Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List, talks to TechRepublic about starting a business right out of college, staying true to her Midwestern roots, and learning from her employees.
It was 1995, and Angie Hicks was about to graduate with an economics degree from a liberal arts college. She thought she would go into some kind of management consulting, like most of her fellow colleagues.
But she was young. So instead, she decided to take a leap.
A former boss, Bill Oesterle, who worked for a VC firm at the time, proposed an idea: he would raise money for a company (it ended up being about $50,000), and she could work there. The company wasn't exactly tech-oriented, and it didn't seem totally revolutionary to Hicks, but the two decided to go for it. It became Angie's List, a subscription-based review site for local service providers.
Today, more than 2 million households use Angie's List to find quality reviews on local service companies. More than 700 categories exist on the site, from roofers and plumbers to healthcare providers. An annual fee of $45 allows access to the thousands of detailed reviews on the site. The company also has a complementary monthly digital magazine that is region-specific, offering extra insights and compiled reviews for each area, and has evolved throughout the past couple of decades into a standard for the service industry.
"Ignorance is bliss, there's little risk when you're 22," she said. "Now, there's different responsibilities. You take risks when you can, and you take calculated risks."
The biggest risk Hicks took was refusing to leave the Midwest. Even in the mid-90s, staying away from the coasts was unheard of. Angie's List first service area was in Columbus, Ohio, and now its headquarters are in Indianapolis. Hicks is from nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"It was low-tech, our website was put up in 1999," Hicks said. "It was a review space before there was a review space. It was fun, we put our website up, paid $1,000 up front to have some young folks put the website together for us."
The idea stemmed from a newsletter and call-in service in Indianapolis that had been around since the 1970s, which listed the best plumbers and electricians in neighborhoods. Hicks didn't think of Angie's List as a tech company. It was a service that simply solved a problem in a city that needed it, and she needed a website to do it.
But Hicks, who has a truly Midwestern air about her — very casual, very practical, very honest — wanted to stay close to home. Instead of "drowning in the sea of opportunity" on the coasts, she said, they rolled out Angie's List in the Midwest city by city, before they tackled San Francisco or New York.
Angie's List gradually gained traction, though it was slow at first. Columbus services took off after about a year, when the company started to expand. But Hicks, who is still very reserved about her accomplishments, said she likes to look back on that as an advantage. While the company was slowly growing, the team was able to focus on the core business values, something that they've kept alive throughout the years.
"We were insulated...but we were developing a big enough brand for ourselves that we were attracting VCs from the coast," she said. "It was the best of both worlds. [We were] growing the business, getting great connections with people on the coasts and keeping up speed without being bombarded."
Those down-to-earth Midwestern vibes have stayed with Hicks, the team, and the company as they've evolved and had steady success through internet boom and bust cycles. The company stayed the course, becoming one of the most trusted review sites in a saturated market.
Several employees have been with Hicks since the very beginning, so she considers them part of her family. Two women in particular have been with Hicks since 1996 and 1998.
"It's neat to see how they've evolved in their positions over the years," she said.
Hiring people who share similar values and who she admires has always been important to Hicks' business model, and she credits that to much of her success. She always wanted to keep the company simple and grounded.
"I would always put family-first folks that worked at top of my list, and there is a little bit of each of them in who I became," she said. "I am a very practical person, and it's not that I aspired to be some industry leader, it's more of those everyday things."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"In our world of tech, it becomes harder and harder. I think a lot of people keep their phone on all the time, but at some point I put it away, keep it plugged in in another part in the house, turn the ringer off. When I'm on vacation, I set rules."
What do you like to cook?
"My family probably eats out way too much, so Open Table is on that list [of favorite tech tools] too. I don't cook very well. The goal is that we have dinner together but more often than not it's not at home."
What are some of your other hobbies?
"I have three elementary school age kids, so it's whatever they want to do. It's keeping them busy."
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
"Take your work seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun at your job. Not every single day, but in the grand scheme of things you should be having fun. You spend so many hours of your life doing it, if you're not, quit and do something else."
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