Avvo, New $10M in Hand, Tears a Page from Expedia, Amazon Playbooks
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attorney directory complete with consumer and expert ratings, including information from state public records, complaints of lawyer misconduct, and so forth. And here was the business opportunity: lawyers and law firms, even today, spend a whopping $1 billion a year on advertising in the Yellow Pages, where essentially the biggest ad wins. “Anywhere the Yellow Pages is a leading marketing [tool] is probably an opportunity,” Britton says.
Avvo rolled out its site in 2007, to some mixed reviews. Most consumers and lawyers seemed to find the site useful, but there was a vocal minority who complained. “One thing that really caught me off guard was the visceral reaction that some lawyers had to our products,” Britton says. He’s referring in part to the company getting sued nine days after going live by two attorneys who objected to the information posted about them on the site. (The suit was dismissed.)
“I was surprised how much misinformation was propagated out there about what we were doing,” Britton says. “If you’re pushing the envelope, you will take some lumps. However, if you are legitimate, it’ll all be worth it.”
Culturally, Britton says, Avvo is “largely cut from the Expedia cloth.” That comes from his original hiring of chief technology officer Sendi Widjaja, a former senior developer at Expedia, to build the product and development team.
Expedia, of course, was a pioneer in making information about airline travel and fares available to the masses. Before that class of websites, you had to call a travel agent. “It became clear, in Version One of the Web, that we could develop a system to democratize data” and help consumers make important, emotional decisions, Britton says. Now at Avvo, he says, “We’re taking data…and layering an editorial rating on top of that. People can look at the comparative data, and we’re giving consumers control over it. We’ve torn a big page out of the Expedia playbook.”
I also asked Britton about parallels with Amazon’s ratings and user-generated content. “I’m a huge Amazon fan,” he says. “It was fundamental on moving the ball forward in reviews for businesses and individuals. EBay lit the match…It was very interesting to watch Amazon take that idea and move it into a five-star system with almost a dialogue regarding products and services. As the Web evolves, my belief is, ‘If it can be measured, it will be rated.’”
In other words, it doesn’t matter whether a website rates books, movies, music, consumer electronics, or lawyers—certain principles hold. “The most successful Web 2.0 sites are going to have to have an editorial overlay. Amazon nails that,” Britton says. “The ability for them to give you the various elements, to have the editorial and the [user generated content] side by side—they get it, and I believe it. If you play with Avvo, this is core to everything that we do.”
It remains to be seen, of course, how much Avvo’s impending growth initiatives will pay off in terms of profits. Investors have poured $23 million into Avvo to date, so they will be expecting some big returns. The company currently has 38 employees and has been hiring for open positions, mostly in sales.
Britton says he is often asked about prospects for pursuing a similar website in other professional sectors—rating accountants, say, or dentists. He points out that the advertising market for the legal industry is especially big—$4.5 billion (with $1 billion of that still in the old-fashioned printed Yellow Pages). Still, he won’t rule out other niche markets. “We’re open to whatever opportunities come our way,” he says. “But we have a very big opportunity in front of us just in legal.”