Opinions are like bellybuttons: Everyone has one, as the (sanitized) saying goes. Yelp.com, the consumer reviews website, has taken this truism and built a $3.5 billion business on top of it.
In 2014, Yelp even managed to become profitable, an achievement that had previously eluded it. It’s a big milestone for a ten-year-old company; certainly the biggest development, from an investor’s standpoint, since Yelp’s March 2012 IPO. It's also an encouraging signal for today's crop of closely watched, highly valued private tech disrupters: Going public doesn't have to be the end. It's also a new starting line.
While Yelp’s $36.5 million profit last year is approximately what Google spends reupholstering its beanbag chairs, it was a big deal for a company that had spent its entire life wandering in a desert of red ink. “We’ve had to endure nearly 10 years of the bears saying, ‘Oh, a money-losing Internet company--what a surprise,’” says Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp’s CEO and founder.
In fact, he says, Yelp could easily have crossed into the black years earlier, although it would have required pumping the breaks on hiring and other areas of investment crucial to sustaining momentum. “We always knew it was up to us to choose the time and place,” he says. “The nice thing about the last couple quarters was we didn’t actually slow our growth.”
Things have generally been going Yelp’s way lately. In September, a storm cloud that had been looming over the company for four years suddenly dispersed when a federal appeals court ruled against the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit accusing Yelp of giving better reviews to businesses that bought advertising. (Yelp denied any connection between ad spending and review quality, but even if it had existed, it would have been legal, the court ruled.)
Then, this January, the Federal Trade Commission called off a parallel inquiry after finding no wrongdoing. “The reason millions of people around the world use Yelp every day to find great local businesses is because they trust the content,” the company declared triumphantly.
Yelp’s workforce is now up to 3,000 employees, spread all over the world. “It’s gotten to a pretty insane place,” Stoppelman says. “I’m constantly working on how we keep all these folks aligned and understanding where we’re going.”
He faces a similar challenge when it comes to setting strategy now that Yelp is a publicly-traded company. In its early days as a startup, Stoppelman was able to make gutsy calls with a minimum of deliberation. Two that proved particularly crucial to long-term success were deciding to invest a large share of Yelp’s then-modest resources in developing an app for the iPhone when it first arrived in 2007; and electing not to devote significant time and money to Facebook’s first developer platform, which came out around the same time but quickly withered from a lack of support.
Steering a public company requires forfeiting the advantages of nimbleness and giving plenty of advance warning to investors, lest Wall Street mistake strategic pivots for panic or indecision.
“You can’t have that frank, private conversation with 20,000 or 30,000 people,” Stoppelman says.
On the rare occasions that he has to make a snap decision, he says he’s glad to be able to draw on the credibility that comes from being a founder-CEO. “It’s helpful to be able to say: This company is my identity. I know how and why it was built in the first place and I know where to take it in the future,” he says.
That sort of maneuverability may come in handy as more and more competitors take the model Yelp pioneered of user-generated business reviews and iterate on it. After all, that old saying about opinions cuts both ways: Yes, Yelp has them by the millions, but it’s hardly alone.
If you want to know if the new Italian place near your office is any good, you can read the reviews on Yelp--or you can read the ones on Open Table and book a reservation where you’re at it. Or read the ones on Seamless and place a delivery order. You might not even make it that far: Google, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the web traffic to Yelp, now maintains its own user-generated business reviews and displays them prominently in its results.
“Reviews have gotten a little ubiquitous,” says Brian Fitzgerald, an analyst who covers the Internet sector for Jefferies LLC.
Stoppelman is dismissive of efforts by the biggest of the Internet giants to muscle in on his turf. “The reality is it’s very hard for somebody in a particular core business to go completely outside that business,” he says. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘The new product from Google is going to kill Yelp,’ ‘the new product from Facebook is going to kill Yelp’ - I would be a very happy man if I was getting paid for those headlines.”
And Fitzgerald notes that the number of reviews submitted by Yelp’s users, an important measure of engagement, has steadily grown by about 20 percent annually. “They’re continuing to scale the model,” he says.
It’s clearly the case, however, that advertisers are willing to pay more to companies that can offer them not just consumers’ awareness but also their actions. Yelp’s $134 million purchase of the food-delivery service Eat24 in February was a big step in that direction; more quietly, it has been building out its transactional platform, which 60,000 local businesses now use.
The future holds a lot more of that, Stoppelman says: “Whatever it is the consumer might want to transact with, we want that to be able to plug into Yelp.”