This Black Entrepreneur’s Tech Start-Up Could Disrupt the Entire Wireless Industry
Tens of thousands of music fans flocked to Philadelphia this Labor Day weekend for Budweiser’s patriotic “Made In America” festival, where a star studded line-up of musicians, from Beyoncé to De La Soul, took center stage. The explosion of live music spilling on to the Benjamin Franklin parkway, a mixture of iconic voices, electric beats and a roaring crowd, made for an unforgettable outdoor concert experience– but it was the sounds the audience could not hear, a flurry of tones too low for the human ear to detect, that set this year’s festival apart.
“As you approached the festival you received a welcome message. If you were near certain stages, you received reminders for certain events. If you were waiting too long in a certain area you got a free coupon for Budweiser,” says Rodney Williams, co-founder and CEO of LISNR, a mobile communications app that uses inaudible sound waves to send notifications to mobile devices. All of Budweiser’s targeted notifications during the festival, from pop-up coupons to Uber rides, were powered by his communications service .
Imagine shopping and receiving a coupon via text while standing in front of a particular product, or while at a sporting event, receiving a play-by-play of the action you missed while away from your seat. When LISNR’s “smart tones” are emitted in retail spaces, during live events and television broadcasts, the ultrasonic signals trigger mobile devices, which then deliver relevant, hyper-targeted messages based on the users location and activity. Brands like Budweiser, Live Nation, AT&T and the Dallas Cowboys are using LISNR’s revolutionary “smart tone” technology to create one-of-a-kind, interactive fan experiences.
But the real revolution exists within communications technology, an industry that LISNR is poised to disrupt, potentially dethroning Bluetooth as the superior mechanism for wireless transmission.
“Everyone is familiar with Bluetooth, and Bluetooth is light that you can’t see. LISNR is audio that you can’t hear,” Williams explains.
Both Bluetooth, and LISNR, transmit data across devices, but LISNR does so faster, synchronized within 1/10 of a second, and without the need for any additional hardware. Recognizing this potential shift in wireless, from light to sound, CNBC recently ranked LISNR number twelve on its annual Disruptor 50 list.
“We were above Spotify,” Williams notes, citing CNBC’s recognition as his start-up’s greatest milestone to date. They were also listed above Snapchat.
Adding to his list of accomplishments, Williams also received an invitation to speak at the White House for the first annual Demo Day in August of 2015. President Obama hosted the event to showcase the role of entrepreneurship in the U.S. economy. Williams also won the “Gold Lion” at the International Festival of Creativity in Cannes.
Williams’ former role in brand management at Procter & Gamble provided him with unique insights about the challenges that brands face connecting with consumers.
“The holy grail of marketing is to create a technology that can touch consumers where they are,” he says.
Though Williams has always been “obsessed with technology”, his professional background is largely in branding. Williams earned an MBA and a masters in marketing, both by the age of 24. Still, his knack for ideas was evident even at P&G, where he says he was the first marketer to co-write a patent.
“I probably would have been on my thirtieth patent right now, if I was there,” he remarks.
But instead, Williams left P&G to create LISNR in 2012, with four other co-founders. In three years, the startup has raised over $4 million in venture capital funding, a tremendous feat. Less than 1 percent of venture capital backed start-ups are headed by African-American founders.
LISNR is headquartered in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, an area undergoing an extensive economic revitalization, due in part to the presence of high-octane start-ups like LISNR. It’s not a traditional location for a tech company but it has its perks.
“We have some advantages for the type of talent we can attract out of the Midwest and the cost we’re paying for that talent,” he says.
While his start-up serves as local economic engine, Ohio is a world away from Silicon Valley. That means the company is a world away from top-tier investors with the power and purse strings to turn LISNR into a global brand.
“It’s difficult to get in front of those investors,”he admits. “I’ve had investors tell me if you were to talk to [top-tier investors] you would be in a different place. The reality is it’s difficult.”
Williams is frank about the hurdles in his path, but he remains steadfast in his determination to propel LISNR to the forefront of mobile innovation.
“Anytime I raised any amount of money, I had to talk to 40 investors before I reached the three or four that invested,” he reflects. “I think if you really believes in the idea you should be prepared to talk to 100.”
His advice for budding entrepreneurs is simple.
“Move fast,” he says, “learn and grow.”
To keep up with Rodney Williams and LISNR, follow the start-up on Twitter and Instagram @LISNR.