers— individuals who are paid by brands to recommend products on social media—to grow their clothing brand. They worked with these personalities on content and developed a system to give the influencers a percentage of the sales resulting from their promotions. The duo soon realized that managing thousands of influencer relationships could be a business unto itself as they juggled the last of their classes and a growing business.

As they went in search of an automated platform to manage influencer relationships, Baldwin and Waddy discovered that while solutions existed, none met their specific needs for efficiency and scalability. They hired software engineers to build a better solution. As they talked to peers in e-commerce about the platform they were building, many shared a similar frustration with managing influencers, as well as excitement for a possible solution.

“That’s where the idea for Buzzbassador came from,” said Baldwin, a 2019 MSU business graduate from Ridgeland. “We started letting our connections use the initial version of the software. Once we got great feedback on it, we realized this could be a business of its own instead of just an internal tool for our clothing brands.”

Even in its early stages, Buzzbassador earned recognition and, more importantly, funding. The business won the Southeastern Conference’s annual student pitch competition in 2019 and by 2020 had secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in venture funding to grow the concept. Venture, or angel, funding, is money from high net worth individuals looking to invest in a company. Entrepreneurs then use that investment to further build the businesses. In fall 2020, Buzzbassador became the first, Mississippi-based company selected to showcase at Venture Atlanta, one of the Southeast’s top technology and venture funding events.

Since the official launch in 2020, the company has continued to grow as Baldwin and Waddy work to ensure their product stays up-to-date with the trends shaping influencer marketing and e-commerce. The platform has grown to more than 200,000 users and generated more than $25 million in revenue. Baldwin and Waddy have also moved their business to Dallas, Texas.

Baldwin notes that while influencer marketing on social media feels like a technology-driven trend, getting people to talk about your product is one of the oldest forms of marketing that exists.

“There have always been people who tell other people about stuff to buy,” Baldwin said. “For example, Nike paying Tiger Woods to promote their products is influencer marketing. Essentially, all influencer marketing is just word-of-mouth marketing happening on the internet.”

A person works on a laptop with a website analytics dashboard displayed, with a phone showing the "Buzzbassador" logo and a coffee cup nearby. A quote from Shelby Baldwin is visible on the right.

‘Finding the Right Horse’

Using one opportunity to create the next one is nothing new for the Buzzbassador founders. Drawn to entrepreneurship, a clothing brand was not Waddy’s first business concept. Early in his college career, he pitched an augmented reality-based shopping app through MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, known as the E-Center. His initial pitch was rejected, but he said Eric Hill, the center’s director at the time, encouraged him to keep trying.
“At that moment, I was really discouraged,” said Waddy, who completed his MSU business degree in 2018. “Eric pulled me aside and told me ‘This particular business may not be the right horse, but you’re the right jockey. So go find the right horse.’

“Something like 95% of startups fail, which in some ways is relieving because most products and businesses go out of business or fail,” he continued. “Then it becomes about how you adjust and find the next thing. The best companies are born out of failures and problems.”

Waddy’s journey through the E-Center came full circle when he successfully pitched to the Bulldog Angel Network, a group of private investors that provides angel funding for MSU-affiliated entrepreneurs.

“Every time you pitch your business is nerve wracking, because you are essentially saying ‘Hey, this is my baby, I want you to believe in it,’” Waddy explained. “You hear ‘no’ a lot, but once you get your first check, the other checks come a little bit easier. The Bulldog Angel Network’s vote of confidence helped us greatly on our fundraising journey.”

Baldwin said that the company being accepted into the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund has also served as validation for the work they are doing.

“Only 24 North American companies got into this program, and we were one of them,” Baldwin said. “They are very careful about who they back, so the fact that they saw what we are doing, what we are building, as something worth putting their money into is very validating.

“We’ve learned that things don’t usually go the way you think they’re going to go, but as a company we’re really focused on how the world is changing with new technology and markets for influencers, social media and e-commerce,” she added. “It’s very hard to predict what will happen, but I know there is going to be a lot of change and we’re going to try to stay ahead of it as best as we can.”

By James Carskadon, Photos Submitted