Chances are you’ve never heard of Williams Forrest, which plays in the big leagues and does so from Lancaster city.
But chances are you have heard of some of its clients. They range from General Electric to MINI USA to Puma to Wendy’s to Volvo.
With estimated revenues this year of $5 million, Williams Forrest bills itself as a “premium digital solutions agency.”
That means it helps brands and agencies apply technology to digital marketing and initiatives, such as building a platform that lets Hewlett Packard employees across the world share knowledge and improving The Electric Factory’s website.
In 2013, Williams Forrest made Inc. magazine's annual list of the nation's 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies.
And its headquarters at 225 E. Grant St. sports enough vibrant, casual personality for a Silicon Valley tech firm, complete with skateboard collection, table tennis room and floor-to-ceiling whiteboards.
The facility is the third downtown location the company has occupied since starting here in 2007, and possibly the last.
“We've always loved here; we grew up here,” says founder and president David Barr, 42. “There was a better quality of life, a cheaper quality of life and less traffic.”
So when he and Louise Barr — his wife and the company’s chief marketing officer — decided to start the company, they moved to Lancaster from Atlanta, where he had been a consultant working for IBM.
With them, crucially, came the BMW account that he had worked with at IBM.
“Without a doubt, we got started in a way that most companies only dream of,” David Barr said.
Not only that, but BMW agreed to pay them up front — in quarterly installments — for the first year or so. And it has been one of their major clients ever since.
“We've gone through two major site redesigns (for BMW), one of which is rolling out now,” he said.
The company’s workforce numbers about 25.
“We've been at this size for a while,” he said. “We're purposefully trying to stay small.”
But the Barrs also aim for increasing success. To that end, they opened a New York office; they’re thinking about making that the company’s headquarters and keeping Lancaster as a production facility.
They’re also eyeing a possible location on the West Coast.
They cite two reasons for the change.
First, finding employees here has become “almost too difficult.” And second, many of their clients hear “Lancaster” and think Williams Forrest is — in David Barr’s words — “sitting amongst hay bales, using an abacus and cuneiform tablets.”
“I can guarantee you that we've lost millions of dollars on that perception,” he said. “They think to themselves, ‘Yeah, they've got great clients, but they must be really rinky-dink mom and pop,’ because that's a misperception about where we are.’”
That said, he continued, he thinks the perception of Lancaster is improving every year, helped by the tech businesses that are here and by developments like Google’s naming Lancaster its eCity of Pennsylvania in 2014.
“A lot of people noticed that,” he said. “I think that says a lot for the potential of Lancaster to be a very tech-centered community.”
The education gap
But, he said, when he looks at recognized tech hubs across the country, he sees a key component that Lancaster doesn’t have: A major university with a computer science program “that feeds umpteen kids out through the funnel.”
Williams Forrest has hired Millersville University grads, David Barr said, and they’ve worked out well.
But, he said, the tech industry has had a worker shortage for the past decade, and that means companies in places like Lancaster that aren’t attracting or producing a lot of tech workers are competing to nab the ones that are there.
“The competition is fierce to pull kids out of Penn State,” he said. “They’re not coming to Lancaster. When they do, that will be a different story.”
Then too, they’re picky about hiring.
Key to the company’s structure is a belief that properly motivated groups make better decisions than “just a couple of really smart guys at the top of a pyramid,” David Barr said.
“We've narrowed down the world we work in to the least amount of arbitrary decisions, so that in every critical point, the decision that gets made is by a group, instead of an individual.”
In the beginning, the company used remote workers. But as it became clear that culture was vital to its success, they switched to people who could be physically present.
“A couple of them moved here,” Louise Barr said of that transition.
Others, the company had to hire — something it has developed a rigorous three-step process for.
Once a likely candidate has been identified, David Barr said, he or she is invited in for an initial interview. If that goes well, the person comes back for a test that the company developed.
“We give them a problem and a certain set of tools, and based on how they apply those things we can tell a lot about where they are in their career,” he said.
And then, if things are still looking good, there’s the social assessment.
“The team at large gets together and we invite the person in for cocktails, beer, appetizers,” he said. “There are people seated in the group with specific questions meant to engage the person in easy conversation, conflict conversation and some other questions to basically get a sense of what it's like to be with them and how it would be to work with them in a social setting.”
Finally, the team votes.
“It's a very different way to start a job,” he said. “They know that when they come in, it was because a team of people said by majority, ‘We want you to be here.’”