Rodney Williams has a magical disposition. The CEO and founder of LISNR – they have created ultrasonic tech that allows data to be sent over audio – has a preternatural openness to new challenges. The questions that seem so complicated for most (should you stay at your job? Should you try out for the track team? Can you make a sound engineered technology into a creative and useable system?) are simple for him, and his answer is nearly always the same – say yes, go for it and then outperform everyone else.
Nine years ago he said yes to Cincinnati. After completing his MBA at Howard University in Washington, DC, Williams got in his car and drove west. While his ambition brought him to Ohio, his dream job kept him there. After spending years at Procter & Gamble, Williams left a job he loved in pursuit of the technology he dreamt up. The result was LISNR – ultrasonic technology (high-frequency inaudible soundwaves!) that transmits data to consumers’ smart phones. LISNR is starting a messaging revolution, with Williams leading the way. We sat down with the innovator to chat about business, success and how he’s helping to change his city.
Kit and Ace: How would you explain what LISNR is?
Rodney Williams: The easiest way to explain it is that it’s a new way for devices to connect. LISNR leverages sounds you can't hear called Smart Tones, which are proprietary to us. We play our tones over speaker systems – this allows marketers to understand where consumers are within a given venue and then trigger a message to them. The magic is that it's completely independent of WiFi or data connectivity to ensure that the message is actually delivered.
KA: How do you see technology changing and how is LISNR going to play a role?
RW: The Internet of Things will continue to be something that we all talk about, where all of our devices will be more and more connected. Whether that's your thermostat at home or your light switch or even your car. To make that possible, voice needs to be a key component. LISNR is right on the verge of leading what we call the Internet of Sound, which will be completely equal to the Internet of Things. They live together. Imagine when you go into a hotel – you could use a Smart Tone to open the door instead of using a card. As we grow, we'll be the leader that's transmitting data over sound that you can't hear.
KA: What keeps you in Cincinnati?
RW: [LISNR] has a bigger purpose here. Our impact in the Cincinnati community is going to be significantly different than our impact in a New York City or a Silicon Valley. Out there we're a dime of a dozen. Out here we're one of few. It's important that the business leaders, the community, the kids, see a company thriving and being innovative and being creative. We have the ability to completely change Cincinnati as we grow. Every employee here wakes up each day with a chip on their shoulder, because they want to do something great and they want to do something that will be remembered. There's great talent in the Midwest. There is great heart. There is just as much talent here as in every other part of the world. If we can build successful technology companies in other cities, why can't we build one in Cincinnati? What's stopping us?
KA: Where do you see LISNR headed?
RW: This month was a big one for us – we pushed out some advancements in our technology. We're really, really proud and excited about it, because companies like Google said it was pretty impossible to do what we currently are doing. What the next six to eight months look like is further awareness about that.
KA: What keeps you motivated?
RW: I grew up as a chubby kid and I wasn't a great athlete, but I remember waking up one day and I was like, "I'm going to be a good athlete." I started running around the backyard and working out. I was seven or eight years old and within four or five years, when I went to high school, I was one of the fastest kids in the state. In the nation.
I learned how to work at things. When I was at school if there was something I didn't know, I worked at it and studied, just like I ran around the backyard. Eventually I got really great at it. That's what my life is all about. When I started doing Crossfit, I lost 30 pounds. I was benching 300 pounds. I was doing the things I dedicated myself toward. You’ve got to understand, the moment I get a taste of it, I commit myself to it wholeheartedly. Within any amount of time, I will become an expert at it.
KA: How important is fitness to your daily routine?
RW: It's extremely important. I used to be a college athlete. I ran track and played football. I've sacrificed a lot of that, because I don't really have time. With that said, I always do some push-ups in the morning and some push-ups at night to accelerate enough adrenaline.
KA: Did football and stoke your competitive edge?
RW: I am extremely competitive, but I think you should be. You should be competitive about the things you love: your family, your friends and yourself. It’s having pride in who you are.
KA: You have a strong sense of self belief. Do you think this is a main ingredient to your success?
RW: I don't think you can be an entrepreneur or chase a dream or actually do anything really productive until you believe in yourself. I think it's important that you believe in yourself before anyone else does, because that's the hardest part. Today, I'm only inspired by what I see in the mirror. That's my only inspiration. If you're inspired by the outside world, [your inspiration] can be taken from you and you can't control that. I'm already inspired by the person I've become – that's my fire.