Alex Algard wasn’t your typical college student. Rather than lounging around his Stanford dorm room, staying up late and sleeping in, he was using his room to accomplish his vision of helping people find, be found and connect.
In 1997, from that Stanford dorm room, Algard founded WhitePages Inc. Since then, the privately-held, Seattle-based, 100-employee company has become the leading provider of contact information in North America, with a top 40 Web property, 10 top-ranking mobile apps and more than 50 million monthly users.
“Whitepages.com is our flagship website,” says Algard, founder and CEO. “It’s primarily oriented toward consumers. It’s a free, supported service, so our company drives revenue from online advertising. We allow users to find contact information about people and businesses.”
At its core, WhitePages is a data company. Over time it has amassed a significant database of contact information about U.S. individuals and businesses, adjusting more than 1 billion records every month.
“Over time, users have recognized that we provide a fairly unique set of information, and consequently traffic and usage of our website has been on a steady and continuous growth trajectory over the past many years,” Algard says.
Today, he is focused on continuing that growth through new opportunities in WhitePages’ core business, mobile apps and strategic acquisitions.
Stay ahead of the competition
In the space that WhitePages operates in, competition is extremely fierce. Algard is ensuring that WhitePages stays connected to its customers first and foremost.
“My focus is to make sure we offer great services and great user experience to our customers in whatever area that we put resources into, and that we really establish ourselves as the best service in the market in whatever things we may launch,” Algard says. “That’s where I spend a lot of my time.”
In order to do that, especially in the online market that is driven by people, Algard and WhitePages place a high premium on attracting the best possible employees.
“I spend a fair amount of my time making sure we both attract the best and also retain the employees that are with us,” he says.
As a data company, it comes down to offering the most complete database that the company can, the most comprehensive coverage and the best quality.
“That involves continuously seeking out more and better data sources,” he says. “We also have to do a better job building and organizing the data that we collect. Because we’re adjusting 1 billion contact records every month, to some extent our challenge isn’t just to source more data, but finding what to actually do with it.”
WhitePages assembled a team of data scientists that has really elevated the company’s performance in the last year in building a well-structured database.
“There is a lot of rocket science that goes into organizing a database of our size cleanly,” Algard says. “Those are the core things that I spend time on to make sure that we’re staying ahead of everyone else. The next focus after that is making sure all the data flows smoothly to all the people who are customers of our data, whether they’re external customers or internal users.”
One of the biggest challenges for the company recently has been building WhitePages Pro, a B2B service.
“It turns out that a very significant portion of our overall audience is actually business users who come to our website to do all sorts of things from identity verification to fraud screening,” he says. “The reason we got excited about this new segment was that we felt we could offer a whole lot more value to enterprise users if we actually built the service targeted at them.”
Algard has been dealing with how to build awareness of this service to people who already think they’re getting the best of WhitePages.
“It’s gratifying that once people actually do give our new WhitePages Pro service a try, many of them do convert into paying enterprise customers,” he says. “But it’s always a tough sell when what someone is already using is costing them zero.”
All that WhitePages can do is continue to create better services and hope that it keeps in front of competition.
“One of the best ways to stay ahead of the competition is to not actually obsess about what they are doing and focus on how you can delight your users,” Algard says. “In some cases, what the competition is doing is a lying indicator. If all we did was try to match what they’re doing, well, they’re probably working on something new that hasn’t been released yet.
“The best thing we can do is be super customer-focused and try to put ourselves in our customer’s shoes, and ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to delight them?’”
Although WhitePages has a huge volume of users, those users are fairly anonymous given the company’s online business and the fact that users don’t physically walk into a WhitePages store.
“It takes a little bit more effort to actually mine data and try to understand how people are really using our website based on analytics, surveys and focus groups,” he says. “What it comes down to is being really sensitive to how we can build the best user experience.
“Frankly, sometimes it means not listening to our customers. If we just asked them what we can do to build a better service, they themselves sometimes don’t know how to articulate that. Careful listening sometimes means trying to figure out what it is that customers really want even if they aren’t articulating it, and that takes a level of vision.”
Find new opportunities
Algard never sits still waiting for an opportunity to come to him. He is always out looking for opportunities that can add value to WhitePages. Several years ago, the company built WhitePages Current Caller ID, a caller ID and text identification mobile app service that has proved to offer plenty of value.
“When your phone rings or you get an incoming text message, our app will pop up an alert message that identifies that number even if you don’t have that number in your phone’s address book,” Algard says. “Our app will identify the name and the location of the calling or texting person.”
In addition, WhitePages allows its users to link the app to their social networks.
“If the person you’re communicating with is connected with you on one of those social networks, then when the phone rings you will see their latest tweet, or their LinkedIn job title and employer name, or their Facebook picture or latest status,” he says.
“In those cases you get a very rich set of information about the person who is calling you. By the time you pick up the phone, you have a bunch of contextual information.”
WhitePages learned over time that one of the uses of this service was to identify telemarketers or scam callers and texters.
“We started tinkering around with offering a call-walking or text-walking feature so that if those people call you, based on our automated algorithms, we’d have a way to identify scammers,” he says. “In those cases, the call or text message would go into a black box and the user wouldn’t be bothered at all.”
As the company was looking into this, it identified another app in the market called Mr. Number. It turned out that Mr. Number was truly the market leader in that particular niche.
“We figured that our Current Caller ID product would be that much better with an integrated spam blocking and vice versa,” Algard says.
WhitePages bought the Mr. Number app in May 2013.
“It’s two of the best mobile app solutions that we’re now combining together into what we think is going to be a great offer for consumers to really put their phone on steroids,” he says.
Of the opportunities in the pipeline for WhitePages, Algard is most excited for what lies ahead in the mobile space.
“We’re still in the first inning of mobile development,” he says. “Only about half of the U.S. market has cell phones at this point, so there is going to be a lot of growth in mobile with increasing adoption. On top of that, I think the pace of innovation in mobile is moving faster than in any other growth phase of the Internet in general.”
Since smartphones are packed with so many interesting apps from GPS to cameras, Algard expects decades worth of people discovering new businesses and services that can be launched off of mobile.
“We’ve treated mobile as a strategic top priority over the past many years and that’s why,” Algard says. “We’ve been fortunate to build our own mobile offering into a very important business today.” ●
How to reach: White Pages Inc., (206) 973-5100 or www.whitepages.com