Eric Groves is CEO and co-founder of Alignable.com, the largest online network of small business owners with over 3.5 million members across 30,000 communities in North America.
Alignable’s vision is to create a global network marketplace where every small business owner is able to connect, build strong relationships, and gain access to trusted referrals critical for business success.
Prior to Alignable, Groves spent 10 years as a founding executive of Constant Contact leading their go-to-market efforts and growing the business from a startup to a public company with 400,000 customers and $200MM in revenue.
He authored, The Constant Contact Guide to Email Marketing, and is recognized as an expert on engagement marketing, email marketing, and local business. He has appeared on MSNBC’s Your Business and contributes to Small Business Trends, Fast Company, and Yahoo Small Business.
Groves holds a B.A. in economics from Grinnell College and an MBA from the University of Iowa.
What would you say was the main inspiration behind the founding of Alignable?
We believed we could transform the small business economy in both Canada and the United States by connecting business owners to each other online and enabling them to build more local relationships. These trusted relationships would result in greater local referrals of customers, suppliers, employees, etc., and ultimately make it easier for local businesses to succeed. What this has evolved into is something we call word-of-mouth marketing and it fuels almost everything we do. While we’re thrilled to report that our original concept was right on target, admittedly, there’s still a long way to go until we completely transform the small business economy. But we’re making progress!
There are over 3 million members who have connected through Alignable across more than 30,000 communities. I would say that’s a pretty big success. What has been your main strategy to grow Alignable and reach entrepreneurs?
Prior to Alignable, small business owners often told us they felt alone and isolated. At the core of our success has been the promise that we’d be a safe place for them to literally meet the business owner across the street, around town, or in their industry. Our growth has been driven by business owners wanting to share this newfound ability with all of the other business owners they know. All of our growth is viral and right this minute, we have more than 3.5 million members with more joining every day.
Aside from building a strong network and sharing different ideas and resources, what would you say is the biggest benefit for business owners to join Alignable?
- Word-of-mouth referrals that lead to strong business relationships. In fact, 86 percent of small business owners say word-of-mouth referrals are their best source of new customers. To generate those types of referrals, you need a network of people willing to put their reputations on the line for you and your business, and you need to regularly post interesting information they’re likely to share. Our Q&A Forum is a great place to post or answer questions, and help small business owners get to know each other and the expertise they can provide. The Forum is just one of many tools we have to build a comfortable, supportive community that ultimately leads to word-of-mouth referrals.
- Other great tools are Chat and Group Chat, which have helped to enhance many relationships on the network, allowing members to answer and ask pressing questions, form stronger connections, make referrals, exchange referral cards, promote events, and generally connect on an entirely new level in real time with other business owners.
Do you believe that having a strong network can significantly contribute towards the success of a business for entrepreneurs? Why?
- Yes, because we’ve been able to bring current relationships online and use the digital network to help small business owners make new connections and share advice much more easily.
- Also, members can use the network to build trust in a whole new way. Everyday small business owners make decisions directly affecting their livelihood. To make these decisions, they depend highly on people with whom they have trusted relationships to give them the advice they need. The larger their network becomes, the greater their access becomes to trusted, truly valuable advice. There’s also a strong undercurrent here where small business owners only trust the advice of other small business owners, as no one else really understands their struggles the way their peers do.
In 2014, the decision was made to make Alignable public. What was the deciding factor behind this important decision?
When we say we went “public” with the app, we were saying we made the application available for any business owner in North America to use (vs. taking the company public). This decision enabled our members to spread the application across North America and it’s been growing dramatically ever since.
What strategies do you use when it comes to deciding which businesses you want to create a partnership? What factors are taken into consideration?
We like to work with partners that our members are most likely to recommend to each other. Our members have submitted over 60,000 ratings and reviews of over 100 leading small business brands, so we have a strong indication of the brands they prefer. It’s always interesting to check our Ratings & Reviews page to see the latest thoughts on all sorts of brands catering to small businesses.
What has been the biggest challenge that Alignable has faced since it’s launched and how did it overcome it?
Like any small business, we’ve faced a wide variety of challenges and every day brings new challenges and opportunities. I’d say our biggest ongoing challenge is making tradeoffs on where to spend our resources. For example, which product features do we work on first and how do we continue to make the application easier to use and more impactful for our members. To find the answers to those questions, we’re in frequent contact with our members to get their feedback. After all, the magic of Alignable is that it’s created to facilitate connections and a higher level of networking leading to word-of-mouth referrals. So, we need to do whatever we can to make our members more successful on our platform.
Can you tell us about your favorite success story from one of the members of Alignable that has stayed with you throughout the years?
- There are many. One of my favorites is when a new member joined and was checking out other members nearby only to find a woman she’d been working out next to for months in a yoga studio. They had no idea they were both small business owners (one an architect, the other an interior designer). After connecting on Alignable, they’re now working together and referring clients to each other on a regular basis.
- Another great ongoing success story is a digital marketing business run by a very dynamic duo affectionately known around our office as Jenny and Jeff. They say literally 70 percent of their new business comes from their ongoing prospecting work on Alignable. We recently created a video feature showcasing them, that they tell us has helped to drive even more business, which is exciting to hear.
On a final note, what does the future of Alignable look like? Where do you see it going 10 years from now?
- Well, the small business economy represents around half our economy, so it’s a big nut to crack. Pretty much everything about it can become more efficient with a connected network and our goal is to play a central role in making that happen on a global basis!
- We’re laying the groundwork now for a very expansive future, integrating new, proprietary technology into our platform whenever possible, while also enhancing many aspects of our community offerings.
- These features include:
A popular advice column by a dad-and-daughter duo of entrepreneurs, Dear Abel & Sofi, which offers members the chance to anonymously address their most challenging and personal questions about their small business lives. Then our members weigh in with hundreds, even thousands, of posts with even more great advice.
An annual competition that we started earlier this year, searching for the top local Small Businesspeople of the Year, elected by their peers based on their contributions to their small business communities. Ultimately, we honored 2,400 local superstars in communities across Canada and the U.S. and that buzz has helped to drive referrals for many winners. Stay tuned for news on next year’s competition.
Alignable’s WOW-Worthy SmallBiz Story Search, a new contest to drive more recognition for small business owners through their funniest, craziest, and most inspirational stories. The entry deadline is July 12th, so any of your readers who want to participate should go to our site ASAP!
Up-To-The-Minute Polls on a variety of themes that our audience finds important, including hiring trends, financing, economic predictions, and much more. Each of our polls attracts votes and commentary from thousands of small business owners, providing the latest, straight-from-Main-Street trends.
- Fast forward 10 years, we anticipate being much larger, with an even wider variety of small business owners across the globe. At that point, it’s our hope that we’ll be seen as the central destination for everything small business owners might require at each stage of the entrepreneurial journey — from launching a solo startup to selling a very successful business.