Remember 1995? Coolio was singing “Gangsta’s Paradise.” The internet was a niche product for select early adopters with access offered by two major companies, Prodigy and America Online.
And Angie Hicks, a small-town Indiana girl just out of college, was living alone in an unfamiliar city, peddling an unproven business model. Hicks, who has publicly described herself as shy, was going door to door to convince people to buy subscriptions to a home-improvement review service that didn’t yet have any reviews.
Two decades later, AOL is a shadow of its former self, and Prodigy a historical footnote, but Angie’s List endures.
Thanks to a recent merger, the company has an even bigger reach than before, by most measures. (A request for membership figures was denied. The company said the metric is no longer included in earnings reports viewed by investors.) But Hicks is still in the center of it all. As Mark Howell, formerly Angie’s List operations chief and now CEO of Conexus, a manufacturing and logistics firm, told MarketWatch, “Angie’s public persona and the real Angie are unbelievably consistent. She is who people think she is.”
Hicks likes to say that the services homeowners seek from her list have a “high cost of failure” and that’s why they need her. Those jobs are more time-consuming, costly and, yes, intimate, than getting a pedicure or picking a restaurant.
“There’s not only a lack of trust between homeowners and service providers, but sometimes there’s an inherent distrust,” said Allison Lowrie, the head of marketing for the parent company, ANGI Homeservices Inc. ANGI, -0.24% .
‘When you think about 2008 when the market kind of imploded, the natural instinct was like, the home improvement market was going to follow. What we actually found was different. The consumer … couldn’t afford to be surprised.’
Angie’s confidence-inducing demeanor is backed by the vetting her company conducts on the service providers.
“There’s asymmetry. The homeowner doesn’t know how to fix a furnace, doesn’t have a way to clean gutters. The service provider is the one setting the price and homeowners have tremendous anxiety around what [they] should pay, what is a fair price,” said Lowrie. “We’re the leaders in the online space, so we think about unseating word-of-mouth by building trust in the brand. One way is to have the face and the voice of the company that has been the voice of trust for the whole category. We’re very lucky to have Angie.”
MarketWatch sat down with Hicks and talked about internet authenticity in an era of “fake news,” leaning in to career opportunities despite being an introvert, and how a healthy respect for what home-service providers do has prompted her to cultivate more people to work in the trades. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MarketWatch: When you started, people were surprised that you could get customers to pay for reviews. Now we’re in a world awash in online stuff, people talking on the internet. But your model has remained true and been proven. Why is that?
Hicks: We started in the review space before there was a review space. So when we were thinking about how reviews should be done, we really patterned it after journalists, to be quite honest. That’s why we never allowed anonymous reviews. A story has a source, a review has a source. We thought that accountability and credibility was really important. We’re not sharing it with the broad world but we know who’s giving that review and that just brings quality to the reviews. In fact, as the internet developed and as we were seeing reviews become much more prevalent, we almost live in a world of, almost, internet graffiti.
People ask me how the business has evolved over the last almost 25 years. Some of those core principles are tried and true and we’re unwilling to move from them. The rule around reviews is absolutely one of those: these are important decisions people are making and having quality content to help make those decisions is really important and what brings them to the brand.
MarketWatch: It’s fascinating that you’ve been able to bring to scale and to the internet the old idea of talking over the fence…
Hicks: We think of [home-improvement searching] as a huge online business, but it’s still like 90% word-of-mouth. It was like we wanted to have the same type of systems in place that you would want and value in talking to your neighbor, but we wanted to make it easier. It’s like, you know, “I gotta go ask Susie who she used and I didn’t write it down so I gotta go ask her again.” Looking at yard signs, it can be a cumbersome process. That was our big driver: how do you capture some of the great essence of word-of-mouth, but make it easier?
MarketWatch: As the housing market reporter I have to ask, can you talk a little bit about homeownership? That idea has been tested a little over the time you’ve been in business.
Hicks: Yeah, we’ve got 25 years, and we actually patterned Angie’s List off another business started in the mid-70s, so we’ve got 45 years of seeing how the business performs around different housing market problems or positives, and you watch people behave differently. When you think about 2008 when the market kind of imploded, the natural instinct was like, the home improvement market was going to follow. What we actually found was different. The consumer shifted what they were doing. They couldn’t afford to be surprised. They weren’t putting in a new outdoor kitchen but golly, they were making sure that furnace was tuned up and their gutters were cleaned and all the things that they quite honestly may have been skimping on before… They kind of took shelter and were like, I’ve gotta protect this.
Related: America is house-rich but cash-poor — and these businesses see opportunity
For most Americans, their home is their largest asset, so protecting that and keeping that in good condition, it can ebb and flow and change in its behavior but their protection of it is a constant.
MarketWatch: Your former colleague Mark Howell told me that “Angie views service providers as artisans, tradesmen. She created a platform for them to compete with bigger-pocketed companies.” Thoughts?
Hicks: I get the unique advantage of getting to interact with our customers more than someone else in my role might, just because I’m visible. And I hear those stories of, hey, I built my business with you. One of my favorite stories was a roofer who came out of Unified Neighbors, which was the predecessor company [to Angie’s List]. He was an early advertiser with us; we had 12. He was a young guy and he wasn’t always the most punctual in paying his bill. I always knew I’d have to call him and he’d stop by the office and pay. And a decade later, we were having an event or something and we were inviting top advertisers from across the country and he was on the list and I was like, no way! This guy figured it out. He grew his business in Indianapolis based on Angie’s List and he expanded as we expanded. He went to Cincinnati; he went to Louisville; he was in seven or eight markets because he figured it out.
MarketWatch: There’s always this discussion that you’re shy, even though it doesn’t seem that way, but going door to door seems like it must have been excruciating. You tackled that. But this company seems like it keeps upping the stakes and you have to go on to bigger stages than just knocking door to door…
Hicks: The company has always pushed me to do things that were outside my comfort zone, which I think is a great learning experience. There are times when you’re like, maybe that’s more than I need today. Door to door may have been one of those for sure.
For me it’s just about being passionate about what we do and I think a lot of times my willingness or decision to do the things stem from a love of our mission and what we do. Sometimes decisions I make seemed inconsequential at the time, like when the marketing team came and said, hey, what do you think about being in the TV commercials? We were spending like no money, so it was like, okay fine! (She laughs, recalling the request).
I think as my public life became more public, my private life probably became more private. I also knew there’s a unique opportunity for the brand. For me to be a part of the brand, therefore, I had to be who I am as well. I couldn’t be someone else. I couldn’t have a persona that felt different than my everyday life, because my everyday life is being “Angie” now.
‘It’s like a reputation issue, like we’ve decided that college-educated professions are better. But I look around and I see these guys working in a plumbing company or HVAC company or carpenters and they’re making really good money.’
MarketWatch: But are you still taking that deep breath before you walk into situations?
Hicks: I absolutely do! Every day! I don’t like to give speeches. If I’m in a networking event I always like to be around at least one person I know (Hicks laughs.)
MarketWatch: I also talked to Tracy Embree, a friend and roommate from business school. When you were graduating, it was 2000, and she was unsure about what she wanted to do next, and you encouraged her to take a job at Cummins CMI, +0.21% , which was like, old-economy, heavy industry. And she’s still there 19 years later…
Hicks: Yeah, small-town Indiana [Hicks laughs], and she loves it and is doing fantastically. [Cummins is headquartered in Columbus, Ind., which has a reputation for striking modernist architecture but a population of just 47,000.]
And in some ways it mirrors your experience …
Hicks: There’s lots of opportunity coming out of business school. I put a lot of value in being around a team I’m going to learn from and also learning new things. [It’s important to ask whether] you like the team you’re going to work with. Are they going to take an interest in you? You can do marketing anywhere. It’s not really about the particular task; it’s really about the people you do it with.
MarketWatch: You’ve really tried to encourage people to get into the service-provider roles …
Hicks: I’ve watched our society become less focused on the trades. There’s a lost art here. I was having conversations with different groups, whether the Boys and Girls Club or the United Way, and everyone’s focus was, every kid needs to go to college. That will solve all the problems of the world. And I was like, I don’t think everybody should go to college. I think everyone should do to their fullest potential, but there shouldn’t be one-path-fits all and we certainly shouldn’t decide in kindergarten that every kid should go to college. I became really interested in that because we’ve got this perfect thing going, where we have more demand for the trades and less people going into them.
See also: The housing market’s slowdown is going to kill the home renovation boom too
It’s like a reputation issue, like we’ve decided that college-educated professions are better. But I look around and I see these guys working in a plumbing company or HVAC company or carpenters and they’re making really good money. Those are really good jobs and they’re learning skills. I was talking to an electrician and he was literally like, I can go anywhere in the world and I’ve got my trade and I can always find work. There’s something incredibly liberating and interesting about that. I think we need to celebrate tradespeople as entrepreneurs. They are building a huge part of our economy.
MarketWatch: What’s next for Angie’s List?
Hicks: There’s the continual, how do we tackle the word-of-mouth challenge? We’re still chasing green fields in many ways. We’ve got several brands to tackle that with. There’s still many ways that that can be won. How people decide to adopt online usage of finding home improvement contractors, there’s not a silver bullet yet. It’s really about making sure that we have a suite of products that can be attractive in the various situations, various mindsets that people might have when they’re looking to make those decisions.
And for the pros as well. There will be an interesting shift for pros as more people who grow up in a digital age become pros. With millennials, I think we have this natural movement coming. As they become homeowners, as they become pros. If I roll it back to 1995, you literally called a service provider on their home phone and got their answering machine and they made callbacks after 9:00 when they got home from their job. Then it turned into pros have to answer calls on their cell phone while painting the wall.
I think the fun thing about the business and the thing that keeps me excited is watching the pros and watching them evolve and be successful and also watching consumers…doing that project they never thought they’d do. Like, I had that kitchen remodel on my list, but I was overwhelmed by it. People are giving you reviews, but people are also just telling us their stories. People love to talk about their homes.
Also read: Life Happens