If Lockbusters is known for one thing (aside from stellar, affordable service), it’s the great relationships that the company’s charismatic founder Jay Sofer fosters with his clients. It’s no surprise, then, that Lockbusters is the top-rated NYC locksmith service on Yelp.
Jay was recently invited to speak at Yelp’s Business Owner Speaker Series to share some insights into his rise to locksmithing acclaim. Here are some of the highlights from the San Francisco panel, from Jay’s fascinating backstory to the key factors to which he attributes his incredible success.
Emily Washcovick: How did you get started in business? Tell us a little bit about your story.
Jay Sofer: Well, I guess we’ll start with the sad part. In 2008, the recession hit me hard. Within three months I had lost all of my work, dropped out of school, and had to move out of my apartment.
So here I was with a skillset, but no idea how to generate leads. I had no entrepreneurial spirit— I was freelancing as a locksmith. The people I’ve spoken to at every Yelp event always say, “Yeah we went in with a business plan after business school with our partners.” I always thought, “Really? I just had one drinking session with a friend and we came up with the idea for Lockbusters.” With that said, I had some ideas about how to make this industry better. I noticed some inadequacies, particularly in the customer service department, but I didn’t have a clear path forward.
So where do you go from there? Most of the businesses that gave me work had gone under. So I went on Craigslist and started asking for referrals, handing out crappy business cards from Staples— it got me nowhere. Then I found Yelp.
The thing about Yelp is that it lets you put a personal face on a cold, transactional city and industry. Yelp really is a community. I was able to establish myself, free of charge, and promote the business practice that I wanted to have — the idea that I thought would take. That opportunity was the crucial ingredient in my recipe for success.
EW: What about this Yelp setup works for you and your customers?
JS: Again, reverse engineering the success I’ve had over the past nine years, it all comes down to having a personable interaction with every client. That’s it: I have a conversation and a connection with every client. And that, more than anything, contributes to the positive reviews.
I didn’t know much about Yelp in the beginning. I remember having seven reviews, and when I looked up a competitor, he had 15 — I thought I was never going to catch up to him. But by the time I had seven reviews, something was working. I was getting clients out of the clear blue sky.
It also doesn’t hurt that my clients are generally social media-savvy. People were referencing these reviews all the time, telling me I was very highly regarded on Yelp before I even really knew it. These are the best clients you can have: those who immediately want to engage with you, who are going to be vocal about your services on a lot of different platforms.
EW: So you’ve got your free page set up, you’ve got your seven reviews— when was your first Yelp ads call? What made you want to invest more resources into your page?
JS: I had made it into the double digits in reviews, and I got a call from Yelp. I thought it was pretty cool. I mean, this company was responsible for so much of my business. So this Yelp rep tells me, “we looked at your metrics, we looked at this and that…” I was thinking, “I have metrics? That’s so cool!” Based on their metrics, they were able to figure out that I was getting about a call a day from Yelp.
At that point, I still wasn’t making much money. The work I was getting was still pretty much reserved to one 10-block radius, so I loved the idea of reaching a much wider audience. When the Yelp rep shared some metrics with me showing where I could expand, it took me into neighborhoods I never would have seen otherwise.
Putting more resources into Yelp just made sense; the more people you’re in front of, the more people review you; and the more reviews you get, the more calls you get. It just fed into itself. Within the first two weeks of using Yelp ads, I signed up for the whole year. It has become a crucial part of my business.
EW: Tell me about this Yelp community that you mentioned before, and what it means to you.
JS: I love the feeling of community because I love my clients. I want to hear their stories— why did you come to this crazy city? And they often tell me before I even ask.
Through Yelp, my clients meet me before I even show up to their door. They see my video, they see all the pictures, they read everything about me — it’s completely transparent. It’s been transparent from the beginning, but now there’s the element of peer reviews, where people who are searching can see what people who have been in a similar situation had to say about their experience.
EW: Can you tell us about the recent experience you had with a client who worked for a non-profit organization?
JS: Sure, that was amazing. This client was coming back to her apartment late at night because she had been working for her non-profit, reading books to girls in East Harlem, which I thought was just awesome.
It turns out that we were both passionate about animals. The best thing that ever happened to me in my life was my rescue dog, who had passed away recently. I had always made it a point to donate to animal shelters — all of my tips go to shelters too.
I told her, “look, it’s late. I had a really crappy day. You just came back from your non-profit. Don’t pay me, this is the rescue shelter I donate to (Sugar Mutts Rescue). Just donate directly to them.”
She wrote about the experience on her Tumblr, and the whole exchange went viral. Because of her post, I had the best month of my career. Not just because my business got a lot more exposure, but also because of all the donations and supportive calls Sugar Mutts Rescue received during that period.
EW: Can you tell us more about Keys to the Community?
JS: I took the proceeds of that dynamite month I had in December, and decided that the best way to utilize this money would be to promote this same message of giving to the larger community. It’s something that I want more and more people to share. After all, small contributions can lead to big things.
So I’m going to be doing a video feature every month to highlight a different charitable organization, starting in New York City. We’re encouraging other businesses that I know and that I’ve worked with to get involved, and are in the midst of creating a platform that incentivizes that participation.
I had no idea when I first created my Yelp page that any of this would happen. This is beyond my wildest dreams, and now I have an opportunity to give back.