Well, that was quick. After a week of hopscotching across the country--and an itinerary that SBA employees have assured me did not include open bars or lavish hor d'oeuvres--National Small Business Week is wrapping up in Washington.
The keynote speaker at the main event is Angie Hicks, cofounder of Angie's List. So I got on the phone with her and tried to get her to spill her secrets ahead of time.
I wanted to know two things. First, how can entrepreneurs apply the lessons learned from her experience in starting Angie's List to their own business? And, second, how can small businesses succeed on her site? Here's what she had to say.
It pays to start early.
Hicks was a student at DePaul University in the mid-1990s, when she was up for an internship at a venture capital firm. At the time, the highlight on her resume was "employee of the month" honors at Ryan's Family Steakhouse in Fort Wayne, Ind. and she could barely define venture capital.
Hicks was convinced she'd bombed her interview with partner Bill Oesterle, but he brought her onboard anyway. The internship led to a job after graduation and when Oesterle decided to launch a locally based community reputation and marketing business in Columbus, Ohio, Hicks was the first to get hired.
That was 18 years ago. The company made the Inc 500 in 2002 and went public in 2011.
Get away from your desk and talk to customers.
Networks that depend on user-generated content--like the reviews that people post on Angie's List--face a chicken-and-egg problem. Who will come to the network without content? And who will create the content if there is no audience.
For Hicks, the solution was literally "going door to door, signing up consumers and asking for reviews on every service company they hired. It wasn't rare that I would get a phone call and somebody would ask me for [a referral in a category] we didn't have reviews on yet. The answer was, 'Let me go find you someone.'"
If you're not a visionary, find one.
Hicks doesn't see herself as an entrepreneur. "I put entrepreneurs as the creative people who come up with the fantastic idea," she said. "It's entrepreneur versus executor. Sometimes they're the same person. Sometimes they're multiple people." She puts herself squarely in the second category.
"I'm going to be the one to make the donuts," she said, which meant she needed to partner with a visionary cofounder. "I don't consider myself a big risk-taker. I was presented an opportunity by someone I had a lot of respect for, and I took it."
Pick a good name.
If she credits Oesterle with being the "idea person," how did the company wind up being named after her?
"Our business started out of an idea that we copied from another company, that did this in Indianapolis," Hicks said. At first their venture was called "Columbus Neighbors." But that wouldn't work beyond Ohio.
"We had three different ideas. Either, 'The List,' which was sort of militant, and 'we've got your back,' 'Jackie's List,' who was the mother of a board member who knew everyone in Columbus," or finally, "Angie's List."
Hicks had personally met most of the members, so they went with her name.
"Small businesses are what makes up Angie's List, and that makes [speaking at National Small Business Week] a real honor," Hicks said. "My message has been, 'Get back to basics. It's a great time to be really focused on high quality service and doing exactly what you say you're going to do.'"
The biggest category of complaints about businesses on Angie's List, Hicks said, has to do with otherwise diligent service providers who don't communicate well with their customers. That leads to crossed signals, which in turn leads to negative reviews.
"I encourage companies to go out of their way on the communication," she said. "It pays off. Whether it's a single guy in a truck all the way to 30 trucks on road, their emoplyess are all carrying forward same culture of customer service."
Evolve--or die trying.
A lot has changed since the mid-1990s, before there was Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Google local reviews. So what sets Angie's List apart?
First, Hicks said they don't allow anonymous reviews. Second, they focus on what they call "high cost of failure transactions." In other words, a bad restaurant leads to a bad dinner. But a bad roofer leads to a leaky roof--and an even bigger repair bill.
Of course, it's not just the competition that has changed in 18 years. The types of businesses that Angie's List members rate have expanded as well to include car repair and lawn maintenance and most recently the addition of health care provider reviews.
The biggest surprise growth industry on the site?
"The evolution of the pooper scooper business," meaning dog walkers and the like. Back when Angie's List started, "It did not exist."