Profit Minded

Angie’s (List) lessons for building a great team

Had her co-founder not noticed her strengths when she was just 22, Angie Hicks might not be the multimillionaire she is today at age 40. Hicks was just out of college when venture capitalist Bill Oesterle offered $50,000 to get her to move from Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio, and work for a year on his idea to create a neighborhood publication that aggregated reviews of local plumbers, electricians, landscapers and other small service businesses.

Hicks had interned in Indianapolis for Bill Oesterle the year before she graduated from DePauw. She impressed him as an intern, not just because she was smart, but because, in his words, “She got things done.” He says there wasn’t a job he gave her that she didn’t give it her all – whether it was low level or high. The next year, he had moved to Columbus, Ohio and ran into trouble finding a local HVAC guy and looked around for a service he’d used in Indianapolis. That service didn’t exist in Columbus, and he thought it could work there just as it had in Indy. But Oesterle was working full time at a venture capital firm. He didn’t have time to actually focus on the new company. He thought of Angie because of how well she’d performed for him the year before, so he asked her to launch the company for him. 

Today Hicks is co-founder and chief marketing officer at the business that evolved from that “Columbus Neighbors” publication she and Oesterle started in 1995. It’s the consumer review website Angie’s List, one of the fastest growing businesses in the nation with more than 2 million paying users and a market cap of $1 billion. Annual revenues last year were $199.6 million. And Hicks has a net worth estimated by 'The Richest' at $50 million.

In a keynote address delivered as if to old friends over coffee, Hicks shared her experiences and ideas for “maximizing your competencies,” with nearly 300 women who attended the recent “OPEN for Women: CEO BootCamp,” an all day-summit that kicked off a national series of live and online events hosted by American Express OPEN.

Hicks, whose company has won numerous “best place to work” awards, readily admits she’s not good at everything. She’s happiest looking at spreadsheets, she says. But that’s OK: “Know what you bring and know what you don’t bring,” she advises, or else “you won’t bring together the team that you need to complement your skills.”

When Hicks began collecting information on local service companies and trying to sign up subscribers 18 years ago, she says, “I had no marketing plan beyond going door-to-door. I’d never hired anyone before. I was lousy at sales. I had no experience launching a business.” Her biggest claim to fame back then, she says, was having won “employee of the month” at a summer steakhouse job. She remembers feeling knots in her stomach every time she knocked on a door and says she “cried every single day.”

What she did possess, she says, was focus and persistence. “Those core competencies were key to driving my career, and have driven what I’ve done since day one at the company,” she says. At the beginning, she measured her success building Angie’s List “one member at a time.”

Hicks says that being self aware enough to see what she couldn’t bring to the table informed the way she built a team to compensate for that. “Balance your differences. Find people who are going to shore up your weaknesses. Think about building out your team and always be evaluating what the team is missing,” she advises. “When you’re thinking about how you’re spending your time, think about who you’re hiring. That’s going to make the difference in your success.”

Hicks also advocates being a “macroleader” instead of a micromanager. “Let your people swim, but don’t leave the pool,” she says. She says employees need latitude to take on risks and fail. “Create a culture with your team that allows them to be open and come and talk to you. I tell them, ‘I know things are going to go wrong, just make sure I’m the first one who knows so I can help you fix it’,” Hicks says. That approach has benefited the company greatly.

For instance, Hicks says, her VP of Products started out as a copywriter in the marketing department 7 years ago and asked to learn how to take on the company’s search engine optimization efforts. “She was working for people she liked, and it was an easy point for her to stretch outside her comfort zone,” Hicks says of her colleague. “It changed the trajectory of where she was headed.” Today, Hicks says that woman “could run SEO for any Silicon Valley company.”

Likewise, the Angie’s List marketing analyst started as a college intern in 2006. “I’d done all numbers. He came in and I gave it to him,” Hicks says. “He had a great way with people. He’s charismatic. He has a leadership style you often don’t see in someone that young. He’s become the number two person in marketing and has yet to hit 30 years old.”

Admittedly, letting go of domains that she had managed was “one of the hardest transitions,” she has gone through over the years, Hicks says. “I would literally have to hold my tongue, sit on my hands, not look at that email. If you don’t, you won’t attract great talent that is challenged.” In fact, among the best ways Hicks was able to step back and look at the big picture were by taking a few maternity leaves. “It got me out of the weeds on areas I needed to remove myself from, and sometimes being physically removed is what you need,” she says.

Hicks’s bottom-line advice to her fellow female business leaders: “You can look around and always say, ‘I’m not as smart or creative as the person next to me.’ It’s what you can bring when you get together. View each other as potential partners. People are the ones that make a business.”

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