In June, Ross Williams was named Young Director of the Year by the Institute of Directors, just the latest in a long line of accolades for the CEO and co-founder of Windsor-based digital media company Global Personals. As one of the fastest growing privately-owned online dating and digital media companies in the world, it owns and operates sites such as justsingles.com and smooch.com, as well as offering a B2B service, White Label Dating, allowing brands and individuals to power their own dating sites utilising Global Personals’ systems expertise, database and sophisticated customer service support teams. With a turnover of £50 million, the company employs nearly 200 people and was recently ranked 5th in The Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200 – not bad for a business which was started with nothing more than a good idea and a credit card. Alison Dewar found out how love really pays.
As the youngest in the family – he has twin sisters a decade older – 36-year-old Williams was born in Ascot to parents who both worked hard running their own businesses. A family relocation to Ascot in the late 70s saw him attend Reading Blue Coat School, where he says he was “never academic”, preferring instead to become involved with the local RAF cadet group. By 14, he had flown a glider solo, moving on to aeroplanes at just 17 and winning an RAF flying scholarship along the way. On leaving school, he took a gap year break to Canada before returning to study psychology and French at university in Plymouth. Six months in, he realised a military life wasn’t for him and, recognising that instead of relying on his RAF bursary he needed to earn some money, set up his first business, web design company Rawnet.com, in 1997. He finally graduated in 2001 with a 2.2 – having had to re-sit his first year – intent on pursuing his dream of becoming an airline pilot. The atrocity which was September 11 and the global downturn that followed put paid to those ideas and instead he moved back home with his parents and turned his attention to the web business. As is often the case, fate intervened and it was after expanding into serviced offices that he met Steve Pammenter (co-founder and COO) and the idea for Global Personals began to take shape. Today, it’s not only a business success but a personal one too – Pammenter met his wife on one of the company’s websites and Williams is currently dating his very own online love match.
What drives your entrepreneurial spirit?
It’s all I’ve ever known. At school, I used to go to the local market and buy three magazines for £1 and then sell them for £1 each. My parents were good role models, I always had to do jobs to earn my pocket money, working hard was ingrained from an early age.
Why online dating?
It was 2003 and the concept of online dating was starting to develop. My idea was to offer a white label service so organisations could use our technology and expertise, but operate it under their own brand name. All they had to do was market it, we would do everything else.
You set up the business with your credit card, why was that?
As well as offering the white label option, we launched our own dating websites, the first of which was singles365.com. Of course, we needed to fund advertising to make sure it was in the google rankings, so that’s where our credit cards came in.
How quickly did the business take off?
Within four years Global Personals had an annual £3m turnover. I was still involved in the web design agency, but at that point I decided to focus on the dating business and we successfully grew it to £30m a year revenue by 2011. We had hundreds of entrepreneurs who recognised that they could make a nice living by investing in running an online dating business using our platform to specialise in specific areas, whether geographically or by sector, such as age, lifestyle or hobby. Operating on a shared revenue basis means it’s a winning formula for both parties, by 2012 we were at £40m and now it’s approaching £50m.
You must be very proud of your achievements?
I am, and most of all because of the nearly 200 staff we employ now across multiple offices – including two in the UK and one in San Francisco. It’s all been done without a penny of external investment, we took the risks and it’s paid off.
Were you surprised by its success?
No – you have to have confidence in yourself. If you truly believe in what you are doing, then that will inspire a belief in others and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe strongly enough, you can create an energy to achieve amazing things. I was naive and inexperienced in business but I knew enough to believe it was possible to be successful and no-one said I couldn’t.
How well do you and Steve Pammenter work together?
We’re very different, our skills complement each other and we’re a great partnership. I’ve met entrepreneurs who’ve tried to do it all but that’s not how we work. Steve is very much the operations guy, making sure we keep doing what we do best, whereas I focus on the strategy, looking at where to take the business.
Is it gratifying to win so many awards?
The awards are a great recognition of what the business has achieved, but it’s our employees who are making the sales and developing our amazing product. Entrepreneurs are shareholders first and foremost; my job as CEO is to grow the business and surround myself with people who are far better than I at their particular area of expertise. I just have to find good people.
What’s the secret of your success?
I don’t believe in original ideas, for me it’s about doing something better than what is out there already. Execution is key, what we did, we did better than the others that were already in the market. Rather than having one big site like, for example, match.com, we have thousands of different niche websites with our partners around the world. By outsourcing the marketing to them, we de-risked our own business and of course, when it comes to targeting customers, they know their niche areas far better than we ever could.
Having said that, 15% of our revenue is from our own B2C websites, such as justsingles.com, where we outlay some £3-£4m a year on marketing, so there is an element of risk that we’re taking too. I think that helps keep us balanced. We know our product has to perform for our own websites and that ensures it works for our partners too. No more than 5% of our revenue comes from any one site, which helps keep the business stable.
Where do you go from here?
We have over 36 million people worldwide on our database and that is one of the elements which makes our business so attractive. We own all that data, but at the moment we don’t really use it to best advantage. In the future it’s where I see the growth potential in terms of generating more advertising for our partners. If we want to, we can target people by any demographic – age, education, income, even hair colour. That’s all information they give us when they sign up online because obviously they want to find their best match.
We are also very focused on international growth, in particular over the next five years in the US, where currently we just have an office in California. They don’t really have the same white label concept there and no-one can provide the same level of customisation as we do, so the opportunities are huge.
Who do you admire?
Those people in business or politics who regularly have to make “less bad” decisions, the ones where there really is no right answer and you just can’t win. Often it’s a question of making the decision which causes the least pain; I regularly have to make decisions like that for the business and it can be difficult.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone starting out in business?
Whatever you do in life, nothing is handed to you on a plate. You have to go out and work hard if you want to succeed.
Is there a “feelgood factor” about what you do?
It’s incredibly gratifying to know that what we do is responsible for tens of thousands of people finding the love of their lives and having families together. I’ve been dating someone for six months who I met online and I think it’s very important that we really understand how our business works from both sides.
And yes, we’ve had a few weddings and sent flowers – there are thousands of success stories and people who have found love online, it’s always lovely to about hear them.
When you’re not helping others find the love of their life, what’s your escape?
When you love what you do, the idea of taking time out doesn’t really appeal. I spend my downtime reading business books and thinking about new ideas. Having said that, I love to travel and I have a house in Provence where I enjoy spending time in the vineyards and running, swimming and cycling. I have a private pilots’ licence – which I need to revalidate – but my real passion now is cars. It’s not about going fast, I love the sounds, the smells and how they handle. Given the chance, my ideal would be to take six months off and drive around the world. Not bad for a one-time trainee pilot.
Details: Global Personals