Startup Idol: Building a stronger feedback loop

July 19, 2013, 8:26 PM UTC

FORTUNE — OwnerListens co-founder Oren Dobronsky simply wanted feedback. After opening his restaurant Oren’s Hummus Shop in Palo Alto in 2011, he spent months asking customers for their thoughts on his new establishment with little success. The customers were either too shy, or the feedback he got on websites like Yelp (YELP) wasn’t specific enough. As a business owner, he needed a simpler way to engage with customers — his solution: a modern-day suggestion box in the form of an app.

Since launching in September 2011, OwnerListens has helped customers leave specific feedback for business owners in safe, private interactions. Consumers use the app to text a message they wish to get to the business owner, and OwnerListens delivers the message even if the business isn’t on the platform, says CEO Adi Bittan. Businesses often respond within hours — again using the app as a middleman — meaning consumers get their voices heard, businesses get fewer negative online reviews, and change can be implemented. Since its launch, OwnerListens has accumulated 2,000 businesses and restaurants in its database and has a slew of investors, including Menlo Ventures, Promus Ventures, Commerce Ventures, Subtraction Capital, and angels Steve Blank, Jeff Epstein, Cary Rosenzweig, and Marc Abramowitz.

Fortune interviewed CEO Bittan about the app, how it compares to other review sites online, and the future of online reviews.

Q: There are plenty of places online for consumers to voice their complaints online — Yelp, Facebook (FB), and Twitter to name a few. Why would a consumer choose OwnerListens?

A: We ask ourselves that, and we also ask our users that. One of the key [things] that works here is that we’re private and anonymous. Most people don’t love disparaging other people online; it doesn’t feel that great to be doing that. They prefer the private, anonymous alternative, and that’s something we hear from folks all the time.

The second reason we found is that people want to speak to someone with authority. You aren’t going online and sending out a bad tweet because you’re a bad person, you just want an answer. This is just the best way — or the only way — for the consumer to contact the business owner, so give them a better way and they’ll do it. The better way is to actually send this to the manager who can solve the issue.

Public review sites aim to hold business owners accountable, but your app promotes private interactions. How does it keep business owners accountable, or is that even a goal?

It keeps business owners accountable in a couple ways. First, there’s always the risk that if you don’t respond in the private channel the customer could get frustrated and move to the public channel. So the private channel doesn’t replace Yelp or any of those other sites, it simply gives the owner a fair chance to respond. If they do not take that fair chance, the consumer can go do whatever they want.

Another thing we’re doing, and this is something we are still kind of experimenting with, but on our side we can measure if you are responding and how fast you are responding to consumers. So we’re able to measure that and show owners, “Okay, here’s how you’re doing, and here’s how you’re doing relative to your peers in your neighborhood.” Showing people how they’re doing relative to others gets them motivated to do a better job.

Where do you see the app headed in the future? How does it become more than a simple suggestion box?

When an owner responds, it starts a relationship. Suddenly instead of a no-name manager you’ve never heard of, there is an owner or manager who said “I care about you.” Creating that personal relationship is where we kind of see this going. Instead of just pushing things to you, merchants get to know you and begin to understand, “Okay what do you like? What are you interested in?” We are de-anonymizing the business-consumer relationship in an old-school way where [owners] know all the [consumers] from their business and consumers know all the business owners in their town. We’re bringing back that type of feeling.