Entrepreneur Quietly Changes The Way Devices Connect
Rodney Williams and his company have won a many awards, including a place among the CNBC Disruptor 50. It's the media outlet's list of private companies whose innovations it says are having a dramatic impact.
It's a serious list, topped by names such as Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Slack, and Warby Parker. Williams' company, LISNR, was No. 12 on the list, just behind this set of all-stars and ahead of some other names you might recognize: SurveyMonkey, GitHub, Hampton Creek, Spotify and Rent the Runway.
That placement in good company reflects a sense that LISNR may have the right technology at the right time.
Born partly deaf, Williams founded LISNR to send information between devices using audio waves. Just as a Bluetooth headset communicates with a phone by sending information via radio waves, LISNR sends sounds that are outside the spectrum of audio that humans can hear. With the growth of the “Internet of Things" in which nearly every device and machine is online, that communication could be between machines on an assembly line or between a store's music speakers and a customer's smartphone.
With degrees in economics, finance, supply chain and marketing, Williams is the visionary behind the company, the hustler/hacker/designer inside it, and the front man selling the concept. He says the idea came to him while he was working as a marketer for Procter & Gamble, then was on hold until he found the right opportunity.
Born on a Bus Ride
That opportunity was Startup Bus, a three-day brainstorming session on a bus from the Midwest to the 2012 South-by-Southwest tech gathering in Texas. By the time he had stepped off that bus in Austin, he had met his founding team of Josh Glick and Chris Ostoich. They built the start of what would become LISNR.
LISNR started in the music industry, though it has since expanded beyond that (here's a music-oriented demo reel of their original invention from the Startup Bus). They're now doing work for entertainment companies, beverage brands, sports teams and other marketers.
The company calls its technology Smart Tones. One day, Williams says, LISNR will appear "on every device, everywhere" like Bluetooth.
And the vision for the company isn't necessarily limited to consumer devices; communication among industrial machines is a growing field, and LISNR technology "is actually a good alternative" to what's currently out there, Williams says, in part because his technology circumvents interference by radio waves.
Williams' creativity, he says, is directly related to the diversity of people and experiences in his life.
"I like to get in front of different kinds of clients and customers a lot," he says. "I never knew about machine-to-machine needs until I talked to Caterpillar. I never knew about the problems in medical hospitals until I talked to a children's hospital group about some of their devices."
Williams says that what keeps him up at night is the prospect of having to rapidly grow his company, now that he's responsible for more than 20 employees.
"It's not glamourous. ... It's hard work. ... You have to learn at a very high rate, just to keep up. And the greater your success, the greater the challenges you may face."
In his CNBC Disruptor 50 interview, Williams shared his sense of how his work would be judged:
"Your impact is measured by your ability to create a solution that not only fixes the problem but completely disrupts the consumer's experience within that problem."