Anyone who watches TV has seen her face. Angie Hicks (Bowman) is the co-founder, Chief Marketing Officer and face of Angie’s List, the website that lets its paying members view ratings and reviews of local businesses and service professionals.
With her practical haircut and twin-sweater sets, this reluctant celebrity promotes her company on TV and radio with pure Midwestern understatement.
But behind that low key demeanor is a woman with a story worth shouting from the rooftops.
In 1995, fresh out of college and armed with a Bachelor's degree in economics from Indiana’s DePauw University, she turned down a job with Arthur Andersen to join Bill Oesterle a venture capitalist, to work on a start-up. Oesterle, her former boss when she was a college intern, had a germ of an idea; could they start a business that would help consumers find reliable local service companies.
Hicks hit the pavements of Columbus, Ohio going door to door to sign up members who would pay for a list of local highly-rated service providers.
It was a tough start, especially for this self-described shy girl from small-town Indiana.
“Our very first member was Patty in Columbus. I knocked on her door, and she invited me in. I sat down and explained to her what we were doing and at the end she's like, ‘Well, that just sounds great. I'll take two memberships, one for myself and one for my son.’ And then she asked, ‘Well, how many members do you have now?’ And I said, ‘Well, two.’"
After a painfully slow, and at times, frustrating start, the company can now brag of having two million members in more than 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada who are able to find help in more than 700 categories of service home improvement to health care.
In November 2011 the company with some 1300 employees, went public. The first day of trading was cause for celebration. After leaping out of the gate at $18, nearly 40% above the original $13 share price, Angie’s List closed the day at $16.26, a full 25% above the initial share price.
But now there is a new list of growing concerns about the company, its business model and its future.
Angie’s List is a members-only site. The cost for that exclusivity is not extravagant; the average price to join is between $3 and $7 a month depending on where you live and what kind of services you want plus a $10 signup fee. But newer sites such as Yelp, HomeAdvisor.com, SevaCall.com and others are offering user generated reviews for free.
Hicks dismisses the comparison and said to “Off the Cuff” the reviews on her site are of higher quality, are not anonymous and the company takes precautions to prevent service companies from manipulating their ratings.
“When it came down to collecting the reviews, we wanted high quality, honest feedback. And there needs to be accountability. So we've never allowed anonymous reviews. Consumers turn online to make so many decisions … they're making decisions about investing in their home, or their pets, or their, children's welfare. So I want to make sure that the information they're getting is quality, honest feedback. And that's been the core principle of Angie's List all along.”
Still, some critics aren’t so sure.
In a recent Forbes article titled, “Ain't It Time to Say Goodbye to Angie's List?” the author blasted the company saying in part, “ANGI has been in business for 18 years, and it has never made a profit. … The company is wholly reliant on debt and equity to finance its operations.”
In an article on Seeking Alpha, the author sounded the alarm over the company’s subscriber growth rate. “Angie's List has a much lower subscriber growth rate and less unique visitors, being a paid service. …Angie's List has just recently reached 2 million subscribers after 18 years of doing business. Yelp added almost 3.5 million reviews last quarter alone….Yelp averages 108 million unique visitors each month, and about 32% of those are from mobile.”
In all fairness it’s not apples to apples. Yelp offers a broader range of reviews, but there is a growing concern that the company is not growing fast enough.
But Angie’s List has its die-hard followers.
The company reports a 73 percent first-year subscription renewal rate. Hicks attributes that loyalty to her company's ability to provide solutions, something she says many people are still searching for. In July, 2013, Los Angeles became the third major city to surpass 100,000 paid households joining Washington DC and New York City as the company’s biggest markets.
Reflecting on those early days Hicks now worth a reported $50 million remembers the lean days and those Midwestern values that helped her get through them.
“I wasn't an outgoing person, so doing sales was very hard. Back in those days, we were measuring our sales numbers by one a day. If we sold one membership a day, we're like, what a great, fantastic day. Two was a celebration. It was truly was a test of perseverance.”