Imagine you're a startup co-founder. You're developing technology that seems, well, almost magical. Your team is delivering. Some of the pieces of your product are in place. But still, you constantly get questions from all angles: From your investors, your board, your team... 

And eventually you do what many startup founders have done before: You search for the right leader to help bring your dreams to fruition.

Unfortunately, that search results in a classic startup cautionary tale, signaling -- in hindsight -- the moment when a business first starts to fall apart.

But not in the case of Rodney Williams and LISNR.

LISNR is a near-ultrasonic, extremely-low-power data transmission technology that enables fast and secure communication between devices using any speaker and microphone. 

Think data over audio: With LISNR, my mobile device's speaker can communicate -- at a frequency we can't hear -- with another device's microphone, and vice versa. That means no RF devices, expensive hardware, or installed wireless technologies. That means, at the simplest level, that concert tickets, game tickets, airline tickets -- all could be a thing of the past.

Which is why companies like TicketMaster, Visa, and Jaguar are customers, as are a number of professional sports teams, including some from arguably the most tech-forward U.S. sports league, Major League Soccer. And why the investment arm of R/GA, R/GA Ventures, is among its investors. And why LISNR is a 2018 CES Innovation Awards honoree.

According to Rodney, LISNR's CEO, the startup's early days were obviously important, but what happened after he hired President Eric Allen, a tech industry veteran, were defining moments for LISNR, its technology, and its platform.

Take me back to the moments just before Eric came on board. Why did you decide you needed to bring in outside leadership?

Rodney: Like all startups, we found ourselves at an interesting place. (Laughs.) We had made the decision to be a B2B rather than B2C application. The technology we created definitely had components in place, but it wasn't perfect. And we also had some team dynamics issues.

So I went on a hunt to find the perfect leader to help me build the business, to basically find a person that has all the qualities I don't have. 

I reached out to our investors, reached out to TechStars, started doing LinkedIn searches. Through that process I met with about 40 different people. That really expanded my network (laughs), but I didn't find the right fit.

And then at some point I was on the Gracenote website and went to the leadership page. I saw Eric's profile, did some research, cold-emailed him, and we chatted by phone. 

Then Eric and I had coffee. I thought it was a good meeting. 

Eric: The coffee meeting was a lot better than the phone call. (Laughs.)

We had just sold Gracenote to Tribune. Tribune was trying to go from a print to a broadcast company, and we were trying to figure out what Rodney was doing. I was running a $250 million annual business, and we were trying to use audio the way LISNR was. Gracenote was powering recommendations for almost every broadcast network, but we couldn't solve the live experience.

So when he called me and said what he was doing, I thought, "Bull crap. You can't do that. We can't figure it out, so how can you?"

I admittedly had a little bit of a Silicon Valley edge to me. LISNR was this little company in Cincinnatti, and here I was in the heart of Silicon Valley, we're powering Amazon and Sony and iTunes and Samsung. I wasn't listening very well because of that bias. So on the phone, we just didn't connect.

Then, when we met in person, I saw his passion, I saw what they were doing, and I realized I had missed something. LISNR had closed funding, they had interesting people, they were doing interesting things.

Yet you had to decide to leave a great job for a startup.

Eric: When I first talked to my wife about it, she said I was nuts. (Laughs.)

Originally I became a part of the board. After talking to some of the board members, going to a board meeting... I'm a product guy by nature, and the opportunity to create better consumer experiences between mobile devices and events was something I was really passionate about.  

After that board meeting, Rodney said, "Would you be interested?" and I said, "Yes."

Then I had to figure out how to sell my wife on me going from a great job at Gracenote to a startup. (Laughs.) She understood. I really wanted to figure out how to make LISNR work. I was bored, I was no longer innovating, and LISNR was really trying to innovate and change how companies and consumers can interact.

Rodney: He said yes, but his wife, Chica, still had to interview me. (Laughs.) 

So Eric, you come onboard. Where do you start?

Eric: The first thing you always do is assess. We had to figure out how to rewrite the platform to scale for B2B, and then help our customers go B2C. That was good and bad: On the bad side it did mean a software rewrite, but on the good side there were really talented people on the team. 

That process really changed my perspective: I thought Silicon Valley was where the talented people are, but there is a tremendous amount of talent in the Midwest.

So we thought through how to rewrite our software and revised our go-to-market strategy. Rodney had the right vision -- we just had to make sure the software matched what the market required. We met with customers, made sure we understood the requirements beyond Rodney's vision, and started to build out the software stack.

Bringing in a person to help run a company can be tough for a founder. What were those early days like?

Rodney: Number one, I had to learn what I was good at and what I wasn't good at.  And I also had to understand that when our investors, or our board, or our team, questioned things -- questions about product, about how we sell, about when we're ready to go to market, etc. -- that whether you agree with them or not, you get those questions because people aren't necessarily comfortable. The key is to not get upset but to understand the nuances that make people uncomfortable and figure out how to balance that out.

One of things we needed was a person with experience. Not experience in the broad sense, but experience doing something similar, and truly understanding the value proposition of the product. 

I knew we had a good team, but I knew the product needed to do more. So the person we brought in couldn't be another person who was all about vision. They had to have a balance between engineering and technology and vision, and that's really hard to find.  

Talk to me about the pivot and the software rewrite. How did that go?

Eric: The rewrite of the software itself, in a way, that part was simple. But the technology also involves physics, and there are certain physical laws you have to follow, and then the laws of mobile devices, laws of operations -- combining all of those is the harder part.

When you write software, ideally you write for a controlled environment. But in our case there's a mobile device you're going to use at a music festival or a sporting event or in a retail environment. We can define what we think the experience will look like, but when the device goes into someone's hands, it's a free-for-all.

A free-for-all we had to solve.

Rodney used to say, "It's a magic show. People say they don't believe what they just saw." 

When you demonstrate "magic" that solves a problem, people need to understand the magic isn't fake. It's not an illusion. We figured out the laws of physics to make this work.

It's real, and you can take advantage of our infrastructure and services and our ecosystem.

There's usually a "credibility gap" when new technology emerges. How have you gotten past that?

Rodney: When we became an Intel portfolio company, eight months after Eric joined, that put gas on the fire to help us not only create the product but accelerate adoption. That gave us instant credibility. Intel has been the leader in the chip space for so many years: A reliable, well-organized, highly complex organization. For them to "bet" on LISNR gave us real credibility. Having that seal of approval from one of the best tech companies in the world was extremely helpful.

Around that time I also truly knew this would work. In some ways, Eric and I are opposites. I'm not Silicon Valley. I'm not an engineer. I'm more vision, Eric is more process, performance, etc.

And I'm super cheap, and Eric is Silicon Valley. (Laughs.) 

I knew that we could work out that balance. Eric could lead this company to exactly where we need to go.

Maintaining that balance, and harnessing the power of complementary skills, is a tricky thing.

Eric: Rodney and I sometimes speak two different languages (laughs), but there is definitely enough commonality and self-awareness. And we have a ton of respect for each other.

Rodney makes me go outside of my normal pattern-recognition mode. Experience causes you to naturally look for very specific indicators, and Rodney helps me move that needle beyond my norm. He helps me get out of my comfort zone.

For example, I sometimes got frustrated early on and said, "That's not how you build scalable software, how you build a platform a company like Apple would adopt." But to build a great company, you sometimes have to take on the unbelievable.

That's why I joined the company. Sometimes Rodney sets goals and I say, "That isn't impossible, it's not realistic," and then I think, "Hmm. We might not be able to achieve everything you think we can, but there is definitely a stretch we can achieve." 

That's how you build a better company. I challenge Rodney to think beyond vision and scale, and he challenges me to not limit ourselves only to what we know.

In some cases, we're doing things no one has ever done -- which means we have to challenge ourselves.

Rodney: That's what makes this work. We're trying to do something that's never been done, and we have to venture into the dark spaces, but with boundaries.

Ultimately, I don't see it as giving up control. I really don't see it that way. 

Now that you're gaining broader adoption, what is your biggest challenge going forward?

Eric: Education. Once you turn illusion into reality, you then have to educate the market.

But in some cases that's already happened. Over the last year we've seen a huge change; now it's less about us educating customers and more about helping them get value out of what we provide. Lenovo already had specs with audio as a requirement. Visa had audio on the payment side in their future road map.  

That's the exciting part. Companies are ready to go. And so are we.

And then we can show them capabilities they didn't even think of, which is even more exciting. (Laughs.) 

Rodney: That raises an interesting point. Timing has been so important. To be here now, at the moment when the market has gone through the awareness and education phases and is now moving into the product fit phase, it's taken longer than a standard startup but whether we knew it or not, the decisions we made got us to where the product is exactly what people need -- and we're way ahead of everyone.

An investor said, "I've been hearing about this technology for four years, and up until recently I didn't get it."

We hear that a lot now. This could have died in the lab, and then when everyone wanted it, it wouldn't have been ready.

Seven years in, the technology we've created is an awesome story, but the even better story is our team.

Published on: Aug 16, 2018
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