Interview by Mike Sullivan
Hey everyone, I’m Mike Sullivan. This is MO.com, where we feature small business owners and entrepreneurs and bring you hints, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.
Joining me today is Marco Zappacosta. He is the co-founder of Thumbtack.com. Marco, thanks for joining us today, and can you tell me what is Thumbtack.com?
Sure. Thumbtack is an online marketplace that helps you find, vet, and book local service professionals. We want to make it as easy to buy a service online as it is to buy a product. We look at Amazon. We look at eBay, and we say, “Hey, now you can go online and buy any product you can think of. You should really be able to do the same for services,” and that’s sort of the dream that we’re working towards.
Thumbtack.com, great domain name. Can you tell me how you acquired it, and how much you think that’s contributed to your success?
This was one of the scariest things that we had to do. It took us a long time to find a name. When we found Thumbtack, it was owned by someone. Nothing had been built around it, but it was a professional sort of domain, buyer and seller, that we wanted to buy it from. We, at the time, the original founders had put some cash in, and this was almost a third of the money that we had committed day one. So we sat down. It was a gut check, and it was like, “How much do we believe in this sort of concept? How long do we think we’ll be around?” So we ended up going for it. Obviously, we have the name, but what we did to try and make it better is that we financed it. We paid a third up front and financed the rest over one year, figuring, hey, if we’re still around in a year, we’ll have more money. We can buy this thing outright. And if we’re not, we’ll have to walk away from the cash and the asset, but at least it won’t be all of the money. That’s sort of how we dealt with that.
Marco, what differentiates you from other sites offering local service providers?
We’re trying to be much more than an informational resource. There’s a lot of that online now. Customers are getting savvy about going there and looking and researching, but we really want to provide the next two steps. That’s vetting and booking.
For the vetting, we want to give you insight into the reputation of that person. We cross reference them in the Department of Justice’s Sex Offender Registry to make sure they’re not in that. We do license look-ups. We do background checks, as well as verifying social media profiles. So you can say, “Hey, okay, this person is who they say they are, and they’re a trustworthy human being.”
Then, we actually want to help consumers with engaging with these merchants. I’m sure you’ve had the odd job around the house where you want to get quotes. You look in the Yellow Pages or online. You’ve got ten people. You call them. Some call you back. You’ve got to keep track of who says what. These are the kind of things that we want to help with. We want to give consumers an easy to use online bid management tool where they can maintain their privacy and give out their phone number and address to the merchants that have proved worthy, and just an easy way for them to organize the business that we’re helping them get.
That’s really the next stage. Ultimately, we’d really love to help with the whole transaction, invoicing and payments included, but we’re not quite there yet.
You currently have about 150,000 listings on the site. You’re attracting almost a million visitors per month. What do you attribute this to? How did you go about marketing the site?
We have, as a marketplace, the classic chicken and the egg problem. What comes first? So what we did is we went after the service professionals, the small businesses. What we decided to use as an incentive for them is give away as much as we could for free, and that’s a good looking online presence, a way to centralize their reputation and trustworthiness in one place, and then simple tools to market themselves better in search engines as well as other classified sites that they may be putting themselves out to.
The fancy word or phrase we came up with was Network Independent Value. What could we give to these merchants day one that would attract them to the platform, even if we didn’t have clients for them? So that’s how we started, and that’s what we’re still really focused on, because there’s about 22 million of these people nationwide.
What we’ve then done for the consumers is really try to have the best data and the best experience and using that as a magnet to pull in consumers via search and other organic places and just win by being better. The back button is just one click away. You just have to be better, and so that’s what we’re working towards.
What have you found personally to be the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?
The creative aspect and building something that hasn’t really been done before has been immensely fulfilling. I really would not have expected the entrepreneurial journey to be as emotional as it is. There’s a lot of up and downs, and it’s often not easy. There’s a lot of struggle and work to get through. But on the flip side, seeing the stuff that we’ve built out in the wild with real users and happy users who write us e-mails, send us postcards, we’ve gotten gifts in the mail, that’s the stuff that we live for. It’s just so great to see that we’re building something that people actually love.
How difficult is it to take your idea from concept to reality? Can you walk us through the high level steps?
The trick is really recruiting great people and having a very open mind and talking to as many smart people as possible. First, it was just about getting out there, talking to people who knew more about this space than I did, who had done similar things, hear what worked, what didn’t.
Then the next step was getting a couple of really smart, really hard working guys to join and commit pen to paper. That step is really a big one because you just have to get the one out there. You have very little feedback. You’ve got these ideas that you’ve been turning over for a while, but you don’t know what’s going to work. That’s a leap.
The way that we always have approached it is if you’re not embarrassed by what you’re putting out, you’re not going fast enough. Put it out there, try and get feedback. Listen to our users, talk to them, and just try and keep iterating, because odds are you’re not going to be right the first time around. So, hopefully, you can be right the third, fourth, or fifth time. Gather as much info as possible. Recruit the best people you can find, and then just keep iterating.
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