You may not know Angie Hicks, but the chances are very good that you know the company she co-founded, review site Angie's List. Angie's List has grown to more than $350 million in revenue thanks to about 3.3 million subscribers, all of whom pay to see the site's reviews. Angie's List will soon be adding a free tier to its business model to better compete with the likes of Yelp, which has about $550 million in revenue and relies upon about 168 million visitors who access the site for free.
Hicks, who describes herself as an introvert, built Angie's List by going door-to-door and asking people to subscribe to a product that barely existed. In this edited conversation with Inc. editor-at-large Kimberly Weisul, Hicks talks about cold-calling, leading as an introvert, and, of course, competing with Yelp.
What was your role at the very beginning of Angie's List?
I would go door-to-door and try to get people to join as members. I'd say, "I am starting this service to help you find the best plumbers, electricians, and remodelers, and you'll tell me who you like to use."
I am an introvert, and it wasn't unusual for me to go home and cry. Now that I think back on it, I don't think my close rate was all that bad.
If you were such an introvert, why wasn't your co-founder, Bill Oesterle, the one going door-to-door?
Bill wasn't even working at the company. He was still at the venture capital firm. He didn't join the business until three-and-a-half years later. We talked every day, but I sat in a 10 x 10 room by myself.
Why did you agree to become his co-founder, then?
I was having a hard time making this decision, and my grandfather, who is very conservative, just looked at me and said, "Angie, you should do it. What do you have to lose? What's the difference between being 22 and looking for a job and being 23 and looking for a job?"
He was right. You don't have the experience to start a company when you're 22, but you don't have the responsibilities and baggage that come along in life either. To say "I have three kids and a mortgage and I want start a company" is a very different thing.
Right now, you're the public face of Angie's List. How do you square that with being an introvert?
If I have to give a speech, I have to give myself little pep talks. I live a quiet life otherwise.
I tend to do the things that I'm least comfortable with first thing in the morning. And I'd turn it into a math equation, and break it down. If I was calling on service providers I'd do it first thing in the morning, and I'd say, "okay Angie, you just have to make 10 calls." That's the analytical mind in me.
You also hired Angie's List's first employees. What were you like as a manager?
Being 22 and managing people... I was a horrible manager. One of our employees, Maggie, was retired when she interviewed with us. She wanted to earn extra money and get out of the house. After the interview I was saying, "Well, thank you for coming in, it's been very nice to meet you,"--pleasantries. And she looked at me and said, "If you're going to hire me, you need my phone number." I thought, well, I guess I'm going to hire you, and you're going to help me toe the line from here on out. And she has.
What type of leader have you become since then?
I was not a charismatic leader, so I had to lead by demonstration. I had to do the things the employees were doing and show them how to do it. One of the hardest things was to transition from being a doer to being a manager. I wasn't terribly patient, especially when it was easier to do it myself. I wasn't a very good teacher. I've had employees tell me that when I became a mother I became better at it.
How have you improved?
I coach myself. I will say in my head sometimes, "Angie, you are not going to trump them right now. You are going to let them do it. It's the only way they're going to learn."
Although you offer guarantees and other services, reviews are the heart of Angie's List. How do you compete with other sites that offer reviews, such as Yelp?
At a lot of sites, it's just a small percentage of people that do the reviewing. It's not unusual for it to be single-digit participation. With us, 30 to 40 percent of Angie's List members review every year. A high-end remodeler might only do six or seven jobs a year, so you need broad participation in reviews for consumers to be able to trust them.
What should businesses do if they're hit with a bad review?
Don't be emotional, have a cup of coffee, and if it's something you can actually fix, fix it. Consumers can learn a lot more about a company when they can see what happens if things don't go perfectly. You can see what the company is really made of.
Twenty years ago, companies were hesitant about reviews. I tell them, "Consumers were talking about you anyways. Now, at least, you get to listen in."