Restauranteur Builds App to Help Businesses Prevent Negative Reviews, Raises $1.1 Million for OwnerListens Service

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Palo Alto-based Owner Listens Inc. is announcing a $1.1 million seed round to fuel its rapid expansion as a key customer relationship tool for businesses across the US.

In open beta since December 2012, OwnerListens now services 1,200 business locations in 40 states and three Canadian provinces, including chains such as Philz Coffee, Logan’s Road House and the local Palo Alto Whole Foods. Its success in acquiring customers has been entirely driven by consumers, who leave private feedback messages for brick-and-mortar businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants, mechanics and doctors. OwnerListens then finds the owner of the business, delivers the messages and gives the owner an opportunity to respond. Participating in the round are Promus Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Commerce Ventures and a group of A-list angel investors.

The impetus for OwnerListens came to co-founder Oren Dobronsky when he started a restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, Oren’s Hummus Shop (incidentally, a common VC hangout as noted by YC’s Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/hubs.html). Dobronsky was frustrated every time a negative online review was posted about his restaurant and was looking for a way to proactively address feedback before it leads to a customer loss or a negative online review. While scratching his own itch, Dobronsky discovered the problem was shared by B@C businesses of all types and sizes and founded OwnerListens with long-time friend, Adi Bittan, who is the startup’s CEO.

The OwnerListens app, available on iPhone and Android, has been used to send messages to businesses of all types and sizes from national chain retailers to mom and pop shops across the country. Contrary to most people’s expectations, the messages do not include just complaints. The breakdown is almost even between complaints (60%) to to compliments (53%) and 11% are suggestions (some messages include a mix hence the total of over 100%). “It’s just as important to know what you’re doing well and which employees are exceeding expectations” says Winston Wint of Mango Carribean restaurant.

Co-founder Bittan says OwnerListens provides a win-win for everybody: “Customers are heard and get their feedback addressed; users report feeling emotionally empowered from being in direct communication with the owner. Businesses and owners receive detailed feedback on their offering, enjoy a positive dialogue with their customers and can fix mistakes before things escalate. Complaints resolved in a timely manner rarely lead to bad public reviews on Yelp, Tripadvisor and social networks, which are important drivers of revenue and customer flow. ”

Interestingly, when the service was first tested at Oren’s Hummus Shop, the founders encountered opposition from their own staff. D’or Seifer, a manager at Oren’s Hummus, now says she is a big fan but: “At first I felt defensive when Oren, the owner, told me he wanted me to use OwnerListens. Now I cannot imagine being without it. It keeps me connected with our customers and the dining room even when I’m not on location. To my surprise it strengthened my relationship with Oren - he now better understands the challenges we face every day and appreciates us for it.” As the owner, Dobronsky receives all messages but Ms. Seifer is designated as the responder. They come to her phone in a text message format which allows her to respond immediately. Topics range from food and service comments to suggestions about decor and praise for staff members.

The startup plans to use the funding to hire, scale the core product and introduce premium features.

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