Eric Groves first felt the tug of small business when he was a child. He recounted that his grandfather ran a small grocery store in Hartsfield, New York and that was where he got the first inkling of the idea of doing something entrepreneurial
Fast forward a decade, in 1992 after business school, he built a program to help budding entrepreneurs in Czechoslovakia adapt to western commerce after the Berlin wall came down. This became his first experience working with small businesses, but it wouldn’t be his last. He started his first company in 1998. Later, in 2001, he went to work at Constant Contact, a business that pioneered email marketing.
Constant Contact became the segway into his current company, Alignable. While he was there, Eric had to work with a plethora of small businesses to help build their marketing strategy. Eric explains that he learned two key problems faced by small businesses: “First, about their isolation and a lot of times feeling like they have to go at it alone, and the [second] really was a desire for technology to be used in a way to help them generate new customers instead of just repeat business.” As he looked at this issue, he began to learn more.
Eric quantified, “I was really looking at the data around small business. 80% of a small business’s customers typically come from within a 5-mile radius around that business, and word of mouth referrals are their number one source of new customers.” This led him to pose the question: How do you get those word-of-mouth referrals?
Conveniently, his cofounder Venkat Krishnamurthy had been working on a marketing app for entrepreneurs. While he was pitching his idea to a small business owner, the man had interjected and admitted that he wasn’t going to buy the app, but he wanted Venkat to introduce him to the wine store owner across the street.
The next day Eric and Venkat were discussing the story. Venkat was perplexed. He couldn’t figure out why somebody couldn’t make business connections with somebody on the same street as them. As they both began to peel back the layers of the onion, the question boiled down to the isolation of business owners from their community, an issue that Eric, too, was thinking about. The revelation that there needed to be a way to connect these businesses was a critical moment for both of them.
With Eric’s experience working with small businesses and Venkat’s innovative spirit, they both set out to build a network that would connect businesses around the world.
Tim and Willa
After a couple of months had gone by, Eric and Venkat still hadn’t figured out exactly how they were going to go about getting small businesses to talk to each other. One day they physically brought together two business owners, Tim and Willa.
Eric described the experience,
We took them out for coffee, we sat them down, and we just explained their businesses and their backgrounds to them for them…and then we just stepped back. It was almost like it was a matchmaking type of thing and we just watched the conversation and how fascinating the conversation was between the two of them and how much they could help each other.
And at that moment, watching the two of them interact, Eric saw the problem he had outlined before being solved right in front of him. If they could find a way to scale this and have small businesses communicate and exchange ideas online, it would be perfect. After that, it was a matter of how, not when, Alignable would be started.
Alignable Aligning Business Interests
Alignable as a social network is so unique because there’s nothing truly like it out there. “People look at us and they say we are like LinkedIn plus Match.com plus the Chamber of Commerce,” Eric said, laughing.
And in a way, they kind of are. Alignable positions itself as “a place for small business owners to meet and collaborate.” Solving the problems that Eric witnessed while at Constant Contact was the essence of the company. Small businesses are isolated, so Alignable creates a special place where the businesses can interact.
Companies wanted to find new customers, so Alignable encourages word of mouth referrals to galvanize companies to talk to each other and recommend other businesses.
Alignable is like an open market for the entrepreneur, one they can visit everyday to find solutions to their problems. And in the end, that means everything Alignable does boils down to helping increase the reputation of a business. When you go on there, you have to expect to give and get referrals.
A Platform’s Critical Mass
As a company that operates only if they are able to get small businesses on it, Alignable had a formidable challenge ahead of them: going from zero to that initial critical mass of users.
Eric started out with the most fundamental of strategies: connections. The first few users on the platform were business owners that they already knew living in their town. After he got had some people on his platform, he needed to find a way to turbocharge growth. Conveniently, he had a friend who was the head of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Alignable cosponsored an event that announced the official launch of the business on the Cape, and they were able to get a sizeable chunk of customers there. Soon, things started looking up. Pockets of people all over the country began joining the platform, from California to Texas. Within a few years, what had once been used by local businesses grew to over a million users from all over the country.
Words and Mouths
Eric attributes everything from his platform’s success and its mission to word of mouth. Not only has it been the driving force behind the business deals that take place on Alignable everyday, but it’s also the main way they acquire new users. As Eric explained, “word of mouth is made up of two things: words and mouths. Words are the kinds of things that you like other people to say about you and your business, and mouths are the people who you establish trust with enough that they’re willing to share those words.”
And that’s what it boils down to in the end. For Alignable, it hasn’t been target marketing, data analytics, or SEO, the focus of their strategy is to build something of value that people would genuinely like and talk about. This organic word-of-mouth is the means for Alignable to achieve their ultimate goal which would be to enable small businesses to reach their full potential.
Small business owners are incredible entrepreneurs. These people, for one reason or another, have put their livelihoods at stake around a passion of theirs that they want to succeed with. The tools that they have to work with have kept them at a disadvantage for way too long and we’re [Alignable] going to change all that to make it easier to start a business, get funded, find solutions, find suppliers, and succeed as a small business owner
Throughout the years, the path to that goal may have shifted, but its stayed true to their core philosophy. And in the future, Eric sees Alignable solving even bigger issues for small businesses, like building the economies of scale to compete with large corporations. As of now though, he’s a man on a mission. Through word-of-mouth and referrals, Eric Groves hopes to create an interconnected network for entrepreneurs, one small business at a time.
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