In San Francisco, we talked with entrepreneur Marco Zappacosta, the co-founder & CEO of Thumbtack, of about the business model and history of Thumbtack. Furthermore, Marco shares his learnings and advice for young entrepreneurs.

The transcript of the interview is included below.

INTRODUCTION

Martin: Hi, today we are in San Francisco with Thumbtack. After announcing a big round of financing one month ago we are talking to Marco the founder of Thumbtack. Marco, who are you and what do you do?

Marco: So, my name is Marco and Thumbtack helps customers find and hire local professionals. So if you need to paint your house, find a math tutor for your child or a caterer for your event, we are the best way to get introduced to the right professional. And it’s something that we have been working on for the last 5 years.

Martin: Can you tell us, what is it like to start a company?

Marco: So it’s a very satisfying sort of scene of vision that you had sort of come to life, attracting great people and working with them to realize that vision. But it’s also fairly stressful because everybody get’s sort of wrapped up in this dream. And it’s hard to realize your dreams and so there is a lot of stress and making sure it’s coming about the right the way and working the way you want it to.

Martin: What have been the major obstacles and how did you overcome them?

Marco: I’d say there were three major obstacles.

  • The first one was learning to attract customers and professionals, as a market place without that network you really have almost value and so we had to learn how to attract these people to us and do that in a very scalable and repeatable way. That took us a long time to figure out.
  • Then the challenge became, Okay we have a network of customers and professionals, what’s the best way to introduce them such that it gives the customer confidence to hire and it gives the professional a real shot to sort of win the business. And we tried sort of lots of different interphases and had to really learn the right way to bring people together. And that was another big challenge.
  • And then the final one was, how do we sort of layer on our business model on top of these interactions, now we knew how to bring people together, but what was the right thing to charge for, how should we charge, how much should we charge, that also took us quite a bit of time to figure out.

So it was probably three and a half years until we had it all figured out and in the last 18 months things have really accelerated because thankfully it worked.

Martin: Great and how do you test your hypothesis of how you want to acquire customers or how you want to match the professionals with the customers by not only having incremental improvements but maybe also testing some revolutionary hypothesis?

Marco: So I mean, I think there are two answers, one is sort of cultural and organizational and one is tactical.

  • It is very important for the process and the organization to let people take big bets because the truth is you don’t always know what’s going to work. We’ve been surprised many times by things we thought would be great that didn’t work or things that we didn’t think would be that important and turned out to be hugely important. And so you have to sort of organizationally allow for that otherwise you are going to stifle innovation.
  • And then the other question is tactically, actually how do you do it. It’s a scientific method. It’s not new, you have a hypothesis, you run a very controlled test and you measure the results in a statistically sound way and from that you are able to look back and say, ‘Was my hypothesis validated? And did I sort of learn what I thought I was going to learn?’ and then sort of think again and run another one.

Martin: What did you do before you started this company?

Marco: So I started Thumbtack right after I went to college and so the short answer is not much. But the longer answer is that my co-founder and I during college had started a student advocacy group together. It was non-profit, it was very different then the sort of technology business we’re in today but it was still start up and it was very fun to build something out of nothing and we sort of got hooked on that and decided to do it again and that’s why sort of after graduating I decided to pursue this dream.

Martin: But why did you focus on that specific market? What is your relation to that? Why does it motivate you?

Marco: So, we did in some ways what you’re not supposed to do which is decide to start-up a company and then go think of an idea. But thankfully, I think we did it in a good way in that we didn’t index on our interest or our passions but instead said, what’s the biggest problem we think we can solve with technology? And we started thinking and looking and what we realized was that there was this gigantic market, this local services market with hundreds of millions of customers, 10 of millions of professionals and it was very old. There really hadn’t been much innovation in how they found each other, how they came together, how they worked together and we felt that it was inevitable that technology would help these people. And I think what really motivates me and really I think Thumbtack is that both the macro and the micro of it. The macro of it is a big problem and it’s satisfying to work on sort of big things that can have a huge impact. But then like what really like—you feel day to day is the stories of impacting individuals, it’s the pest control guy in Brooklyn sending us flowers to say thank you for all the business that we’re now sending him, or the busy mom who is sending pictures of her birthday party that she was able to throw with Thumbtack. That feels great and that’s certainly is a bigger part of the motivation that we all feel.

BUSINESS MODEL

Martin: And you said you tried to change this old model of match making into a new one. Can you tell us in terms of the business model what is the innovation behind Thumbtack?

Marco: When you think about it, people have been hiring plumbers since plumbing existed, so a long time. And since the dawn of the yellow pages, it’s been very easy to find names and numbers, but that’s only half of the challenge, then you have to figure out which of the these plumbers out of this entire list is available to serve you, what they are going to charge you and how qualified are they to do the job. And to do that today or before Thumbtack was an incredibly manual process. You, the customer, had to call, you had to sort of get quotes, then you had to call their references or sort of see what past work they’d done. And it was immensely time intensive. So instead, we created software to replace that, such that you tell us what you need. As a customer you sort of itemize the project, we package that up, send that to our network of qualified professionals who serve your areas and the ones who are then sort of available and interested get introduced directly to you and with that we bring all the reviews, the pictures, the credentials that you need to make a confident hiring decision. And so for the first time, the data that you need, the professionals that you need come to you. And this is much better for the customer obviously and it’s actually much better for the professional as well. If you think about their past in terms of marketing solutions they had, they had the yellow pages, they had things like that but they were always sort of fishing blindly, they just put up an ad and hoped people saw it now we bring them a customer and we say, ‘Hey, there is a customer that is looking for your services in your area, here is what they want, are you interested?’ And they have all the discretion to decide, ‘Okay yeah, this is a great customer, I am free that day’ and at that point they get introduced, so we’ve made it better for both sides and that’s why the model is growing so fast.

Martin: And is the service provider only paying for the introduction or really for the closing of the deal.

Marco: Yes, they pay for the introduction. Interestingly, we try doing it on a deal, but it actually caused problems because for the professional, there was no fee up front and so they figured, they just respond to everything, even when they weren’t a great a fit. You, the customer, said, ‘I need the plumber to come on Saturday’ and me as a plumber says, ‘Well, I’ll say I can come on Sunday, maybe he’ll change his mind’. But that’s not a great response for you. So we had to change the incentive such that only the professionals who were really motivated to sort of get introduced to that customer were actually the ones who got through and we have to make sure on our end to charge appropriately such that they have a great ROI and they sort of get a lot of value out of Thumbtack.

Martin: And how do you analyze this kind of incentive network?

Marco: Quantitatively and qualitatively. There is a lot of data that you could look at to understand what are the dynamics at play and how is it evolving and then also you have to listen to the qualitative feedback, talking to professionals, talking to customers, seeing the support tickets that we get to learn, again what’s working and what’s not.

CORPORATE STRATEGY

Martin: Let’s talk about the corporate strategy. I mean, Thumbtack is some kind of a market place so it’s driven by network effect and effects of scale. What other type of competitive advantage do you want to create or already have compared to other competitors?

Marco: So, you are absolutely right that there are network effects at play but in our case there is not just one network. In fact we have as many networks as we have customers because what matters to you as a customer is only the professionals who will come to you. You don’t care about the ones that are 100 of miles away. And so that is the huge challenge with the space is that you have to build local networks over and over and over. Our advantage over our competitors is that we’ve created a marketing sort of solution, a way for these professionals to grow their business that is so much better and so obvious that we don’t need a sale force to push it onto them, we certainly buy ads to build awareness of this solution, but they then sign up and it’s totally self serving, we start sending them customers and because of that we’ve been able to reach a scale much faster than really anybody else. We now have more paying professionals than Yelp or Angie’s list and they’ve been at it over a decade each. So that’s really where the advantage comes in, it’s the model that unlocks the growth potential.

Martin: Marco, when you started, what was your go to market strategy, did you just expand on local cities, or did you just try to reach more national, or grow several cities at a separate time, or did you take it step by step? How did you do it?

Marco: The sort of traditional way to do it is city by city and I think that was the advice that we were getting at the time. But the city by city model is expensive. You’re investing a lot of dollars in one city and we honestly did not have that much money to start, so we said, ‘Is there a more scalable way we can do this and what that really means is, is there any software or programmatic way to do it?’ And that’s what we focused on early on, how can we get these markets going, without a big investment but simply with software to find the right professionals and find the right customers and bring them together. And we found that, it took us a couple of years to figure it all out but that then unlocked the ability to go sort of nationwide very quickly. So we’re already now nationwide, we serve hundreds of categories across all these cities and it’s really sort of the model but also sort of then marketing strategies that allowed that.

Martin: Can you a little bit elaborate on how the software that you used works?

Marco: So I mean there are a couple of things that you have to do, you have to find professionals, so you have to go out to the web and figure out who is a professional, in what city and what do they do. Then you have to sort of bring them the right customer at the right time and so it’s sort of a matching problem. By doing that, it’s a great way to sort of build a relationship with a professional because we can say, ‘Hey, here is a customer, are you interested? Come to Thumbtack and there’s a lot more like them’. And so it’s really sort of a ‘matching and discovery’ challenge that we’re able to solve programmatically.

Martin: Actually, can I imagine it working like this: You have started with a platform, people come to the website, both sides. But when you see, ‘Okay, there is some demands generated but we don’t have the right profession, then we go out there and search the web, contact those guys, sending them emails and say, ‘Okay, we have some kind of demand, would you be interested in this kind of purchase order then register at our platform’.

Marco: That’s right.

Martin: Okay great.

Marco: And these small businesses they all want more customers and so when you bring them one, they are very receptive to that and obviously the onboarding has to work well, the marketing messages has to be correct, but at the end of the day we are bringing them what they want and so that’s a great way to start the relationship.

MARKET DEVELOPMENT

Martin: When looking at other platforms that are similar but not identically alike, Elance or Odesk, I perceive a very big trend towards lowering prices over there for the offering, what type of trends can you identify on your platform?

Marco: So, both Odesk and Elance are virtual marketplace so they source their labor globally and I think there is definitely a sort of downward pressure on price when you are looking at these global markets. On the more localized basis, we don’t see that happening as much. There are some industries where the market is expanding tremendously like digital photography, it is much easier to be a photographer today than it was 20 years ago and so the market has gotten a lot bigger and therefore prices has come down. But by enlarge we don’t view ourselves as a way to increase or decrease prices, we want to help bring transparency to this sector such that customers are assured that they’re paying a good prices and that the professionals are educated about what the market is going for these days. But we ourselves aren’t trying to move it up or down because we just want to make matches based on what the buyers and sellers want, both of their interests matter to us.

Martin: You said that you currently have round about 100 categories or so called sub-markets that you are trying to…

Marco: Hundreds actually.

Martin: Hundreds okay. Are there any other specific markets you think are worthwhile pursuing in terms of matching buyers or sellers, related to those professional services? I suppose that is what you are going after.

Marco: So, one big category that we don’t do today is sort of child care. We think that’s one that will be well suited for an online market place in fact there are a few companies doing this, we chose not to focus on it because it is sort of unique in its sort of demands and sort of needs and that. I think is a big one that we will add at some point but for the time being we’ve got our hands full with all the categories we have so we’re not going to be expanding anytime soon.

Martin: I could imagine that the matching process or algorithm in this different sub-market is slightly different for each of the sub-markets. How do you manage this kind of complexity by having different kinds of algorithm?

Marco: It’s one that adapts to the local environment, so matching professionals, thinking about sort of distances, travel, there are affects on the local level which really matter. If you are based in New York City, New Jersey is very close but it takes forever to get to, so you’d much rather travel in New York City than across the Hudson into New Jersey. So we have to be smart about these sort of local needs when we match but at the end of the day what we are doing is bringing people together and that is fortunately a generalized solution across all of our categories and across all of our locations.

Martin: Great.

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

Martin: Marco, we always try to share some knowledge from entrepreneurs like you to people interested in starting their business. What advice can you give them? Maybe we can start by sharing your advice, dos and don’ts on raising money or managing investor relationships.

Marco: Okay. I think one piece of advice with regard to raising money that is important to keep in mind is that every round is a bridge round and it is a bridge to somewhere and the most important thing to articulate is not your past success but what are the milestones that this money is going to take you too and why those milestones are worth achieving. I think people often look backwards when thinking about their pitches, ‘Oh we did this, we accomplished that’ and that’s great but really what investors are looking for and what matters is where you going to get? And why is that somewhere I that I should invest in.

Martin: So would you recommend saying, ‘Okay, currently my status is x, like my company valuation is x, by taking your money we will increase more of the equity value or enterprise value’?

Marco: Ah, yeah though, I think you have to break it down a little bit more and instead say, ‘Okay, we raised angel money to validate the product and to begin to unlock some sort of growth through a couple of distribution channels. We’ve now proved that and now we are looking to raise a series A to really scale this. And we think if we raise x million dollars we will be able to get to y traction and if we do that puts us in a great place to raise a follow on sort of amount of fundraising’. It’s about getting to a milestone that’s valuable and interesting and sort of articulating that very specifically.

Martin: What other advice would you give your friend who is coming to you and saying, ‘I want to start a company’.

Marco: I think it’s – people should assume it will take a decade. So, when you are thinking about an idea or thinking about working with someone you should ask yourself, is this something I want to work on for a decade? Is this somebody I want to work with for a decade? I think that perspective helps clarify sort of whether things are worthwhile or not because in the moment sure, I can stomach most things but for a decade you have to be very sure. But that’s really the timescale over which these things happen and they don’t happen overnight and you have to have the sort of determination to grind it out over that many years.

Martin: That’s right. Thank you very much for your time, Marco.

Marco: Alright thank you.

Martin: And next time you’re looking for a job maybe as a service professional, maybe use Thumbtack. Thank you very much.

Marco: Good, thank you.

Martin: Thank you very much, Marco.

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