Why Thumbtack Isn't Working for Me

I run the server on which this site lives as a managed VPS (with Wiredtree out of Chicago, for what it's worth - I've been with them for the better part of a decade now and have been very pleased with their service). The biggest reason I have it as a VPS is because the traffic I get over at Caves of Narshe is sufficient to make shared hosting solutions a non-starter, but the revenue that CoN brings in is wildly insufficient to run a legit private server - or, indeed, to pay for a VPS on its own. As such, over the years I've brought in a few small clients for whom I maintain and host their sites to offset the cost of running my favorite hobby. 

I don't have the time to go out and solicit new clients on my own these days, sadly, so when I first heard about Thumbtack, I thought it was a pretty interesting proposition. If you've not seen it, Thumbtack does essentially what its name implies: it creates a virtual bulletin board where people in need of a service can post their needs and get private responses from up to four organizations that provide said service. I seem to recall that when I signed up, it was geared mainly toward creative and technical services like those I provide, though over time it's branched out considerably to include more services like you would have found on HomeAdvisor or Care or other services previously. It's a good idea, and it seems to be successful given its expansion and longevity, but as yet it has not worked for me.

I think in my skillset, the main reasons I haven't been able to collect business are twofold. First, I don't think that for web work the company makes the potential clients jump through enough hoops, nor do they validate well enough what the user is requesting to get the correct bidders on the job. If I, as a customer, attempt to create a request for proposal in the "Web Design and Development" category, I'm presented with so many subcategories that there's even a "Show More" link. Some of the categories include "Web Design," "Web Development," "Web Programming," and "Web Hosting;" as a layperson in a small business who doesn't have knowledge but really feels the need to have a web presence, those categories would really confuse me, and I believe they confuse a lot of the users for whom I see RFPs, based on what I see. If I drill down into "Web Hosting," the options remain confusing - do I need "databases?" Do I need "Web design" as part of my hosting? What's "bandwidth?" This flow looks like it's intended for people who already have websites, but it does nothing to educate people who need a website from the ground up, not even a link suggesting they should try a different category. The "Web Development" category is more appropriate for those users, but they have no way of knowing that without poking around on their own.

The second issue is that the user and professional communication flow is quite limited; professionals can ask questions only during their quote flow, which means that professionals are often flying blind. I ask questions in my quotes, but I have to quote at the same time, which means I am stuck in a state where I am throwing numbers out without having all the information I might want. That means I'm not confident in my quotes, and when I'm not confident I'm likely to come in higher than I would if I had the whole picture. That's not good for me as a professional, because when working in a commodity field, I think the users are likely ending up with the quote that looks cheapest and doesn't make them think too much. Again, the clients in this flow appear to be mostly laypeople, and they're not getting any sort of education before throwing a request into the ether and getting magical responses in their inbox.

This has really dulled my enthusiasm for using the service as a pro, to the point where I often don't even open the email notifications for RFPs. I've got a number of credits in my account (Thumbtack charges the pros to make quotes), and they're sitting unused. Thumbtack has even throttled the number of emails I get because I don't respond to them, which dulls my enthusiasm further. So, for me, this looks like a system that could use some improvements. 

First, I'd treat the RFP flow for the clients a little less like a machine and more like a conversation. If I'm talking to a client in person, it's a back-and-forth, not a checklist. Gathering information should become more long-form, with the clients prompted to give longer answers as to what they're looking for, what kind of business they are operating, what services they currently have and are looking to transition, things like that. Based on those answers, they should be directed into a programmatically-generated and customized form that will ask further, more simple questions to nail down the details. This would help prevent users from falling into the "Web Hosting" category when what they really need is a ground-up solution, which will improve the quality of the quotes they receive.

Additionally, I think the real user interaction between clients and pros should have some back-and-forth as well. The current model really lends itself more to simply tossing a number over a fence and seeing if anything comes back. Focusing less on the raw speed of getting the maximum five quotes to a user, and more on making those quotes good quality, will make clients more confident in the information they get back, and professionals feel more like they're getting good chances to make money back on what they're spending. I realize that when clients come to the site, they want a solution quickly, but I think that they can be well educated on the benefits of taking a day to receive and answer questions before getting actual numbers.

Third, I think the quote forms can benefit from being more granular themselves. For the web hosting category, in particular, you can put in just a price, and that's just about it. No mention of whether it's monthly, yearly, whether you can offer a discount for yearly or multi-year plans, etc. You can put all of that information in to the text field available, but there's no guarantee that will be read or understood. This can be largely ameliorated by making the changes above, as well, but this is just another fix to the general problem I see: that users can get quotes without necessarily understanding what they're asking for or what they're getting back, leading to decisions being made solely on the basis of one little number. The old truism of "you get what you pay for" certainly can show up in these cases, to nobody's benefit, and I think if Thumbtack wants to become a long-term success for creative and tech services, they should be thinking about things like this.


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