Technology, life lessons go together for Mike Williams
Humble pie has been added to the menu at Mike Williams’ table since he and three partners, including his twin brother, Matt, founded software development firm Springthrough 10 years ago.
“There were four of us back in 2000,” Williams recalled. “I was 30 and … I knew it all, absolutely all.
“And boy, did I have absolutely no clue what I was doing. I tell everybody, I’ve had more failures than I’ve had successes. Just, fortunately, the failures are small enough where they haven’t exceeded the successes.”
Over the past decade, Williams has learned more about business and more about people as he has shepherded Springthrough from concept to a $4 million per year enterprise with 32 employees. By 2005, he had bought out his partners, and today he not only runs Springthrough, 2300 Oak Industrial Drive NE, but has a stake in a handful of other related ventures.
“I’m not your typical entrepreneur that likes to start this up and sell it off, and go do something else. I always have to have 10 things going on,” Williams said.
“I also would love to have products that I can sell over and over and over. If I could write a product and sell it over and over and over for 25, 35 years, and just continuously make money, that would be fantastic. But I don’t think that’s the world we live in today.”
Springthrough specializes in the Microsoft business applications platform, working with Dynamics CP, Dynamics CRM and SharePoint. It also devotes divisions to custom software development, core services such as server and workstation maintenance, and interactive design for the Web, mobile, iPad, ecommerce, augmented reality and other applications du jour.
“We write pieces of software that facilitate integrations between systems, we write reports, we do business portals — anything where we have to kind of write something from scratch or customize a piece of software, that’s what this group does,” Williams said.
If it’s on the Web, it belongs to the interactive division.
“Think your traditional websites,” Williams said. “We’ll design something from scratch. We’ve got a couple of designers here so we’ll storyboard, wire frame it, design it, do the search engine optimization, help them with some of the marketing or partner with other marketing firms on that side of things.”
This was the division involved in the “Headless Horseman” project for Meijer Inc., which debuted in Chicago for Halloween 2008, projecting the galloping image of a headless horseman onto building facades. The projection urged viewers to send text messages to Meijer for a chance at a cash prize. The projected image appeared in Grand Rapids and other Meijer cities in 2009. Springthrough’s interactive division was one of about a half-dozen technology and marketing companies involved in the production, handling the computer-generated imaging portion.
The firm also developed Meijer’s “Halloween Transform Yourself in 3D” site, another chance to highlight its work in augmented reality, which combines real images with computer-generated ones — think of the green first-down line now used for television football games.
Springthrough’s work with Meijer has drawn other customers into the doors, Williams said.
“I have to be cautious about naming names, but we’ve worked with some Disney stars on some projects. We’re doing some projects for some major, major companies out there because of a partnership we developed in California. So we’re doing a lot of work on that front. It’s some really, really cool stuff. It’s a huge area for us, and I don’t really know that there’s any companies in Grand Rapids doing what we are doing on that front.”
In a more bread-and-butter role is the core services team.
“We operate in what’s called a ‘managed service’ model,” Williams said. “Instead of doing the traditional ‘break/fix’ model — when your machine breaks, you call us and we come out and fix it — we monitor your equipment on an 24/7 basis. If something goes wrong or we see an indication that something may go wrong, we come out and take care of that.”
He said the core services segment has been growing during the recession, as companies try to trim costs by outsourcing technology maintenance.
“Companies have just found that to be a huge benefit over the last couple of years. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I think that’s going to continue to be the trend for many years to come,” Williams said.
The software division aims to create products that can be sold time and again.
“That division is really dedicated towards taking things that we’ve done or learned or been contracted to do over the years, and turning them into products which can be developed and sold as stand-alone entities,” Williams said.
For example, Springthrough and two partners have interests in a company called Resort Advantage, which markets software for financial-reporting compliance for casinos. The three partners developed the program several years ago and it’s now in about 20 casinos, Williams said.
“We recognized an opportunity in the market,” he said.
New ventures in 2011 will market a “dashboard” for law firms and a gift certificate site to find another edge into the Groupon advertising space.
“You see a lot of young people out here,” Williams said, gesturing toward the industrial modern expanse that houses his technology-savvy crew.
“Most of our people are probably 30, 29, 28, 27 — right in that range. You have to love the passion of that age group. I remember when I was that age and full of life, thinking I knew more than anyone else. I think that’s a large part of what pushes a lot of initiatives forward: They are not afraid to do anything. We do projects at times that we’ve never done, but with absolute, 100 percent confidence that we can get that accomplished. They have no fear.
“I have to watch, I have to listen to these people. They are what makes the company what it is.”
The employees share with Williams a love of all things technological, a trait that kept Williams off the playground as a child, growing up in Jenison with his twin brother, Matt, the sons of Roberta Williams, a nurse, and her late husband, William. Bill Williams was a jack-of-all-trades, his son recalled. He was in the military, worked as a corrections officer and in sales before earning a law degree in his 50s and then trying the computer business. Matt Williams also is in the computer business.
“I remember being in grade school and being the kid begging to stay inside and work on the Apple computers during recess. I didn’t want to go outside,” Williams recalled.
After graduating from Jenison High School, he snagged a full academic scholarship at Grand Valley State University where he studied computers. He received an internship writing documentation for a local packaging company.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, is this going to be boring.’ After the first week there, they said, ‘Oh, we’re frustrated. We’re not getting this coding done by these guys out of Chicago fast enough.’ I went, ‘Well, I can write code. What is it, COBOL? I can do that …’ They said, ‘We’ll give you access, but we’re going to fly one of our consultants over from Evanston to Grand Rapids so he can make sure …’
“(The consultant) looks at me after the general manager had stepped out of the room and says, ‘When do you graduate, because we’d like to hire you at my consulting company in Chicago.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
After several years of consulting work and enjoying the big city life, Williams moved back to Grand Rapids and married LeeAnne, whose background is in textile marketing. They have three children under age 10, and Williams said that much of his free time is spent on the computer, playing soccer and playing dolls with them.
He said his time as a consultant gave him the confidence to launch Springthrough. But the company’s birth was tough on the partners, and eventually they split up, with Williams running Springthrough. The others took business lines to develop for themselves or were bought out.
“My brother and I — we’re too much alike,” said Williams, who today lives near his brother and his mother in East Grand Rapids. “We think alike. We’re identical twins. … It was fortunate that we had spun off a smaller product which he wanted to have control of and do his own thing with, and so it was a good opportunity for us to separate.”
He describes himself as “naïve” and “impatient” during the company’s early days, and sometimes relying too much on the others for duties for which he should have stepped up.
Humble pie served, Williams credits his employees for the company’s growth, adding that he still leans more toward technology and less toward management.
“I’ve just been fortunate enough to get the right people and we’ve put things in place,” he said. “I think we’ve planted seeds over the years that are really starting to mature and benefit us. The market right now is also very ripe because of the economic slowdown. I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand that’s now getting out there.”
Williams said he seeks out counseling and advice from people he thinks know business and can get past the intimidation factor that the technology sector holds for some.
“I think a lot of people get into business thinking it’s going to be a quick win situation. I’ve never looked at it that way, because I don’t think, in my experience, I’ve ever had that quick win,” Williams said. “It’s always been the tortoise and the hare. It’s just slow, steady plodding along, just to make sure.”