McGuire Grad Says Grit Is Key To Startup Success

 Matt Williams, ’93, founder and CEO of Pro.com
November 29, 2016
Sarah Mauet

Alumni Profile: Matt Williams, ’93, founder and CEO of Pro.com

Matt Williams, currently the founder and CEO of Pro.com, grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and never doubted that he wanted to be one as well. The first step to achieving that dream was to attend the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program.

“For me as a 16-year-old, I looked at the University of Arizona – specifically the Eller College and the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program – as a bright shining star, as my ticket,” Williams said. “I looked at all the universities I could go to, and I chose the University of Arizona because of its dedication to entrepreneurship, which was very forward looking back in 1990.”

Williams took a piece of paper and wrote down every class he wanted to take at the UA, and he ended up taking every single one of those classes plus about four more classes, all while graduating in 3 years.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “What the entrepreneurship program really did for me was it raised my game.”

Williams credits the fact that he worked with graduate students and received quality advice from mentors for the elevation of his business acumen, but one simple piece of feedback has stuck with him over the years. During a critique of his business plan, his mentor told him that he should take a bottom-up approach starting with the number of unit sales required to contribute to the financial model numbers.

“It’s a very small thing, but to have that kind of guidance was super powerful because it made me think of our business from the bottom up,” he said. “Every financial model I’ve ever come up with has had the unit financial model assumptions. It was extremely valuable for my own future of financial modeling.”

While Williams knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, he also decided that he wanted some real-world work experience before he started his own company. After graduating from the UA, he took a job at a large company, NCR Corporation, which was owned by AT&T. However, true to his entrepreneurial nature and training, he found himself drawn to finding innovative solutions to challenges he identified within the company.

“I had a phenomenal experience innovating within the enterprise,” he said. “I got a business analyst job, but I taught myself to program and I built an internal application that pulled together 10 to 12 different disparate systems within the company and made the jobs of the thousand-plus business analysts significantly easier. That application ended up being sponsored and developed as a nationwide tool for the entire company. I was 20 at the time. I got special recognition from the CEO of NCR who has become a friend and was an investor in both of my startups.”

This experience prepared Williams to start his first business, a technology firm that built custom software solutions for other companies. His company built some of the earliest versions of many products and platforms that are commonplace now, he said.

“We built one of the earliest survey products, we built one of the earliest java search engines, we built a comparison search engine for consumer retail products, we built one of the earliest audio clip audio organizing tools for the Internet, and we built an auction product - foundational early stage stuff,” he said. “Before all these other companies – Survey Monkey, Amazon, Ebay – built the products we’re all so familiar with today, we built five products for other companies.”

Williams realized that he had several ideas from which he could have created products and built businesses. However, he knew that the concept is only the beginning of the process, so decided to focus on the one idea that he thought had the highest probability of success. He chose auctions.

“I am a firm believer that the idea is 2 percent of the business,” he said. “It’s not as much about the idea as it is the commitment, will, and grit to continually try, try, try to see an idea through to a product that demonstrates product-market fit and unit economics that work, all while not derailing yourself. It’s a tough balance.”

In 1996, Williams founded LiveBid.com, which pioneered live, event-based auctions on the Internet. The company’s technology enabled auction houses to broadcast their auctions over the Internet in real-time and allowed online bidders to participate in offline auctions. The company gained exposure through some high-profile auctions, such as the sale of the original Batmobile featured in "Batman Returns" and the 1999 O.J. Simpson estate auction.

In 1999, the small startup went looking for venture backing, and ended up being the subject of a bidding war between eBay, Yahoo and Amazon. Williams decided to go with Amazon, which offered stock worth $50 million. He worked at Amazon, pursuing innovation from within the company for 11 years. He led early iterations of several web products, including Amazon's Selling on Amazon and WebStore by Amazon.

“I spent a significant part of my career having built an auction company and then inside of Amazon building Amazon’s third-party marketplace, which is now 35 to 40 percent of all units sold,” he said. “It was a monumental effort to try to win that space. Building out that marketplace taught me a lot about what to do, what not to do, the dynamics of the marketplace itself, so I knew there were endless opportunities for building marketplaces for many different categories.” 

Williams went on to be the CEO of Digg, the social news aggregator, for two years, and was Entrepreneur in Residence at Andreesen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, for a year. During that time, he analyzed large service categories for the biggest problems, the biggest level of segmentation, and also the largest market opportunity. 

“I analyzed 30 to 40 different service industries, from haircuts to contractors,” he said. “Owning the home from a service perspective is a really big deal. It’s a $350 billion market, 44 percent of which is spent on home improvements and larger projects. No one is tackling that from a technology perspective.”

Enter Pro.com, a new marketplace for home service professionals that Williams founded in 2013. Pro.com seeks to simplify home services by providing price transparency around home improvement jobs and connecting customers directly with qualified, high-rated contractors. The company has received $17.5 million in three rounds of funding. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, was one of the seed investors.

“It’s very rewarding to create something from scratch,” Williams said. “There’s certainly a lot I can offer a larger company, and I love the dynamics. Amazon had under 1,000 employees when I was acquired and is now over 200,000 employees. I can operate in a large company, but I would like to build my own company that becomes a large company. To build something that truly lasts the test of time. You transition from the adrenaline of a startup and making something out of nothing, to thinking about what legacy one leaves in life. That’s where I am now. I’m out to build the next Amazon.”