Angie's List: Angie Hicks In 1995, Angie Hicks spent months going door-to-door in Columbus, Ohio, trying to get people to sign up for a new home services referral business. Today, Angie's List is a household name, referring millions of members to plumbers, painters, and more. PLUS in our postscript "How You Built That," we check back with Joel Crites who created the app Micro Fantasy, where fans can make predictions about what will happen next in a baseball game. (Original broadcast date: November 28, 2016)
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Angie's List: Angie Hicks

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Angie's List: Angie Hicks

Angie's List: Angie Hicks

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Hey, everyone. So if you’ve ever tried to get people to buy something by, you know, going door to door, you know that this can be demoralizing. It could be utterly exhausting. But this is exactly how Angie Hicks first tried to get her business off the ground back in 1995. And back then, she was lucky to get, like, two takers a day. But of course, over the years, Angie’s List grew to millions of members and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. And the company’s story has changed a little bit since we first ran this episode back in 2016, so we’ll update you at the end. But for now, enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: People started calling you, and you are the only person manning the phones?

ANGIE HICKS: I'm literally in, like, 100-square-foot office space.

RAZ: (Laughter).

HICKS: Like, we didn't have a phone system. We had a phone. And so when we needed a second line, we got a second phone. So I do remember times where I'd be, like, sitting on the floor in the office, literally, like, toggling between two physical phones with no hold button.

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RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, Angie's List grew from that 100-square-foot office to a massive home services referral brand. So in the summer of 1995, Angie Hicks had just graduated from college in Indiana, which is where she's from. And like a lot of college graduates, she was looking for a job. Now, the previous summer, she interned at a small venture capital firm in Indianapolis. And her boss there was a man named Bill Oesterle. Bill was just a few years older than Angie, but he already had a lot of business experience, and he became kind of a mentor to her. So they kept in touch. And with Angie job hunting after college, Bill was giving her advice about where to apply, who was hiring, that kind of thing.

HICKS: And, you know, it was back in the day where you would literally send your resume and cover letter by mail. So I sent out numerous letters and resumes. And then Bill calls me up one day and says, hey, Angie, I have an idea. And at that point, he had moved to Columbus, Ohio. He said, like, why don't you move to Columbus, and we can start a business? I'll raise a little bit of money from, you know, friends and enough to get you through the first year, but I want you to commit for a year.

RAZ: So what'd you think?

HICKS: It was a little out of the blue. And, you know, I would never have defined myself as an entrepreneur. A lot of times, when I thought of classical entrepreneurs, I was like, hey, they're risk takers. They're big-idea thinkers. And I was like, OK, I don't fit that. So I just wrung my hands about that decision and talked to my parents about it. And they're like, well, you know, you know Bill well, you know? He's not going to lead you astray.

And then I talked to my grandfather. And he was incredibly conservative - I mean, lived through the Depression, just, you know, liked to pay cash for everything. And, you know, he looked at me without even hesitating and was like, well, you should do it, Angie. I mean, what's the difference between being 22 and looking for a job and being 23 and looking for a job? And I was like, huh. So, literally, like, loaded up all of my worldly possessions in my Ford Escort and off I went.

RAZ: So at that point, did Bill actually have a business in mind? Or was he just like, hey, come to Columbus, and we'll figure it out?

HICKS: We had a couple ideas.

RAZ: OK.

HICKS: ...But then landed on what became Angie's List when Bill was trying to renovate his house in Columbus. It was the second house he'd owned. His house in Indianapolis was also a fixer-upper. But in Indianapolis, he was introduced to a little business called Unified Neighbors that had been around since the early '70s, which was basically a list of who was good and who wasn't in the city for home improvement. And so when he moved to Columbus, he just kind of assumed there was something like that in every city.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: And there wasn't. And so he's like, we're going to try to start our own.

RAZ: So - OK, so this is, like, '95?

HICKS: That's right.

RAZ: So you get to Columbus, and what did you do there? Like, how did you start?

HICKS: So we started just talking to people that we knew. So, you know, the first stop on my tour was to Bill's next-door neighbor, Patty Bowman.

RAZ: What did you say? What was your pitch?

HICKS: (Laughter) And it was like, you know, like, hey, we're starting this business - you know, and explain what we were going to do. We're going to help people find, you know, the best contractors in town. And Patty had lived in her house - lived in her neighborhood for her entire life. You know, if someone did not need what we were selling, it was probably Patty. But Patty loved the entrepreneurial spirit of it. So she looked at me, and she was like, this is great; I'm going to take two memberships, one for me and one for my son.

And I was very thankful because Patty immediately ran and gave me a list of every service provider she had ever used. And she also gave me her church directory. And she told me that I had to call everybody on her church directory and tell them that she said they should buy a membership.

RAZ: And how much was a membership at that time?

HICKS: Nineteen dollars...

RAZ: So 19 bucks...

HICKS: Nineteen dollars for the year.

RAZ: ...For the year. And that bought you?

HICKS: We were a magazine and a call-in service. So during the day, you'd call in, and you could ask me for the name of a plumber or an electrician. And then in the evening, I would go out door to door and also ask for reviews.

RAZ: So you did everything. You wrote...

HICKS: I did everything. I assembled the - I wrote the magazine. Like, magazine is a very generous term for what it was.

RAZ: It was like a brochure-ish (ph)?

HICKS: More like a little, like, you know, neighborhood newsletter.

RAZ: So how did you get more subscribers?

HICKS: So I literally - for the first three or four months, I basically went door to door every day.

RAZ: What was that like?

HICKS: You know, remember, I'm an introvert.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: It was probably one of the most miserable experiences of my life (laughter).

RAZ: Were you miserable because you just weren't getting any traction? Like, you'd go door to door, and people would just say, like, buzz off or something?

HICKS: Yeah. I mean, like, think about door-to-door in the mid-'90s. Like, I - now I like to look back on it and call it a character-building experience.

RAZ: Yeah. Right (laughter).

HICKS: You know? (Laughter). Yeah, it was hard. And there was a moment in the fall - and you know, it was, like - you think about - like, I was 22, and I kind of realized that this is my life. I'm like, this is my career (laughter). I certainly didn't need to go to college to do what I was doing.

RAZ: Did you know anybody in Columbus?

HICKS: Bill and his wife.

RAZ: So you were just, like, on your own in this city...

HICKS: Total transplant, yeah.

RAZ: ...Just working all the time?

HICKS: Yes.

RAZ: Going door to door...

HICKS: Yes.

RAZ: ...As an introvert.

HICKS: Yes (laughter).

RAZ: So you were totally miserable.

HICKS: I was. So I call Bill up one day - and I appreciate the fact that he realized that I was upset. So he suggests that we meet, like, at the little bakery down the street. And so we get there. And, you know, as soon as I sit down, I just start crying. And, like, I don't even get anything out. And he just starts talking. And he's just, like, selling me on why we were - it was going to be great. And, you know - and he talked for probably, you know, 30 minutes. And everyone in the bakery are looking at us like, what is wrong with those two? (Laughter) And he likes to tell the story that, like, at the end, all I could muster to say was that I was not going to quit.

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RAZ: So what happened after that conversation? Did you just go back out on the streets and start selling door to door?

HICKS: Yeah. I mean, I tell people all the time - I'm like, I used to measure success by one or two memberships a day. Like, if I sold two memberships in a day, it was a banner day.

RAZ: Wow.

HICKS: So, you know, so we fast forward a little bit. And we're like, OK, this is probably not the marketing plan that's going to work. So then we're like, OK, we're going to have to market.

RAZ: And I read, like - I mean, you didn't raise insane amounts of money. It was, like, $50,000.

HICKS: We raised $50,000, yeah. And so, you know, where can we market that we can do it in an economical way that we won't burn through $50,000 really fast? So we lucked out. I mean, Columbus, Ohio, has - at that time, had these little weekly newspapers. And so we put an ad in the back of the weekly newspaper. And it was, you know, neighborhood by neighborhood. And it was this little two-by-three ad that said, tired of lousy service? So are we, so we decided to do something about it. And the phone started ringing.

RAZ: And people started calling you, and you are the only person manning the phones.

HICKS: I'm literally in, like, a hundred-square-foot office space that the people in the other offices around me thought my parents rented for me to do my homework in. I had a card table.

RAZ: (Laughter).

HICKS: We didn't a phone system. We had a phone. And so when we needed a second line, we got a second phone. So there - I do remember times where I'd be, like, sitting on the floor in the office, literally, like, toggling between two physical phones with no hold button.

RAZ: And - what? - people, like - your subscribers would just call up during the day, and they would say, hey, I need a plumber or, like, a roofer, and you would say, yeah, yeah, I've got all these options for you.

HICKS: Yeah. And it was like - or if I didn't have an answer and the list was thin, I would go figure it out. I mean, I remember one time, you know, this woman called, and she was new in town and wanted to sign her daughter up for ballet lessons. And so I was like, hang on. Luckily, I remembered - because I had signed up all the members (laughter) - that I had a member who was a part of the Columbus Ballet. So I call her up, and I was like, hey, I've got someone on that needs help finding ballet lessons. So, you know, we - I would just kind of try to make as...

RAZ: You were...

HICKS: ...A match...

RAZ: You were like a human...

HICKS: ...However I could.

RAZ: You were a human Google.

HICKS: Yes.

RAZ: You were, like, the person - like, when you type it into Google, you were the person on the other side...

HICKS: (Laughter) yeah.

RAZ: ...Answering that question.

HICKS: Yeah.

RAZ: And what was the company called, by the way, at that time?

HICKS: Oh, sure. It was called Columbus Neighbors - so, you know, kind of just a simple knockoff of the Unified Neighbor's name. And, you know, we debated names. One of the guys that was involved in the company who was on the board - you know, he was like, let's call it The List. And, you know, like...

RAZ: That's a pretty good name, by the way.

HICKS: That is a pretty good name.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: That is a pretty good name.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: Maybe harder to copyright, but yeah.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: And then Bill throws in - he's like, well, we could just name it Angie's List since Angie's who you talk to, and it does make a good story. And, you know, no matter what happens, it could always relate back to, you know, Angie was the first one that answered the phones (laughter). So, you know, probably not knowing what I was getting into, like, that was the decision we made.

RAZ: So when you ran these ads and you started to see more subscribers, how long does it take before you start thinking, this is actually working; this is actually generating some cash for this business?

HICKS: Yeah. So we ended up signing up a thousand members in the first year. And so we're like, this could be a go at it. So then we started thinking, like, maybe we should go and see if we can acquire Unified Neighbors.

RAZ: In Indianapolis.

HICKS: Right. Right. So we ended up accomplishing it about a year after we started in Columbus. So then, you know, I kind of wake up one day in July of 1996, and I've got, you know, two offices. So I had to start advertising to hire some help. And, you know, I'm 22. I don't know how to hire anyone.

And so I placed a little ad in our newsletter to hire people. And I had this one woman that came in. Her name is Maggie. And I hadn't interviewed anyone before (laughter). So I'm, like, asking questions. Like, oh this is great, blah, blah, you know? And I'm like - so we finish up the interview, and I'm like, I'll get back to you in a few days. And I just remember she looked me in the eye, and she's like, if you're going to hire me, you need my phone number.

RAZ: (Laughter).

HICKS: And I was like - I was just like, that's exactly right. So the next day, I hired Maggie. And, you know, Maggie is now, this year, celebrating her 20th anniversary at Angie's List.

RAZ: So in those early years, you must have just been working like a maniac...

HICKS: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Because you had to deal with billing, writing the magazine, getting new subscribers, expanding to Indianapolis...

HICKS: And selling - don't forget I was selling advertising, too.

RAZ: Selling advertising. Like, did you move to Indianapolis when you guys acquired Unified Neighbors?

HICKS: No. I actually - I just drove back and forth (laughter). So I spent half my week in Columbus and half in Indianapolis.

RAZ: How long is that drive, by the way?

HICKS: Three hours.

RAZ: So, like, were you sleeping, like, four hours a night?

HICKS: It was a lot. I mean, you can find yourself - you can just work, work, work. There's a lot of time in the day, and you can work a lot of hours. And I tell people all the time, I'm like, you know, like, in retrospect, I couldn't have picked a better time in my life to do something like that. You know, it was like, no family. You know what I mean? It was like, you're at a point in your life where you're kind of geared to do that.

RAZ: It's funny, though, because you are so different from almost every entrepreneur that we've interviewed in that you were not incredibly optimistic about the success of this company early on. You were kind of thinking about maybe packing it in. You were not a natural hustler, but you were doing all of these things.

HICKS: Yeah. I mean, I think because, you know, in retrospect when you think about kind of like, what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur? I think - honestly, I think a lot of times, it comes down to perseverance.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: And I think a lot of times, people can have the big idea and they can have, you know, kind of that initial kind of fall in love in - with their idea for starting something, but they don't ride it through the hard part, and they give it up.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: So while I might not have had the big idea and while I might not have been the big risk taker, I had perseverance. And, you know, I think that's - that is my entrepreneurial trait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: In just a moment, how Angie Hicks almost got downsized out of her own company. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So about three years in, Angie's List had expanded from two markets to four markets. And so they decided to build a bigger management team. Bill Osterle came to work as the full-time CEO. And as far as Angie, she says the crazy hours and the hard work of the early years had really started to take a toll.

HICKS: I was super burnt out. And so, you know, Bill's like, hey, Angie, I know you've thought periodically about business school. Why don't you think more seriously about it? You know, I was not prepared to do that. Hadn't taken the GMAT, hadn't done anything but, you know, basically decided in September that I would apply that fall.

RAZ: Wait. Here's what I don't get. So you - you're applying for business school in the fall of '98, like three years after you launched this company which is now really gaining traction and looks like it's going to become something. I mean, like, I guess you could argue that those three years were kind of like your business school, right? Like, why did you feel like you wanted to go to business school?

HICKS: You know, for me, if I hadn't kind of taken that time, I probably wouldn't have stayed. You know, you kind of need perspective. How did I learn to be a manager? Because I was forced to be a manager. You know, like, I'd gone through an acquisition. I'd raised capital. But did I really understand everything that I was going through? Probably not. And so it was a great time for me to step away and kind of gain perspective. So I ended up applying to two schools. So I applied to Kellogg and to Harvard. I ended up not getting into Kellogg. I got into Harvard.

RAZ: What was that like? Was it weird going there?

HICKS: (Laughter) It was weird. And I, like - you know, I was - you know, I'd lived in Indiana or Ohio my entire life. You know, and it was one of those things where I was like - I was so flattered to actually have just gotten into business school. I grew up - you know, I'm - I was a middle-class kid. My dad was a UPS driver. My mom was a bank teller. I was the first in our immediate family to go to college. So for me, it was kind of like, wow, this is kind of a neat experience, and I'm going to take it for what it's worth. But maybe I had a different perspective than a lot of folks going as well.

RAZ: When you were at business school and you would, like, run these models of how businesses ran or how to be a leader, were you - like, were there times where you thought, wait; that's not how it works in the real world because I've been there?

HICKS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was fascinating to watch, you know, where you'd have these conversations of, the company needs to cut 20 percent from its - you know, from its bottom line; you know, here's the alternatives. And people are like, well, we should just cut 20 percent of the staff. And I look at him like, have you fired someone before? Have you actually done that? Because that's really hard to do. And, you know, yeah, sometimes you have to do it and sometimes that's the right decision, but let's make sure we really understand the context of what that means.

RAZ: So while you were there, were you involved with Angie's List?

HICKS: Yeah. Well, I was actually - I was still keeping the books.

RAZ: And was it your intention to go back?

HICKS: Well, that was interesting. So Bill and I, you know, had this arrangement that, like, hey, you should go and explore what there is to offer. You know, like, we're here, but you should go see what there is. So I did interview. And I realized, like, sometimes you don't realize what you have until you kind of look around.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: So I decided I was going to go back. And by that point, Bill had hired a chief operating officer who had conservatively modeled the business in such a way that after I had agreed to come back, Bill had to call me and say, we may not be able to afford you.

RAZ: Wait. what?

HICKS: Yeah (laughter).

RAZ: Why was that, because you had an MBA at that point?

HICKS: No. He was just like - he was literally like, we now have too much overhead.

RAZ: Oh.

HICKS: And I was like, you know, Bill, are you just being you, or is this serious? And he was just like, no, Angie, like, this is what the model says. And I'm like, you know what? I'm coming back. Click. And I hung up.

RAZ: Yeah. I don't think I would have said that to Bill. I would have been like, Bill, screw you.

HICKS: (Laughter).

RAZ: You're like, I co-founded this company, Bill.

HICKS: Exactly. Needless to say, you know, the guy that ran the model was incredibly conservative on it. So we were all fine. But it was a funny moment.

RAZ: So when you got back, what was your - what was the title they gave you?

HICKS: So the chief operating officer position was filled, so I just decided to be the chief marketing officer.

RAZ: This is going to be a hard question for you to answer, but it's just my observation that you must be a person with almost no ego, right? Am I right?

HICKS: Yeah. I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, I joke around, like, you know, I don't worry about titles. I worry about getting stuff done. You know, there's too much stuff to worry about to worry about little things like that. And maybe that's - you know, I often remind myself - you know, 'cause people will ask me as they come into the business, like, what's it like to work here? I'm like, I'm like the last person to ask. Like, I tell people at orientation, I'm like, I am really shy. If you see me in the diner, you need to come talk to me.

RAZ: OK. OK. So you come back to the company after business school. This is the early 2000s, right?

HICKS: Yeah. So we - so at that point, we started opening markets on a more frequent basis. We were opening one or two a year.

RAZ: And by the way, when did you go from being a newsletter - like, a physical newsletter - to being an online company?

HICKS: So we put our first website up in probably early 2000 or 1999. It was around there. And basically, literally, we hired two college kids to build our website (laughter). And it was just a basic, like, you know, marketing informational website. You know, it had email. You couldn't check the list online. It was just for marketing. And Bill asked - so how's that website working? - one day. And we realized it was like, you know, half of our sign-ups were coming in over this little website. And so we were like, I guess we should actually build a website. So, you know, it was like, yeah, it's probably more interesting to read the reviews than to have Angie read the reviews to you.

RAZ: 'Cause people were getting - people were either getting the mailing or they were just calling up the number.

HICKS: Right, right.

RAZ: And what's interesting about taking this online is that, like, the business model - right? - is based on basically building a community of trust. And you kind of did this before the Airbnbs and the Ubers and the - you know, these - or the sharing economy kind of took off, right? So at the beginning, were people skeptical of this?

HICKS: Yeah. I mean, it was interesting. I think there was actually even an article written - gosh, it was probably 10 or 12 years ago - about the fact that - you know, there was a fascination as to why consumers were willing to share their opinions with us. They're like, they're paying you for information that they are giving you.

RAZ: Right. Yeah.

HICKS: You know what I mean? That was the crux of the article. And it was like, there was something special about the service. And at first, I thought it was like, oh, it's Columbus because I know all the members or, oh, it's Indianapolis. But there's almost - there is a sense of belonging and obligation that became a culture of the service. And that - and it replicated itself in city after city. And, you know, one of the values we had was the fact that we started when we did. I mean, we started pre-Internet days. In many ways, when we looked at who we were going to mimic for our business model, we looked at journalists. You know, like, every story has a source, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: It didn't even occur to us that we should allow people to review anonymously. And that proved incredibly powerful.

RAZ: But why do you think people were willing to write these reviews that, you know, essentially, they're paying for?

HICKS: Because if they didn't, then the next person wouldn't. And if you think about the kind of decisions you're making around your home, I mean, these - you know, I call these, like, the high-cost-of-failure decisions, right? I mean, it's a time when you probably know the least about what you're buying. You're spending a lot of money. And if it goes wrong, it could potentially ruin your largest asset - your house.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: And there's bad information. And, you know, like, there's not a great way. I mean, 'cause a lot of these companies are small companies, so how do I find out whether, you know, XYZ plumbing is any good? There's lots of places to get information, but people are willing to pay for quality information.

RAZ: So as you guys started to expand, did you go out and raise money?

HICKS: We did. You know, that was one of the things that - you know, Bill having a venture capital background was incredibly valuable for us because usually, you know, our raising money came around, you know, wanting to grow the marketing spend.

RAZ: OK. So what you're saying is you didn't need money to manufacture a product. You were primarily spending money on marketing.

HICKS: We needed to market because effectively, I mean, you know, it's a recurring-revenue business. We were acquiring members who were going to stick around for a long time, but we had to upfront the marketing to acquire them. So once we were able to scale to national marketing, then it became a race to open markets. So in about 18 months, we opened a hundred markets.

RAZ: What were some of the mistakes that you made while you were in that sort of period of expansion?

HICKS: So, you know, we waited a number of years before we opened Chicago because we were really uneasy about the cost of expanding into a city that big. And, you know, what we realized when we opened there was, you know, it just took off like crazy. Why do most companies start on the coasts? It's because that's where the population is, you know, and then they move into the Midwest. We did the absolute opposite there.

RAZ: And clearly that strategy worked. How many members, by the way, do you have today?

HICKS: We have over 3 million paid members. We cover every - just about every city.

RAZ: Do you - like, when you see an incredibly positive review and also an incredibly negative review, like, how do you know which one to believe?

HICKS: What I often find when I look at reviews, you know, one, it's really important to actually read the context of the reviews. And, you know, I - and I learned this early on. No matter how great you are as a company, you're going to get complaints. And I honestly believe you learn more when you can see a company that has a couple of complaints here and there than you do about a company that has all glowing reviews. You know, and part of that is like, hey, you know, they might make a mistake, and you really want to know how they're going to handle it when the chips are down. Like, what's going to happen if that - you know what? The countertop was the wrong length and now they have to redo it? - because that's what you as a consumer fear, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: You fear when the job doesn't go well. And, you know, and on the flip side, you know, years ago - I mean, gosh, early on in the business we allowed companies to start responding to reviews.

RAZ: Ah.

HICKS: ...You know, 'cause they were like, hey, it's not - you know, I totally understand that the consumer gets to give their opinion, but don't we get a chance to say our side of the story?

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: And so we introduced that, which proved to be incredibly valuable to the consumer because you do want to know how they're going to respond, right? But I do spend a lot of time talking to service companies and kind of encouraging them not to respond on first response because...

RAZ: Because usually, that's when they're angry.

HICKS: No one likes negative feedback.

RAZ: Yeah.

HICKS: I always suggest they go get a cup of coffee, come back, think about it before they write something because what they say can be more powerful than 10 reviews (laughter) might ever be.

RAZ: Do you - like, when you have to get something fixed in your house, do the contractors that show up - are they freaking out? Like, are they super nervous? They're like, oh, my God, Angie is going to, like, ruin me. She can ruin me.

HICKS: Right. And I'm just like - I'm like, hey, my reviews are - weighed the same as everyone else's. And - but, yes, you know, a lot of times, my husband is the one that's home when we have work done. And Hicks is not my married name, so that helps until they kind of look around the room and start seeing, you know, kind of pictures and stuff, and they were like, oh, wait.

RAZ: They're like, holy crap, it's Angie.

HICKS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Angie Hicks, co-founder of Angie’s List. The company now offers free membership. And last year, it merged with one of its chief competitors, HomeAdvisor. So Angie’s new title - chief customer officer at ANGI Homeservices. And by the way, despite her best efforts to avoid the spotlight, Angie says she can't go to grocery stores or really anywhere without someone asking her for advice on finding a contractor.

I am getting some bathroom tiling done - this is a true story - in Washington, D.C. Just off the top of your head, do you...

HICKS: Off the top of your head.

RAZ: ...Happen to know a good bathroom tiler?

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RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we’re going to hear from you about the things you’re building.

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RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today we're going to update a story we ran just over a year ago. And that story came to us from Joel Crites.

JOEL CRITES: Hi, Guy.

RAZ: Joel is from Cleveland. He's a huge Cleveland sports fan. And a few years ago, he was at an Indians game with his 16-year-old son Koby. It was a beautiful summer night of baseball. And Joel was loving it. But Koby...

CRITES: He just wasn't into the action of the game. He didn't really care about the outcome, you know, wasn't into the standings.

RAZ: Wow.

CRITES: Yeah, he just said this is boring; let's go (laughter). And I said something to the effect of, no, I paid to be here tonight. You're going to sit there and like it (laughter).

RAZ: OK, many of us have been in a similar situation. This is no fun for Koby. It's no fun for Joel. So in that moment, Joel suggested a game. He turned to Koby. And he said hey, why don't we try to predict what the next batter's going to do - strike out, hit a homer, walk, whatever. And whoever predicts correctly wins.

CRITES: And he said fine. And within the very next at-bat we were laughing and high-fiving. And I thought I had just struck gold.

RAZ: And so after that, every time Joel went to see baseball, he'd play the game with his other kids as well. And he started to tell his friends about it, especially friends with kids. And he realized that a lot of fans were already doing the same thing.

CRITES: People have told me, oh, I play this with my grandpa where we predict the at-bats. And we use, you know, this and that to keep track of the score. And people in the bullpen who are bored when they're watching a game, they'll do some version of it.

RAZ: So about a year later, he wondered whether he might turn this idea into a smartphone app, an app that you could play at home or in the stadium against other fans who were all watching the live game in real time. But he needed to set up a way of scoring how many points for a predicted strike or a homerun or a double play. Well, fortunately in his day job, Joel is an accountant.

CRITES: I quickly got out my spreadsheets and started downloading statistics to figure out, what should the different predictions for an at-bat be worth based on their statistical likelihood? So there's groundout worth two points. Strikeout is three points, single four points.

RAZ: Anyway. Joel eventually hired a developer to build out a smartphone app. And after some tinkering, he put it out into the world.

CRITES: I literally printed off flyers. And I stood outside of our local stadium just asking people to play. And that's how I got it off the ground initially.

RAZ: So, Joel, can I just raise one thing? Because I'm a huge baseball fan, and I take my boys to a lot of games. And there's something beautiful and magical about being in a stadium or an arena.

CRITES: Right.

RAZ: And just watching the game and having our devices off - I don't know, I just - Joel, I feel like you've surrendered.

CRITES: (Laughter).

RAZ: You've said, no, this is the reality. And I'm just going to - I'm just going to go with it.

CRITES: In some ways I have. But in the times we live in - I mean, the baseball average age of a viewer nowadays has gone from age 53 to 57 in the past decade. So you got to find the way to reach the kids. And this is what I've come up with.

RAZ: Joel's app is called Micro Fantasy. And so far he's licensed it to a few college-level baseball teams. And he's made about $10,000 from that. But since we last spoke with him, he started to develop the app for other sports like tennis and basketball. And he may even pitch the app to his own Cleveland Cavaliers.

If you want to find out more about the Micro Fantasy app or hear previous episodes, head to our podcast page, howibuiltthis.npr.org. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review. You can also write to us at hibt@npr.org. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis.

Our show was produced this week by Casey Herman with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Nour Coudsi, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is J.C. Howard. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

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