Kiwi IT-millionaire Tim Williams was the first foreigner to list a company on the Japanese stock exchange – a wild ride that taught him business and gave him a lifelong bent to jump into an unfamiliar industry. We interviewed him in the lead up to his role as a judge in the New Zealand International Business Awards 2013.
Twenty-three-year old molecular geneticist Tim Williams’ plan was not to jump into IT, but to study Chinese medicine in Beijing – and strike it rich by engineering the raw components.
But on the way over there, a stop-off in Japan foiled his plans – he loved the culture and stayed, teaching English for a couple of years. That is, until he met fellow Kiwi Jonathan Hendriksen, and together they decided to start a business in internet hosting.
Back in 1996, the Internet was still quiet in Japan, and the boys set up the first domestic rental server company in the country.
“Japan did have people selling dedicated boxes (servers), but it was very expensive. We were letting people share a box, which was [seen as] quite amazing back in those days,” says Williams.
At first it was tough, the boys surviving on various day jobs – “Pretty much anything legal, we were doing.” – but the hosting business started to grow, with lucky deals with clients like Japan’s biggest Telco, NTT Docomo. Within two years the business was turning over close to a million dollars, and they had hired three or four staff.
In late 1997 Williams and Hendriksen were introduced to US company ValueClick. It used a click-based ad model and was really the world’s first internet advertising company. They bought the rights to take it to Japan.
By late 1998 the 27-year-olds were running Japan’s first internet ad business. They built up an ad network, raised venture capital and ended up listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in May 2000. It was the first company listed by foreigners in Japan, ever.
“Between mid-1996 and 2000 – four years – it went from zero to going public. And that was four years of working pretty much every day, 15-17 hours a day. But it was exciting and a lot of that was socialising at night with your customers, so it was just full-on,” says Williams.
The learning curve had been steep. “We didn’t know anything about money… we had to learn about venture capital [which was] literally foreign to me – I could have told you anything about DNA but couldn’t tell you much about finance.”
They sold ValueClick in 2004.
Meanwhile, Williams had launched another company in 1999, Valuecommerce, where advertisers paid commission to publishers via ValueCommerce when they saw results to running ads.
The team grew it aggressively from five people to 100 people within about six months, and it was profitable in a year and a half.
In 2005, they sold 49 per cent of ValueCommerce to Yahoo Japan for 11 billion yen (about NZ$13 million), and it was listed in 2007. In November 2012 they made the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Williams says the company now facilitates about $US3 billion in ecommerce, with Valuecommerce clipping the ticket on that. It realised revenues last year of about $NZ150 million, with profit of about $NZ10 million.
“It’s a massive marketplace now – every day 4 million people will click or respond to an ad. It’s become a beast, it’s pretty good,” he says.
Williams resigned from the board about three and a half years ago with his 15 percent shareholding, following a life plan to be back in New Zealand by around age 40.
But that doesn’t mean he’s been sitting pretty at all – some of Williams’ current ventures are outlined below.
Real trading: Crop financing
In Bahia, Brazil, Williams runs Real Trading. It finances farmers’ crops in return for deep discounts on the eventual produce, for resale. His business partner (his CTO from ValueCommerce days is also growing cotton, coffee, papaya and corn. All up, they’re turning over about $US30 million a year – in an area producing $US3 billion dollars’ worth of crops.
Led by Williams’ business partner Jonathan Hendriksen, Shuttlerock is a tool for businesses to use social media effectively. It provides an area on a business’ website where customers or fans can provide content such as photos (to win competitions etc), and share it with their friends. All this fresh information is indexable in the Google domain (whereas social media pages largely are not) so it helps the search engine positioning. And the business gets free photos, traffic, and a database of names if permission is given. With a Beta launch in October 2012, Shuttlerock now has close to 50 clients in New Zealand, the US, Australia, and a few lined up in Japan. Clients in New Zealand include Jucy Rentals, Hunter Furniture, Auckland Tourism, and Reds Super15 Rugby.
Photo wonder New Zealand
Photo Wonder revolutionises school photography by outsourcing to speedy Photoshop-operators in China and India – who clear cut the individually shot subjects, and put them back together on a chosen background, ensuring everyone is there and smiling. “Seems like an odd project, but if you get the model and process right, theoretically anybody doing group photography in the world could start using the API,” says Williams.
Through being on the board of The Icehouse, WIlliams has invested in this company, a cloud-based video production team that can produce corporate videos, product videos or service videos quickly and cheaply, by using a variable workforce of people throughout the world.