The CEO Story Podcast: Tech Startup CEO Ryan Williams
We are excited to announce that our co-founder, Ryan Williams was featured in the highly credited “Your CEO Story” podcast where they talk about Marketing in the Modern World and bringing creativity in to fruition.
Ryan has more than 15 years of product development, management, and marketing experience and he has been a key figure in a variety of notable companies. Before Wonderment, he served as Vice President of Product Management for Avenue K, an LA-based online fashion marketplace. Ryan was also the key product management leader for two successful startup exits – Burstly, acquired by Apple in 2014 & Baseline – acquired by The New York Times in 2006.
Ryan has excelled as a product and marketing leader, helping to design, build and market websites, applications, and user acquisition strategies across a variety of platforms. His specialty lies in Mobile, Web, Ad Tech, and eCommerce platforms and his domain knowledge reaches deep into the Ad Tech, eCommerce and Entertainment sectors.
The Tech Startup CEO Story Podcast Transcript
Marketing in the Modern World with Ryan Williams
[00:00:00.060] – Kc Chohan
Welcome to The CEO Story brought to you by Casey Chohan, founder of Together CFO, where every week we’re interviewing the top CEOs in various industries, sharing their journey and extracting the top things that made them successful.
[00:00:16.110] – Kc Chohan
Hey, guys, we’ve got a fantastic episode today. We’ve got Ryan Williams. Ryan has got a fantastic past record with companies like Sony, Apple, The New York Times, just to name a few, and also is the co-founder and partner of Wonderment Apps. So thank you so much, Ryan, for taking the time to join us. How are you doing?
[00:00:36.950] – Ryan Williams
Yeah. Pleasure to be here. I’m doing great today. Thanks.
[00:00:39.330] – Kc Chohan
Why don’t we start by just sharing a little bit about wonderment and what you guys do and then we can get into your history in the background.
[00:00:46.570] – Ryan Williams
Cool. Yeah, wonderment. We’ve been around for about five years. We started as a couple of guys coming out of a startup together and a CTO and a chief product officer. And then we decided to build a development company that was really focused on how we integrate great product into great tech. And the company evolved over the course of the time, has really grown. We worked on hundred plus projects in the last little bit and really what we’ve discovered is that talent sits at the center of everything and it’s been it’s been great to to work with them.
[00:01:24.940] – Ryan Williams
So our business now consists kind of two lines, kind of the original vision of building products out from scratch. So we do everything from product development to design and the technical development. So all the coding and then and then we do the Q&A and then we launch it and manage it. That ranges from kind of small web projects or things like that to much more advanced technical software pieces that might use a lot of advanced technology. And we also from that we have a really great staff augmentation business as well, where we resource amazing developers of product developers, designers and QA engineers, and we make them available to companies that have really well built tech structures to them and just need the help they can come in and they’re highly trained and highly qualified and just rock out projects for them within their environments.
[00:02:22.000] – Ryan Williams
So, yeah, that’s kind of the core of what Wonderment is and all of it kind of at the heart of it. We’ve built in this theory that we kind of all of that, all the work that we do, we want to put that look of wonderment and somebody’s eyes. So we really want it to be like high quality engineering that really delivers effectively and is just great to use. It’s great for the users.
[00:02:47.110] – Kc Chohan
And you can see the level of work just by looking at your website. And one of the best taglines is design like a butterfly code like a bee really, really resonates with that one.
[00:02:58.970] – Ryan Williams
Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. And it speaks a ton about us. We really have the creative side on the design and product development and we take and translate that into like just that kind of like that bee coding like they work together to get things done and create something really robust and powerful community. And that’s kind of the magic of the company. It’s we’ve done a great job of bringing those things together and are fantastic.
[00:03:23.690] – Kc Chohan
OK, so before we get into how you grew the company from zero to thirty plus employees and had all this fantastic success, it was obviously built on a really good, solid foundation. So if we rewind back through your journey, can we just start kind of at the beginning and after you finished school at UCLA and kind of went into the working world, you were more on the marketing side of things. And how did that kind of impact where you are today and build a foundation for you and your co-founder to really kind of connect and add different elements to this business?
[00:04:02.470] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, yeah, it’s funny, when I first got out of UCLA and into the working world, the Internet was still a relatively small thing. It just really hadn’t.
[00:04:12.580] – Kc Chohan
It’s so crazy right now is that with everything that we do to the.
[00:04:16.600] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, you never even really I mean, unless you were really into computer science, you never really considered it as a potential career path. Certainly not what it is today. I mean, it’s the foundation of so much of our communication. But when I came out, I originally got into the film business, which is pretty exciting. I work with some really great companies during that time and learned a lot about the way the media worked. And it was a fantastic handful of years of my life and took a lot away from that. And I transitioned out of that into a pretty early stage social networking for business website. And they were like, hey, we need somebody to do marketing here. And I did have a little bit of background in that coming of the film industry. And I got my feet wet. It was a startup and it was a startup in the nineties. So it was a very unusual like getting to be something that early. So I experienced the first kind of Web explosion, Web 1.0 and saw like I got into it kind of right as it was happening and saw all the challenges and things that happen in there.
[00:05:21.790] – Ryan Williams
And then when it kind of busted and kind of rebuilt itself or reframed itself, I got to see kind of the rebirth of technology and how people were doing it again. And at that point, things became much, much more scalable. And we all learned a ton. So and then you start to see kind of this Wild West mentality become a little more a little more synchronized into a true business. But the thing I loved about it was the speed that you could create and put something live. Right? It was always this thing inspired me about it. And it’s still to this day, I love that aspect of it is that the iteration possibilities are unlike a few things that are out there. So you can innovate, put it out, give feedback, innovate again, put it out, get feedback. And that part was, is and always was exciting to me. And so I started working for a startup at that point and we built the startup.
[00:06:15.550] – Ryan Williams
We were purchased once by a company like Hollywood Media, which was owned by Hollywood.com and kind of kept building tools within that industry, then ultimately merged in and joined The New York Times, where I worked for quite a while with them. And I really got to see at that point the way that a major player in media was taking really kind of smart, interesting advances and in the way that they were going to use the Internet and the way they’re going to do these things.
[00:06:46.330] – Ryan Williams
And I just kept learning and kept getting deeper into the product process and learning how to develop products, how to put them out and how to make them exciting. And then, yeah, and from that, it was a great learning working within that organization. And then after that, I went back and worked at another startup, which was an ad tech company, and then developed some other developer tools, one of which became pretty, pretty big as we were acquired then by Apple.
[00:07:18.230] – Kc Chohan
Ryan you got really big acquisitions or exits. What was it like going through that and what kind of were the points that attracted those bigger companies in to buy your companies?
[00:07:31.450] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, that’s a good question. So I think in both cases we’re innovating in areas that they were both interested in and kind of exploring and getting into. I think on the on The New York Times side of things, they were playing with a lot of Web properties at that point that were outside of their core brand like they owned about.com and a handful of other notable properties. And this particular property really put out a lot of data into a whole bunch of different sources and into the like out across the Internet.
[00:08:04.060] – Ryan Williams
And so we do a lot of data licensing and really smart things built around that. And I think they were just looking at like, OK, how much can we expand the total accessibility and some of these kind of quadrants of where they did news? And so I think as that kind of died down and that kind of 20 turn and they shifted back to their main kind of like environments. But it was really amazing to see the way that they weren’t doing just news, that they were looking at the way that any kind of data play.
[00:08:34.060] – Ryan Williams
And we’re just a really good fit for that particular thing and had some foundational relationships with them, integrations. And then with Apple, we just were doing really innovative stuff on mobile technology. That’s it’s kind of comes down to that, like really advanced, innovative thinking about the way that that kind of the earlier mobile technology can work with software and the way the developers could use the stuff that we were we’re building because we’re really ultimately building a set of tools for developers.
[00:09:02.610] – Ryan Williams
So just really advanced engineering that they could tap into and then plug into Apple’s whole environment. So and then that had reach well beyond just the companies that were used us. But really all the people that were on the iOS platform. So it really made sense. And they had a we had one product in particular that’s a core product for them, for their developers call test flight. That is just been a powerhouse. And it’s amazing to watch it go. But it was an amazing experience to see the kind of like innovation and just powerful tools that the company offers to become what they become.
[00:09:46.170] – Kc Chohan
So let’s look at that and then let’s fast forward a little bit from that, because then from there, you had a product management over Avenue K and then started into more of the raw photography and some other companies. So how was that then at that point where you exited Apple, Apple have bought your company and you moved on to the next one, which was very different. How did you find that? What were the challenges that you faced at that point?
[00:10:14.780] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, yeah, so the third startup I was with was a fashion startup, and it was actually it is a marketplace, so it was my first real experience doing an e-com in marketplace. And we did it at a very advanced level. And that really had honed in on the e-commerce aspect of things and how to do build a totally customized platform that was super powerful and had a lot. And it was a two sided platform. So it handled sellers and buyers and it was it’s a big piece of what we did. We work with a lot of companies are doing that in SaaS and e-commerce and things like that now. But that particular company be a big thing we learned is to get a marketplace going.
[00:10:57.980] – Ryan Williams
It takes time. You really have to cultivate the relationships, especially on the seller side of the marketplace, so that you have great environments that if people want to come in and sell on your marketplace, that they have all the tools they need to do the power selling that they need and be able to help you acquire the buyers. So there’s a lot of exploration in that. And I think, yeah, it’s an interesting one. I think the other thing that you run up against with those is just like how do you scale effectively.
[00:11:28.460] – Ryan Williams
So picking up like some of the tools about where you put your money as you’re growing in a startup and figuring that out. Those are some of the things we came up to. But like we had a really sizable audience until it just we ended up having to shut it down and it felt like we might be able to flip it like we might be getting there. But it never quite happened. But it was an exciting product and working in the fashion industry was really interesting.
[00:11:54.470] – Kc Chohan
So what made you shut it down?
[00:11:57.440] – Ryan Williams
We basically just I think that some of the core formulas that had to be there for the marketplace to really blow up didn’t seem like they were quite in place. And it was going to take a while to keep experimenting to get to them. And I guess the owners probably just didn’t have an appetite for that. But that particular one, I think if it had, as a tech startup CEO, a little more runway, it probably could. We were trying to do some pretty innovative stuff with international fashion sales and thinking about that. So, you know, that’s just the way those go. Sometimes you just have to get them going and see if you can figure out the formula or not.
[00:12:34.690] – Kc Chohan
That’s a really good message as well, is that even though you just had two huge exits, one, The New York Times, one to Apple, it doesn’t mean everything that you touch will obviously lead to success. Right? It’s always going to be ups and downs, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s just part of the journey along the way.
[00:12:53.940] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, one of the things I notice is like especially those two earlier exits we built really great stuff. It was awesome what we built. In fact, the one that Apple, like the technology was mind blowing. But like I will say, like they were pieces that fit within those organizations at the time that they needed. And really one of the things is like being out in front of trends as the startup is a really valuable thing. So like so it being able to spot the innovation early and knowing and hopefully the CEO forecasts, you’re moving towards an innovation.
[00:13:27.380] – Ryan Williams
I think it puts you in a good position to be in early conversations around that type of business, but also like just be able to show off what you have and kind of have early stage adopters and champions who support you and kind of drive you through on the customer side is really valuable. So I think both those plays had that built into it. And we’re doing smart, innovative things. And, you know, like these are I think in the Peter Thiel’s book, “Zero to One”, like kind of talked about like supercharged kind of like innovations that really make a huge difference. They create exits. And I think that’s probably pretty true. You’re smelling out where the market’s going and getting ahead of it as an entrepreneur.
[00:14:16.700] – Kc Chohan
OK, got it! So now let’s fast forward into Wonderment, kind of focus a little bit more on that, because the company that you co-founded right now started about five years ago. And within those five years of scale, that pretty quickly, what have been some of the key things that have been had to happen for you to kind of build that success quite quickly?
[00:14:39.290] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s been it’s been a ride. One of the things I’ll say to start is that my partner and I had quite a bit of experience going into this particular style of business, which is an agency or service service oriented business. So like as an entrepreneur, if you’re starting a startup that’s product oriented, there is some level, I think, more room for mistake because you’re usually coming in with investment and you’re tinkering and experimenting a lot more.
[00:15:12.710] – Ryan Williams
And in the style of the business we’re in, we have to execute almost immediately. It’s just a basic requirement, and to do that, you have to show that you know what you know. So you’re a young tech startup CEO and you are walking in and basically you’re helping organizations fill spots are fill needs that they have either on we need these projects done of these things have to happen and we can’t help you a lot. You just got to do them. Or they need the level of consulting, which in a lot of companies we work with or transitioning from non technology into the technology, they’re really just like feeling into it for the first time.
[00:15:47.510] – Ryan Williams
And we’re teaching them we’re literally the first teachers they have in this area. So our expertise and our guidance in those areas are pretty vital. We were ready for that. My partner and I were ready to be able to do that out of the gate. I think that was an important part of it. So we weren’t just kind of like heads down in the code or the design or thinking about these things, but actually able to come in on a leadership level and guide the companies and say, OK, you want to do this and this and so that.
[00:16:12.630] – Ryan Williams
So that kind of help build up a good relationship with a good starting base of clients. And then we have some bigger organizations that can bring the leadership to the table. Right? So they start to see, OK, you guys are training developers the right way. You guys have the right insight on how to move into technical processes fast, things like that. And we really have to be chameleons. And it’s like I think like a lot of times businesses are working to establish a name for themselves and identity, stuff like that.
[00:16:41.910] – Ryan Williams
We also have to do that as well. But we also have to be able to be chameleons and go in and really fit in the systems effectively and hear what the needs are of the client and be able to adjust to the client and at the same time give them some really good we call them recommendations. So a lot of times they’re like necessities, but we’re always recommending whether that’s going to be something that works or not.
[00:17:05.810] – Ryan Williams
So having that foundation allowed us to get started in the safe way so we can make decisions along the way. And then as we took on clients, we really learned how an agency business works, because kind of like that marketplace piece I was just talking about, this is a totally different model as well. So the business model we didn’t have an experience in and it took a lot of learning to understand the dynamics of the actual the dynamics of the way the finances work, dynamics of the way that everything from invoicing to receivables to like all of it was a completely different thing because we’ve been working on products.
[00:17:38.570] – Ryan Williams
So I think understanding the core model of whatever business you’re in, it’s like as fast as you can understand that as an entrepreneur or obviously people have been doing it for a while to get this. But it’s vital. It’s a vital piece. And so that was the biggest kind of scary thing for us.
[00:17:55.760] – Kc Chohan
I think it boils back to a solid foundation, really understanding each element of it. I think you touched on this slightly, but education is one of the best ways to bring in clients in terms of offering immense value, which I know you guys do a great job of . Yeah, we spoke previously on that. So I think that’s a really good point in terms of how people can go about attracting the ideal clients is to actually give them rather than just trying to sell them something is to help educate them and add real value to them, make their lives easier.
[00:18:33.950] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, and I think like and I think there is the notion of adding value, which I know is kind of a catchphrase in the industry. And it’s and there’s also this spot to where we’re in a business where it is really confusing. Just people, genuine people are genuinely not in full comprehension of how the whole thing works and how the system works. And I have a very basic I’ll give you a very quick version of it, but I have a very basic way that and I think this is good for any especially sales teams or simplifying your business message into a digestible bite for people to understand.
[00:19:10.040] – Ryan Williams
But for us, I’m like we’re basically like a construction firm and we have an architecture firm to us. And we can kind of go into the way that that technology really maps to like building the house. So you have the foundation layer, which is the data. You have the walls that are up and that are kind of the skeleton of the walls and the plumbing behind it, which is the kind of the back end or server side, the down side of it. And then you’ve got the nice walls and the front, the drywall and everything, which is the front end. And then you have the graphic design or the interior design of the building. You put all these pieces together and you’re literally constructing a digital building
[00:19:46.520] – Kc Chohan
I like that! That makes a lot of kind of pieces it together and a really good analogy and a good story that people can kind of visualize, right?
[00:19:54.920] – Ryan Williams
Yeah. And right off the bat, people like, oh, OK, I can hook into that. And it’s relatively complex business. So there are a lot of a lot of innovation going on.
[00:20:03.800] – Kc Chohan
It’s very complex. I have no idea when I see code on a screen, it’s like we try to fix that.
[00:20:10.880] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, it’s like literally a different language.
[00:20:14.710] – Kc Chohan
And then can we just touch on the point of you and your co-founder having such different backgrounds but being able to connect and run the organization and having that balance.
[00:20:26.690] – Ryan Williams
The best decision of my life as a tech startup CEO, I can tell you that. You know, what’s funny is we’re very different, but we have such a great communication system between us. And we have our partnership things that we sometimes get into. But generally it is excellent because there really is like our business itself. There’s there’s a kind of more creative sales partner in there. And there’s a there’s an operational technical partner in there. We kind of have the personality types that fit those things. So we really like together, though, we collaborate super well. And like that collaboration is kind of really pushed throughout the entire organization as a key part of how we have to work and work for what we do.
[00:21:09.580] – Ryan Williams
Creative as Apple taught me creative and technology meeting together. And if they do it effectively, it’s an extremely powerful thing. But with two business partners, it’s kind of the same thing. You get a lot you get a lot of breadth from having these two sides and two people that respect and trust each other. And it’s been my partner has been an incredible, incredible ally and challenges me in ways that I don’t expect. And I think I challenge him in ways that he’s like, OK, I’m up for it, let’s do this. But like that our willingness and ability to go into that has been at the foundation of us to be able to grow a company like we have. And it’s been a great experience.
[00:21:52.720] – Kc Chohan
You talked about technical marketing and operations, but what about the finance side? So you guys bring like technical and marketing and sales experience. But on the finance side, how did you bridge that gap is from what I understand, none of you were finance experts going into this.
[00:22:12.460] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, well, the good news is that as a tech startup CEO I have some level of expertise because I was doing so much product management over the course of time. And a big part of that is actually managing the sales of individual products. And I was doing those for pretty large scale companies as well. So I really was taught well and how to do a product centric finance management and projections. And in doing so, I had some and I’ve been able to leverage some of it. But where we ran into problems and we’ve really had to learn how to reach out and get help. And some of the more advanced finance is the model itself is different than some of the areas that we’ve run into.
[00:22:49.930] – Ryan Williams
So we make we make guesses. And then and I think we’ve paid for once or twice by making the wrong, wrong kind of finance estimations or projections. And then we realize, OK, it’s vital to have, like, those kind of people surrounding us that they can help out. So a lot of our kind of foundational, just administrative financial management stuff happens in house. We get to that and then we work with a couple of really good, really good partners that come in and are just experts in this stuff.
[00:23:19.660] – Ryan Williams
Right. So we know there is way better than us. And that’s really, really what we’re looking for, is somebody that can talk either myself as a tech startup CEO or my partner in this area. And even I’ll talk about can actually showed on the page and how it makes sense. The good news for us is because of what we do, we’re extremely, extremely analytical and we’re able to break down and assess things. So we’re really good checkpoint. But a lot of the more innovative finance and stuff like that, that’s going to happen to be able to do smart projections on resourcing or smart projections on the way that we’re going to like approach a project that’s really been we’ve had great help with that over the course of time. And that’s been worthwhile.
[00:23:59.080] – Kc Chohan
I think that makes a lot of sense. You know, a lot of people get bogged down with the number side of things, the cash flow specifically. And it is a really good way to kind of mitigate a lot of the cost of a finance person because it can be quite expensive. So bringing someone in on a part time basis as and when needed makes a lot of sense.
[00:24:18.140] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, we’ve been looking at we have like a part time CFO who comes in and does like that level. We don’t need all the time, but we do need when we need it. We need him in our business. We need him to answer some. Like basically I’m really challenging problems to go after and think about the rest of it. The rest of it are admin teams pretty well equipped to do and can rock through the great software and great basic financial elements like bookkeeping and the administrative management. But we do have a lot of moving parts in our company with so many different people.
[00:24:47.170] – Kc Chohan
So like that and HRR and some of these other kind of secondary elements, we’ve had to have a combination of people in-house and really good kind of high level assistants.
[00:25:00.100] – Ryan Williams
Great. Well, Ryan, thank you so much for your time. If people wanted to reach out to you, check out your website. What’s the best way for them to do that?
[00:25:07.390] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, we’re at www.wondermentapps.com. You can find us on LinkedIn under Wonderment Apps as well, and then my LinkedIn personally is Ryanl812 so you can hit me up there directly.
[00:25:20.970] – Kc Chohan
And we’ll leave the link to that just below here. So if you want to reach out to Ryan just hit the button. Ryan, thank you again for all your time and the constant nuggets of information you shared to be fantastic.
[00:25:31.850] – Ryan Williams
Yeah, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.