In 2014, Greg Williams had an idea. The smartphone era was already in full swing, and mobile advertising was on the up. Williams, a serial entrepreneur and e-commerce veteran, saw that students were being left behind in the race for eyeballs. That March he founded Swag’r, an app where students could discover “swag on campus”.
It was Pokemon Go for mobile marketing – though, as Williams tells Red Herring, the popular game “used our model, not the other way!” Swag’r was a route to discovery that benefitted the user and customer – and it’s still going strong today. The Portland, Oregon-based company has $1.3 million in funding and participating partners including Coca-Cola, Subway, Domino’s and Starbucks.
That is unsurprising given a global promotional sales market driving $750bn, and a CEO with a storied and successful career in the business. Williams, a Washingtonian, sharpened his tech tools as co-founder of ShopperBox Networks, a Tacoma-based firm streamlining package delivery that exited in 2002.
After a three-year stint in sales at ALG Mortgage Williams rejoined the entrepreneurial world with PontiFX, a real estate lender that’s still operational, and profitable, today. But after 11 years there Williams got the itch again. “I have been in this startup, forward-thinking world all of my adult life,” he says. “I don’t think I could be employed…I love the risk/reward model too much.”
Swag’r certainly fits the bill. It offers students deals in the area they’re located, allowing them to stash it in a digital “swag bag” before fulfilling them at affiliate stores. It is so disruptive, says Williams, that “we get to make our own rules.” Swag’r owns its campus digital real estate, and controls content on its maps. That, Williams adds, is a “game-changer.”
Williams has spent the past four years building a team tailored perfectly to Swag’r’s needs, following his father’s advice to surround himself with smart people, and treat them as partners. It’s them, and America’s huge student metrics, that make Swag’r such an appealing startup.
There are 22.4m undergraduates enrolled at US universities this year – and they spend $520bn in their domestic market alone. It’s that potential that Williams and his team want to tap first, before thinking of international scale. “Millennials are looking to have experiences with brands,” he says. “They are not interested in a Nike telling them what to buy anymore. Swag’r creates these long lasting experiences.”
The company is launching into 100 college campuses (there are 4,352 degree-granting campuses in the US), and partnering with a major concert operator, and sports venue, in the coming 12 months: it’s a “scale, scale, scale model,” as Williams cheerfully notes. With that in mind, he draws some fictional inspiration – Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby: “If you ain’t first you’re last.”
There’s little doubting Williams has the bravado of his big-screen sage. And with Swag’r coming on leaps and bounds, it’ll be a busy year on the track for his quick-scaling team.