Alex Algard founded WhitePages.com in 1997 on a lark.
What started as a hobby quickly blossomed into one of the busiest sites on the web, profitable since day one. Today, Alex remains CEO, providing guidance and direction as the site enters its 14th year.
A former finalist for Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year, Alex holds degrees in economics (B.A.) and engineering (M.A.) from Stanford University.
He recently took time to answer some questions for Young Entrepreneur:
Thirteen years have passed since you founded WhitePages.com. What keeps you so deeply connected to this company?
I would say that there are two overarching themes that keep me so deeply connected toÂ WhitePages. First, is a strong dedication to the long term mission of this company which is to connect consumers with people and businesses. While we have been quite successful in our ability to help our users quickly and easily find relevant, accurate contact information, there is always more that we could do in terms of bettering our products, data and overall experience. Until our mission is complete, I will remain intensely passionate and connected to WhitePages.
Second, is the people. I am continuously impressed with the skill, creativity and passion that the people of WhitePages exhibit on a daily basis. This is by far the best bunch of people I have ever worked with — they motivate and inspire me and most of all, keep me heavily invested in the company and its future.
You've built companies and now you also invest in them. As an investor, what do you look for in entrepreneurs?
The main thing that I look for is a strong personal passion for how their service or product will improve the world. While making money is an important goal, if the passion is fleeting, they will have more difficulty running the start-up marathon, especially if they are in it for the long run.
They also must exhibit an unwavering commitment to their business and the mission ahead of them. This means the willingness to run through brick walls and work through late nights. If an entrepreneur is just looking for funding to make life more comfortable, that is not nearly as compelling an opportunity for me than someone who is willing to further fuel growth by doing what is absolutely necessary to make the business succeed.
Finally, I look for a track record of overachievement. This doesn't mean that they need to be experienced at what they are doing since many of the best ideas out there are for services that don't exist, but they have to be able to prove that they are medaled by being successful at school or some other passion.
You started WhitePages.com with $1,100 in the bank. Can an entrepreneur build an online business in 2011 with that kind of pocket change?
I think it is both easier and tougher in 2011.Â Â Domain name sales pricesÂ were much lower in the 1990s and many good domain names still had not been registered yet, but it was harder to launch a company because the services you had available to build the company yourself you needed to purchase. Now, they are readily available for free or next to nothing.
For example, the open source movement did not exist when I launched WhitePages. The only way to build a scalable website back then was to spend money on enterprise software. Today, you can launch a website in a number of hours for next to nothing.
What's been your greatest challenge as an entrepreneur?
While certainly there have been many challenges over time, one of the greatest ones that I have faced and also one that is incredibly important to a people-oriented business like ours, has been the ability to ensure that we have an A-team on board at all times. In any labor market, whether the economy is strong or weak, it is always difficult to attract and retain the best employees. In a strong economy, there is a smaller supply of talent overall, and in a weak economy, the top talent becomes a little more conservative and is less open to new career opportunities. Hiring is incredibly important and it's not an easy thing to master.
You recently got into the group coupon game. Why go this route?
The most valuable lead for a small business is someone who walks into their store and social buying has proven to be an amazingly effective way to get consumers into stores. WhitePages already delivers a high volume of leads to merchants throughÂ our business listing and we believe social buying is an exciting way to deliver more value to merchants while adding an element of fun and perhaps even more importantly, savings to WhitePages users.
DealPop also makes great senseÂ for the consumer, in the fact that we have the unique ability to tap into the knowledge of more than 20 million local, regional, and national business searches per month, conducted on WhitePages.com andÂ 411.com,Â to quickly identify unique local brands people are seeking out from every location in the US. Because of this, DealPop was a logical step for us because we can use knowledge from WhitePages to rapidly spot trends and locate popular favorites in every city, state, and region.
You have degrees from an amazing university. How important is a great education in today's entrepreneurial climate? Does it make a difference?
Some of the most successful entrepreneurs both today and in the past have lacked fancy degrees, so you I suppose you can look at it as just a piece of paper. I believe that what really matters is the person. Of course a strong education can signify a hard worker and all in all, I believe that overachievers tend to succeed as entrepreneurs. All that said, Stanford was a helpful advantage to me for a number of reasons —Â its location in Silicon Valley and the wealth of courses that I was able to take that taught me valuable knowledge related to both entrepreneurship and technology innovation. There are classes that I took that I still benefit from more than ten years later —Â product design, computer science, and business fundamentals. And, while I have no direct proof, I have to believe that having Stanford on my resume helped to open some doors.
What's the best piece of advice you can give young entrepreneurs? What's the worst piece of advice you received along the way?
Stay true to your personal passion because building a business is an ultra marathon and unless you do something you are inspired by you will run out of energy.
As for the worst piece of advice, in the late 90's there was a prevailing mindset especially among VCs that all startup founders would need to be replaced by a seasoned CEO at some point to scale the business better. While some companies followed this advice to meet success, there were plenty that were run into the ground as a result of an outsider CEO brought in who did understand the unique culture or entrepreneurial qualities required to make the start-up successful in the first and consequently, was unable to keep the momentum going.
About the Author: Nathaniel Broughton is an Internet entrepreneur and investor who has served as a driving force behind three Inc. 500 companies since 2002. He is currently CEO ofÂ Growth Partner, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. He previously served as chief marketing officer of VAMortgageCenter.com, the nation’s leading VA purchase lender.