Serial entrepreneur Ron J. Williams gets a thrill out of finding problems to solve with technology—and confounding expectations. A Brooklyn native and graduate of specialized public school Stuyvesant High, Williams went on to earn degrees in East Asian Studies and Economics from Harvard. Then he walked away from a budding career in finance and started a tutoring business, did event marketing, and for three years worked on business-development projects at the publisher Scholastic. All of which helped him realize that, ultimately, his place was "in the wild," pursuing ideas and crafting solutions that didn’t necessarily fit into other people’s boxes. Here, the snowboarding, motorcycle-loving math geek talks about job transitions, new paradigms of work, and the importance of not letting yourself be pigeonholed.
FAST COMPANY: A few years ago, you launched SnapGoods, an online marketplace for borrowing stuff from your friends and neighbors. Your latest startup is called Knodes—what is that?
RON WILLIAMS: The goal is to make conversations from content. We wrongly assume that online sharing is implicitly social; but it’s only social if someone responds. The idea with Knodes is that whenever you encounter something in the world that you care about it, you know who to share it with.
To do that, you need to mine data from my social network, right? Facebook wants to do that all the time, and I don’t let them. Why should I let you?
Facebook wants you not to be on Twitter. I care about you as a person, and your causes—not about whether you’re on Facebook or Twitter. We take a first-person perspective, mining data coming from conversations across your social networks to give you a better map of your world, with better texture. Our assumption is that if we can make life easier, better, and more entertaining, and help you support causes you care about, you’ll be willing to "pay" me by granting access to your data.
So, what I could I do with that?
Say you want to throw a fundraiser for Obama—who do you share that with? Knodes can help you find not just people who are talking about Obama. Maybe you also want to see who’s finished a Ph.D., who lives in Brooklyn, or who cares about the issue of same-sex marriage. Even people who are highly engaged talk to only 5% of their network, so they barely know who they're connected to. Ninety-five percent of your network is completely under-leveraged. I want to help you find the people in your network who never respond to you, and also to see who the people in your network go out and relate to. Social is storytelling. Knodes is about finding the people who care about the things you do, and equipping those people to take your story out into the world. Technology isn’t inherently interesting to me. What I get excited about is how people get to use technology in the wild—finding moments of utter delight, realizing how rich their network really is.
Is there a connection between Knodes and your previous company, SnapGoods?
We thought SnapGoods was originally about connecting people to physical assets. We realized over time that we were actually connecting people to people who were able to help them in specific ways. To make SnapGoods work more effectively and efficiently, we had to help people mine the most fertile asset they actually have: their network. Knodes is tech that helps make networks actually work.
Before you started doing your own companies, you worked some pretty conventional jobs—was it important to have that experience?
Those jobs were training grounds. And I think the end points are always sort of fascinating. I walked away from an analyst stint at Merrill Lynch right before I would have gotten my second-year annual bonus—this was 40 or 50 grand, at age 23. But I realized that I’d learned what I came to learn, and I was bored out of my mind. I didn’t love the work or respect most of the folks I was working with. The last thing I said to myself before I left was, if my entire career is going to be defined by not taking 40 grand, then I’m screwed anyway. So I should just speed that up and find out. That was a seminal, liberating moment. There was always another opportunity to make money. I learned invaluable skills—how to really deconstruct a business—and I’m glad I did it. And glad I left.
It’s one thing to walk away from a $40,000 bonus when you’re in your early 20s and single. It’s another to do it when you’re older—and in a job market like this one.
I think about that now because I just got married and I’m 35. But we live in a world where everything is being broken into smaller pieces and becoming more distributed. This can help you take the strengths you have and monetize them. I don’t need a job if I can get three part-time jobs. The cost of doing things independently is coming down, and organizations like the Freelancers Union are helping support a legitimate new kind of worker by providing benefits and advocacy. As a country, we shouldn’t be thinking that we either have to create jobs in manufacturing or we’re screwed. Instead, we need to address a new model of partial, hyper-employment.
It’s become a popular myth of entrepreneurship that if you follow a formula—say, the lean startup model of building a minimal viable product and iterating—you can succeed at doing startups. Do you buy the idea that anyone can become an entrepreneur?
I’m always torn how to answer that. In terms of actually building stuff, I think people shortchange themselves. Entrepreneurship for me comes out of discontent. If you hate the way something works and you’re obsessed with the problem, you’re on your way. I talked to a woman at South by Southwest this year who was trying to figuring out what she wanted to do. I asked her, "What are you passionate about? How do you spend your time?" She said she liked to do pottery, and I said, "Why not do it more?" She starts detailing the problem of finding a studio that’s somewhere between casual and professional. We started talking through it, and she saw that the problem was the start of a potential solution that she could start building. So, in that way, anyone can do it. On the other hand, people romanticize the idea of entrepreneurship. I wish I was content to do something stable and make more money. But it’s a personality quirk.
Have you started something that was a total failure?
Totally. I’m not a huge sports guy, but I enjoy the World Cup. In 2008, I wanted to watch a specific game, and it occurred to me that it was really difficult to figure out what bar or restaurant was showing the game on TV. How would you do that? Probably Google something like "sports bar, World Cup, TV," right? But that’s going to leave out the fancy hotel bar, the restaurant with a TV—and you’re going to be relying on someone updating a website. For all those reasons, the current system isn’t working. I thought there should be a dead-simple way to search what’s actually on all those TV sets. If a number of people are looking to watch a certain game, you can get that signal to the market and get a bar owner to show it. It sounded nice, but I need to actually install hardware on the TV sets, which was prone to break, and the costs were untenable. I spent a year of my life on this pet project, trying to get funded. I still think there’s something there, but I didn’t know what I was doing.
You went to good schools—Stuyvesant High School in New York, and Harvard—and you’ve been involved in education through mentoring and advocacy work. Yet a lot of entrepreneurs dismiss the importance of formal education. How much does school really matter?
The formal education I’ve had is great—I’ve got a pedigree on paper. But my network is the most valuable thing to come out of my formal education. You are who you are around. We need to do everything we can to get everyone a great formal education, but more important is to instill an inquisitive nature—a hunger for finding out why, for getting to the bottom of things. Mentoring is crucial, and so are models. I’m a 6-foot-tall black guy who went to Stuyvesant—I can show kids like me that Harvard is a viable option. Your options aren’t what you think they are. You can’t tell what I am by looking at me anymore than I can tell by looking at you.
I read a lot of business press and honestly I haven’t seen a lot of stories about African-American guys doing tech startups. Is that an accurate reflection of reality?
The halls are not teeming with men and women of color, but we are here and we’re achieving and growing in number. The rate of change is increasing, but the total numbers still aren’t great. The best thing we can do is get out and support one another—and whenever possible to be a model for other people. You’ve got kids in my generation, who went to Harvard, and thought that their only careers options were being doctors and lawyers. We’re still only about 30 years removed from the civil rights movement, and people want security and success. I want them to see that there’s also a whole wonderful world of technology they can explore that doesn’t require living on ramen noodles and sleeping on floors.
In all your online bios, you mention a bunch of your hobbies—motorcycles, snowboarding. Obviously, you believe in having a life outside of work—why is that important? And why is it important to let people know that?
I’ll answer the second part first. I like being a little unpredictable. I may not necessarily look like I love technology, or talking about natural-language processing or evolutionary biology. That gives me an edge. I also think it’s hugely important to have stuff you love that’s not work stuff. You gain access to different parts of your brain and different parts of your network. You find you’re able to port solutions from one area to another, and you start to see patterns you never would have otherwise seen—maybe a nonprofit idea you could apply to a brand, or a friend who works in nanomaterials makes me think about a buddy's educational initiative. That to me is the most valuable piece—cultivating that open-mindedness.
* This interview has been condensed and edited.