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“The best measurement of whether or not we are successful at delivering something valuable is if our customers, advertisers in our case, are willing to pay. “

Alex Algard is the Founder and CEO of Whitepages.com

Interview by Mike Sullivan of Sully’s Blog

Alex Algard is the CEO and founder of WhitePages.com.  Alex is also the founder of CarDomain Network, the leading online community for car enthusiasts.  In 2007 Alex was selected as the Software Entrepreneur of the Year, Pacific Northwest by Ernst & Young and as a finalist for Inc.  magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.  He began his career in investment banking with the Goldman Sachs High Technology Group. Alex holds a BA in economics and a MS in engineering, both from Stanford University.

WhitePages.com started in 1997 to provide consumers a free, accurate, and fast online alternative to directory assistance. Incorporated in 2000, WhitePages is a privately held company and has been profitable since its inception.  It is the most trusted and comprehensive source for consumers to quickly and easily find relevant, accurate contact information in North America.  CarDomain Network is the largest social networking site for auto enthusiasts with two million registered users and 750,000 custom rides profiles.

MO:
WhitePages.com started in 1997.  Where were you in life then and how did the idea come about?  How did you implement your idea?

Alex:
In 1997 I was finishing up school at Stanford. I had an idea to start an email directory online so that I could easily reconnect with old and new friends and colleagues. After some research, I found out that it was not feasible to do that, so I focused my efforts on directory assistance for phone numbers and addresses instead. I bought the domain name WhitePages.com and launched the site with all of $1100.

At first, the website was a hobby. I worked some evenings here and there while in school and then moved to New York to try my shot at investment banking. I realized quickly that I could make more money building out WhitePages, so I hired a contract developer to help develop the website and collectively, we cobbled together a not so pretty but effective solution for what would eventually become a top 50 website.

Alex Algard founder of WhitePages.com

 

MO:
How were you able to grow the company from a one man operation in ’97 to its current state as a multi-million dollar per year business?

Alex:
The philosophy that we as a company have always stuck to is that everything we build has to provide real value to both our users and our customers. The best measurement of whether or not we are successful at delivering something valuable is if our customers, advertisers in our case, are willing to pay.

While there is something to be said for companies that grow really big by giving away a product for free and then eventually start charging to monetize, that’s not my ballgame. At WhitePages, we focus on improving our products for users so that our customers will keep coming back. It’s a simple rule that we have followed for thirteen years and it works.

I also have to stress that the people that work at WhitePages are no small part of the company’s success. Hiring the right people is everything for the business and space that we are in. When you hire the best possible people you may end up investing more, but the value that they provide is ten times greater.

MO:
I think we all use WhitePages.com at some point.  When looking up my own information, I could see not only the typical listing information, but my age and relatives names.  That’s amazing.  With all the information provided by WhitePages.com, can people chose to remove or add information to their listings?

Alex:
Yes, we believe that it is very important to provide people with the option to edit their listing or even remove it all together. We were actually the first (and still the only ones) in our space to offer this capability and have since seen more than 2.5 million “claim” their listing by which they have either modified existing content or added additional content to create a toothier listing. The majority of our users want to be found and love that we provide them with the ability to ensure that their information is the most accurate and up to date.

MO:
With social networking being the at the peak of Internet usage today, where does WhitePages.com fit in with Facebook or Twitter. Are these sites competitors or do you consider them to be different industries all together?

Alex:
We don’t view these sites as competitors. While they are indeed amazingly powerful and useful tools that people can use to interact with their social connections, our business is about helping people connect with any person or business whether or not they have a social relationship with them. We are focused on providing the best experience on the web for those seeking contact information. Our goal is to help people find and connect with who and what they are looking for, not on maintaining relationships.

MO:
Let’s talk a bit about CarDomain.com.  Can I assume you’re a car enthusiast yourself?   Tell me where the idea for this business came from and how you were able to grow this business to an equally impressive level.

Alex:
Yup, I am a car enthusiast and that was definitely an important reason why I pursued this opportunity. I started CarDomain with my best friend from High School who also had an affinity for cars. We wanted to start a company together and initially had a broad range of ideas that we considered. I still believe that in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to be passionate about what it is that you are creating. CarDomain became a success for some of the same reasons that WhitePages did – a lot of hard work, hiring great people and staying hyper focused on one, succinct mission.

 

Alex Algard founder of WitePages.com

MO:
Many online entrepreneurs struggle with a means to actually gain traction and generate profits.  Advertising seems to be key to your business model in both of the sites discussed.  What advice do you have for startup online businesses to successfully attract advertisers?

Alex:
What you have to remember is that for an ad supported website, there is a special struggle because you have two sets of audiences that you need to keep in mind – web users and advertisers. I have noticed that significant majority of startup entrepreneurs are more loyal to their web users than their advertisers. I believe that it is absolutely critical to have a balanced perspective on both of these constituencies. Any credible business authority advises to “treat your customers well”, so I always find it a little surprising when web sites don’t take both of their “customers” into account.

So I guess my advice is this, make sure that your skill sets are balanced. Hire talented engineers and product managers to focus on the product, but also invest in a strong sales team that can excel at both selling and at building great ad products and solutions.

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