Today, I'm a lot more patient
Singles looking for love have decided that an app is probably better than a bar when looking for 'the one'. Software-as-a-service provider Venntro Media powers over 3,000 dating apps. Founder and CEO Ross Williams practices what he preaches, having met his wife on a dating app, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing, as he tells Smith & Williamson's Hall of Fame.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t Ross’s original plan. Until his university years, he was planning a career in the Royal Air Force. He received a flying scholarship to university and there seemed little question that his career would be as a pilot. However, he realised that a love of flying didn’t necessarily go hand in hand with a love of combat. He needed another option.
In contrast to his fellow students at university who worked in bars or cafes, Ross made his part-time cash designing websites. It was 1997-1998 and the Internet was just starting. Nevertheless, flying still held a lure and after university he was set to join BA. However, that was September 2001, just as the planes struck the Twin Towers and the airline industry went into a multi-year decline.
Ross instead set up his own web design agency. While it was successful, he soon realised that the problem with any agency business is that there is no recurring revenue: they were always chasing the next project.
In 2003, he started doing online dating: “I was living with my mum and dad and not a great catch, but on the side I started to run lots of different dating sites. The back operation was really simple, the real difference was the brand. We started Venntro Media Group as a white label platform.”
Initially Ross, along with his business partner Steve Pammenter, ran the venture on the side. Their funding approach was precarious: “We would buy advertising from Google on interest-free credit card deals. We would then move it to the next deal when the six months had expired, or pay it off if we’d made enough. It was all pretty hairy, but we got £100,000 of marketing capital just using our credit cards. We were young and it didn’t matter as much. Now I’m a proper grown up, the thought of it terrifies me.”
Business rocketed over the next few years. Ross enjoyed the fact they could make money while they slept: “On Christmas Day 2007, I checked the statistics and we’d had 200 people sign up as paying customers. Before long we were turning over £1m per year and, by 2014, we had around £50m a year in revenue. We had 200 staff, offices in San Francisco, Sydney, London and Windsor.” The professional became personal. He met his wife in 2014 on a dating site and has since had two children.
There were some close shaves: “In April 2014, I had a phone call from World Pay out of the blue, saying that they were terminating our merchant processing. We had to find a new provider within 30 days. We had no idea there was even an issue. The excuse was that our charge-backs were too high – this is essentially when someone pays for a dating site and then says they didn’t. We had a huge finance function to make sure this type of stuff didn’t happen.”
The group had to move all its back office payments to a new provider. It did this in seven days, but the business was a week from bankruptcy. It left a legacy: “We got through that, but then there were other problems. We had one thing after another and had to cut back our spending. We stopped investing in growth and our margins suffered. We had also over-extended. We were running our own dating site, plus bingo and poker sites. We had diversified too quickly and moved away from our core competencies. I was a classic ego-driven CEO. I wanted all the glory and a flashy office. I thought the big gravy train would never end.”
Ross went back to basics, jettisoning all non-core activities. He ensured their partners weren’t affected, but had to lose margin to do it, giving them a greater percentage of revenues.
It was a rough time: “After two years, I was exhausted, the board of directors was exhausted. It was time to hand over the reins and I moved to become chairman. But then the business started to go wrong, the team I’d put in place wasn’t working. We had to get rid of senior staff members who weren’t delivering value. It finally came good in 2018, making £25m in revenues and returning to profit. We made £300,000 in June, and have built momentum from there.”
A year later, Ross believes the business is in a good place. It is where it was five years ago, but leaner, more efficient and profitable. It is properly diversified, not reliant on any one partner for more than 2-3% of its revenues: “Today, I’m a lot more patient. I’m happy to take advantage of compound interest. I’m not rushing for the exit and am happy to run the business for the long-term,” he says.
He has learned the importance of revenue per employee and, on that basis, the business is doing better than ever. Ross is now using software and AI to build scale which, he says, makes the business far more efficient allowing it to grow with fewer people. He has plans to look at new markets across the globe. He may have become more patient, but his ambition is undiminished.
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