Outside the Comfort Zone: Dave Williams

In the fall of 2015, a series of new alumni profiles and feature stories were written for Washington and Lee University, providing dynamic content to connect with prospective students, alumni and donors.

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Climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, rafting the Zambezi River in Africa, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, touring the jungles in Colombia and biking through Vietnam. For Dave Williams ’93, exploring the world is good for business.

“To stand on the edge of a cliff and feel the energy run through your body as you decide what to do next without falling – it’s about learning to adapt to new situations and thrive in diversity,” he said. “I always say running a business is more about survival than success, more about your ability to dodge icebergs.”

As a business administration and accounting major, Williams began his career on a traditional trajectory. He worked for three years at Pricewaterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) after graduation and earned his CPA shortly thereafter. But an itch to do something more entrepreneurial led him to Emory University in Atlanta, where he enrolled in a one-year MBA program specializing in marketing and the Internet. A speaker in one of Williams’ classes took the students on a tour of his company – a web development start-up.

“This was back in 1996-97, right when the Internet was about to explode, right when Yahoo had just gone public and Amazon was a small company with less than $10 million in sales,” Williams said. “I was studying different businesses and writing case studies and looking at the growth curves of the Internet, and I kind of became obsessed and knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t know what it was going to take, but I knew this was what I had to do with my life – I had found my calling.”

Not long after graduating from Emory, Williams took a position with IBM Global Services, where he worked as a consultant for e-business initiatives. But it wasn’t long before Williams’ entrepreneurial spirit took over; he left “Big Blue,” teamed up with an Emory classmate and co-founded 360i, just five years after his W&L graduation.

“Back in 1998, companies were just starting to launch websites, and we were helping them promote their sites through banner ads, search engines and full service digital marketing solutions,” Williams said. “The goal was to drive online, repeatable digital sales and offer a full 360-degree digital relationship with online customers.”

Without realizing it, Williams and his business partner had launched the first full-service digital ad agency in the Southeast, with just a $7,500 personal investment.

“We started off working from our shared apartment and didn’t take salaries for the first three years; instead we just invested everything back into the company,” Williams said. “This was the Internet heyday in 1999 and 2000, and 360i was one of the first agencies to buy ads on Google. We had grown without any outside funding to about 55 employees – all hard-working friends who were excited to be part of our success. Then the .com crash hit, and we lost 80 percent of our clients in six weeks.”

The company went through three rounds of layoffs and put its remaining employees on a four-day workweek, just trying to survive the Internet fallout. Williams watched as most of his competitors shut down. He decided to shift focus, and 360i was reborn as a search engine marketing specialist firm in 2001.

In 2004, Williams launched another venture – a proprietary ad tech platform called SearchIgnite (now IgnitionOne). The company bought search engine advertising on Google, Yahoo and MSN, using advanced algorithms to optimize performance and returns on investments. In 2005, Williams sold 360i and IgnitionOne to a New York City digital media company. The combined companies now have over 1,500 employees across the world, managing over $3 billion in digital advertising.

After 360i was sold, Williams stayed on with the company before eventually leaving to travel through Asia and Europe with his wife Jennifer. The following year, rejuvenated, Williams decided to use his search engine marketing experience to launch BLiNQMedia. The company focused on driving engagement on social media platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, targeting people based on demographics, profile data, interests and affiliations.

As the firm grew, Williams moved from Atlanta to New York, where he opened the company’s corporate headquarters. Other offices in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and London followed. By 2011, the company had been featured in the Wall Street Journal, and Williams was being asked to serve as a contributor on Bloomberg TV and the industry trade publication Ad Age.

In 2012, Facebook went public, and Williams sold BLiNQMedia to Gannett, a leading publicly held Fortune 500 media and marketing company.

“I was able to catch two waves very early – Google with 360i and SearchIgnite and then Facebook with BLiNQ Media,” Williams said. “Looking back on it, you can see that these businesses come with ups and downs. Nothing prepares you for having to hire a few people every week to keep up with business and then to have to pull 20 people into a room right before Christmas to let them all go. I’ve found that I really enjoy the early stages of start-ups, when everyone is working together, solving problems and being creative.”

It’s this attraction to getting in on the ground floor of a new venture that sparked Williams’ interest in W&L’s J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship, which helps students from across campus learn how to turn their creative ideas into successful business ventures.

The center offers entrepreneurship courses, along with programs such as the annual Entrepreneurship Summit, Social Entrepreneurship Summit and business plan competition. The student-run Venture Club hosts guest speakers, pitch competitions and networking sessions to provide real-world consulting to start-ups and entrepreneurial related firms.

Williams will lend his expertise to the center through course lectures, mentoring and involvement in key programs. He will also assist students in their internship and job searches, helping connect them with contacts he has in the advertising and technology industries.

Williams has also financially supported the center through a foundational gift that will help to establish a 10,000 square foot dedicated space for students, faculty and alumni to share ideas and collaborate on entrepreneurial projects and businesses.

“The best part about the center is that it will be the epicenter of innovation and entrepreneurship – a coming together of people from across the university and from all academic disciplines,” Williams said. “It will provide a central place for students and alumni to easily connect … to fuse ideas in new and innovative ways. The best way to prepare to be an entrepreneur is through practice, experience and living outside of your comfort zone.”