Angie's List Founder Leads with Her Introversion -- and Has Thrived For Two Decades
To be a great leader, you don't need to be anyone but yourself.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
When you’re starting a new venture, even if you think it’s a great idea, when you look at the competition, and some of the most successful entrepreneurs, it can be so easy to doubt yourself -- especially if you don’t see other leaders who look like you or approach things the way you do.
In 1995, with her economics degree in hand, Angie Hicks found herself at a fork in the road. Did she go the more conventional route and take a gig as a business consultant or take the leap and start a business with her mentor?
She and Bill Oesterle formed an idea about creating an online community and platform for homeowners to review and find home services. However, starting a business was a daunting prospect, especially for someone one who had never been an entrepreneur and didn’t think that she fit the role as a card-carrying introvert.
Even today, Hicks describes herself as shy and risk averse. When she thought about leadership, she envisioned someone with charisma to burn who could command a room. But 23 years ago, though she thought that one track was more in line with how she saw her future, the opportunity to be on the ground floor of something new was to exciting an opportunity to pass up.
Hicks says that creating a brand and business was a learning curve, but she realized over time that her inclination to be a team player, to build consensus and lead by example was going to serve her well. And it has. Today, the homeowner services platform she co-founded that bears her name, Angie’s List, is still going strong, with over 10 million reviews in 700 categories, 1,500 employees, and over 5 million members
Hicks shared her insights about overcoming fear of the unknown and how to empower people to take ownership of their work.
Can you tell me about a time you needed to create opportunity for yourself or others?
I was 22 when I started Angie's List. I met my co-founder when I was in college, and I ended up interning for him at a venture capital firm. At that point, the highlight of my resume was employee of the month at Ryan's Steakhouse. So I got that internship, and I worked really hard and was proving myself enough that when I was getting ready to graduate, Bill had the idea to start the business, and he asked me if I wanted to run it.
For me it was just all about doing the best I could executing on what the assignment was. I was just very much like, here's what we need to do, we need to sell this many memberships. It was all about checking things and making sure that that I was accomplishing things each day, because cumulatively that will pay off.
I would literally prioritize my day. I was doing things that I was just not naturally inclined to do. I was selling memberships door to door -- and I am an introvert who is incredibly shy. Sales is about the farthest thing that I would ever do. I would try to do things I didn't like early in the day, so the rest of the rest the day I can do things that I really enjoy.
What was at stake for you as a young woman starting a business?
I didn't want to let anyone down. For a long time you know I didn't actually consider myself an entrepreneur. I didn't think I had the character traits to be one. I'm risk averse. I'm not a big idea person. I was like, what do I have? As I've reflected over the years, it's actually perseverance, which is probably one of the biggest things an entrepreneur needs to have.
There are very dark days being an entrepreneur. No one wants to talk to you. No one wants your product. You just beating your head against a wall -- perseverance is what matters. I had a group of people [relying on me], and we didn't raise much money -- we raised fifty thousand dollars -- but I committed to do this. I just refused to say I couldn't do it.
What personal traits or strategies do you rely on to create opportunity for yourself and others?
Being open to opportunities is key -- one of the things that I realize is a lot of times people don't even realize opportunities are being presented. You get so focused. I’ve talked to a lot of young people that have a five-year plan: I'm going to go to graduate college, I have to go work for three years and I'm going to go to business school. We get so focused on what the plan is that we forget to open our eyes and look around. When Bill asked me to start this business, every inch of me wanted to say no.
It was a conversation with my grandfather that actually turned me around. He was incredibly conservative, grew up during the Depression. He asked me, “What do you have to lose? What is the difference between being 22 looking for a job and being 23 and looking for a job [if it fails]?” In many ways, if there's a time to start a business, it was probably then -- no kids, I wasn't married, I didn't have those responsibilities. Don't be afraid to take opportunities that might present themselves and don't doubt them. The path that you [think you should take] isn't always the path that might be right. Because had I not taken that [opportunity back then], I would have been a business consultant.
When you experience a setback, what do you do to keep going?
If you make enough mistakes over the years, you become less afraid of them. You have to just kind of shake it off in the moment. I tell the people I've worked with, I'd rather have someone stretch and make the wrong decision to have them not try. They come and ask permission. We won't move fast enough if everything comes back to one bottleneck to make a decision. It's like the same thing I told my kids when they were little: You've just got to shake it off. Don't dwell, learn and move forward from it.
People who want to advocate for themselves don’t know always know how. What are actionable steps they can take to make themselves heard?
I was learning how to be first a manager and then a leader. I knew I was not going to be this charismatic, get in front of the people, rally them and get them all excited. I learned my path was going to be, I need to set the example. I'm kind of a leader-doer. I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and pitch in with the team. That's how I lead. And that is a much more comfortable spot for me. It's not a spotlight spot. It is here, let me coach you along through this. I also learned that you gain credibility by delivering good results. Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, my view is I'm just going to work hard and do great work and just trust that it will be recognized. It doesn't always get recognized, but it's not a bad path.
Has there been a counterintuitive or surprising way you've opened doors for yourself?
I think it's actually something has nothing to do with the business. Getting married and having kids helped me gain a more balanced perspective on life. Not that I ever had great work-life balance, but it helped me put things into perspective. It really helped me gain support of the team. Entrepreneurs fall in this trap -- you live and breathe everything about the business. Having many more things outside of work forced me to be more productive at work and also to take things in stride a lot better.
Was there a blindspot that you had about leadership and opportunity that you worked to change within yourself?
I still work on this today -- it's allowing people to have their area and give them their space to kind of own it. I gave this to you. This is your area -- you're running it. And for me not to infringe on their space. If I had to be asked permission before we do everything, it will be really slow. I have to make sure that I'm giving everyone the opportunity to add to the organization to make it better, and I have to remind myself to just be quiet right now. You need to listen. You need to spend more time listening. There are many ways to look at [something], and you need to reflect and think about it and listen to all sides.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.