I was just about to graduate from DePauw University and hoped to become a (management) consultant when I received the phone call that changed my direction and my life. A mentor of mine, Bill Oesterle, had an idea for a business and he wanted me to launch it for him.
He was having trouble finding a reliable heating and air conditioning contractor to help with a project in a home he was fixing up in Columbus, Ohio. Bill wasn’t new to home improvement. When he’d lived in Indianapolis and restored a home, he had been a member of Unified Neighbors, an organization that collected information on local contractors. He knew how valuable that insight was to him, and he also knew he wasn’t alone as a homeowner having trouble finding good help.
He was busy with his day job, of course, but he wanted to expand on the Unified Neighbors model not just to help with his own project, but to meet a need just about every homeowner had.
I had interned for Bill the prior year at a venture capital firm in Indianapolis, and we’d worked well together. Later I’d learn he’d chosen me to start the company because, in his words: “Whatever I give her, Angie will get it done.”
But the day he called with his idea, and for a few months into the project, I wondered what in the world he was thinking. It was clear that homeowners did need a reliable way to connect with good contractors for home improvement projects. I, however, had never owned a home, never swung a hammer or hired a contractor in my life. I was in my twenties and my biggest employment achievement was being Employee of the Month at a steakhouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
On the other hand, I did – and do – like a challenge.
I pondered Bill’s suggestion and asked for advice about what I should do. My friends were a bit skeptical. My family was supportive. I can still hear my grandfather saying, “Angie, you’re 22. What’s the worst that can happen?” Often in life, the biggest rewards come from the greatest risks.
So, I agreed to give Bill a year of my time. He agreed to be my sounding board and advisor. We got insight and support from the founder of Unified Neighbors, and we set about our work.
That first year was hard. I’m not ashamed to say I cried in frustration and was prepared to give up more than once. I was living alone in Columbus, Ohio, with no friends while my college cohorts were embarking on promising careers in big cities, like New York and Chicago. I thought about them often as I pushed myself to keep walking up to strangers’ doors and making my pitch as to why they should help me put together a list of contractors they and their neighbors could use to know who to hire and who to avoid.
The door-to-door sales effort was much more of an exercise in character building than it was a successful marketing device. It taught me how to put together and execute a message, but more than that, it showed me that I could face down my fears. The worst thing that could happen was an unfriendly rejection. The best: a new sale and new information.
Compiling, analyzing and sharing that information was an education, too. I knew my new members were going to rely on me to give them good advice on spending decisions that would, for some of them, involve thousands of dollars. It was critical that I be well organized, devise and adhere to high standards of data integrity.
The lessons I learned then still serve me well – and I think they’ll help anyone who wants to start a business – be it at 22 or 82.
1. Start with a great idea that offers consumers something they need.
2. Have a strong support structure, whether it’s your parents, an angel investor, or a friend with the patience to let you cry every now and again; the will to push you back into the fray; and the strength to tell you when you need to rethink a strategy. It’s always good to have someone to keep you grounded after those first few successes, too.
3. Don’t give up. Success just doesn’t happen overnight. And sometimes it seems there are more valleys than peaks. Perseverance will be your best friend.