Bill Oesterle did not have a stroke.
He’s fine with letting people think he did — and they do. A Google search for his name produces “bill oesterle stroke” as a top result. I mentioned that diagnosis-by-algorithm to Oesterle as we sat in the dining room of his Meridian-Kessler home. He had no reaction, except to remind me that he’s “reluctant to have this discussion” about his real medical condition.
Oesterle, the co-founder and former CEO of Angie’s List, thought about sharing his health status. Two years ago, he talked with family and advisers to figure out the right way to go public. A press conference? A social media post? Nothing felt natural, so he did nothing. The silence caused confusion and rumors. His wife, Kristi Oesterle, urged him to be more forthcoming.
"I'm like, 'I don't want people to think you're drunk or had a stroke.' I mean, the vet even asked him what was wrong," she said. "It was obvious, especially in 2018 and 2019, the words were just slurring. You could still understand him, but, you're like, 'Something is off with him.'"
Oesterle rejected any sort of public statement. "To have an announcement," he said, "you have to think of yourself as important enough to have an announcement. I just never quite got that." He told people as he saw them. Sometimes. Now, even that feels like too much. It’s easier to let people think … whatever they think.
“We finally figured out that, in a short period of time, everyone that I care about knowing is going to know,” Oesterle said in his prevailing speech pattern, which sounds like a recording playing at extra-slow speed. “After that, what do I care?”
For everyone else, here’s the truth: Oesterle has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, one of the cruelest diseases to inflict humanity. The technical explanation, according to the ALS Association, is Oesterle has a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. A simpler explanation: ALS deactivates the body, one task at a time, like a computer closing applications during a forced shutdown. It is 100% terminal. There is no cure. There is only time — and an uncertain rate of decline.
Oesterle is 56 years old. He hopes to live until 60. Between now and then, he expects to lose all function in his body, a process well underway. He can’t drive. He can’t eat food. He can’t wash his hair. When someone goes to shake his hand, which Oesterle tries to avoid, he struggles with his weakened left arm to help prop up his slouching right hand a few inches. “A year from now,” he said, “I won’t be talking.”
There is a stark contrast between how Oesterle and the people who love him are processing this reality. It is hard for Oesterle’s friends and colleagues, who know him as a robust, witty, hard-driving boss and marathon runner, to talk about his emaciated form without crying. But Oesterle, over the course of several weeks of conversations for this column, evinced cheerfulness mixed with a dark sense of wonder, a disposition that Kristi says more or less reflects his private moments.
“Curiosity is my biggest advantage in this whole thing,” Oesterle said. “This disease is fascinating. It is so interesting. The whole thing. I mean, it’s horrible. But it’s not boring.”
That detachment, Oesterle’s ability to almost step outside himself and observe what is happening to his body like he's running a software test, helps explain his indifference to what other people think. He does not view ALS as a defining characteristic. He is not looking for condolences. He does not want to be anyone’s rallying cry.
Kelsey Taylor, who worked with Oesterle as a wellness director for Angie’s List and now runs a business called Taylor Made Wellness, told me her former boss was on her mind every day during a time when she was waking up at 2 a.m. to train for her first bodybuilding competition. “I dedicated that competition to him. His drive drove me,” she said. “I did pretty good.”
Oesterle can’t stop anyone from offering a tribute. He can’t get comfortable with it, either. “You can tell him that he inspires you, but he’s just like, ‘Eh,’” Taylor said. “He’s just being Bill.”
That is a conscious choice. When Oesterle received his ALS diagnosis, he re-evaluated his priorities. He thought about how to spend his time. His conclusion: He was already living how he wanted to live, regardless of the ticking clock. No need to change. Just be Bill.
Oesterle is still leading his post-Angie’s List startup, TMap, whose aim tracks with his life’s work: recruiting talented people to Indiana. That is not what Oesterle is best known for. People know Oesterle for Angie’s List; for being a Republican who cajoled Mitch Daniels into political stardom and then orchestrated a corporate clobbering of Mike Pence over LGBTQ+ rights.
But the through line for Oesterle’s career has been a desire to keep, and bring back, good people in Indiana. That has guided his other decisions, including the battle over the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Oesterle saw RFRA as mindless self-sabotage, a barrier to welcoming people his state needs. He had to bring the thunder to Pence even if it made him persona non grata to some quarters of the Republican Party.
Oesterle is obsessed with the conundrum of how to improve education and workforce talent in a state with the cool factor of a Cracker Barrel, where young people either don’t get college degrees at all, or, when they do, they take them and run as if they’ll sink into the Indiana dunes if they stay too long.
That challenge occupies Oesterle’s days. It will occupy his mind even as his body fails and his voice falters. Oesterle, who likes to write, is crafting his life's final chapter. His style is more like a Harvard Business School case study than “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
'We're tossing them out'
Coffee is important to Oesterle. He once moved an old roadside diner from Ohio to the Angie’s List campus to serve as a coffee shop for employees. Some of his most important conversations, from an emotional meeting with business partner Angie Hicks about their then-struggling company to a first date with now-wife Kristi (after six months of rejections), happened over coffee.
He is still doing business and maintaining relationships over coffee, even as ALS has rendered him unable to drink it. I joined Oesterle as he met Ty Benefiel, a clean energy entrepreneur and podcast host, at Command Coffee on a recent morning. Benefiel, a former Orr fellow and Angie’s List employee, is an example of the kind of talent Oesterle labors to cultivate. Oesterle was impressed with Benefiel at Angie’s List and invested $100,000 in Benefiel’s first company, MeterGenius, in 2016. Benefiel is launching a new venture and used their latest meeting as an opportunity to ask Oesterle to make a connection with someone who might help. Oesterle followed up soon after the meeting.
Benefiel described Oesterle as a generous mentor who offers time, money and pretty much anything else that can help others succeed. (Oesterle waved off that word, mentor. “I don’t know if I’m his mentor,” Oesterle said. “I’m his friend.”) Oesterle asks little in return. Just one thing.
“When I started my company, I knew I wanted Bill as an investor,” Benefiel said. “He said one of the criteria of his investment is that we move the company back to Indianapolis. We did. We moved it from St. Louis back to Indianapolis.”
Oesterle attributes his arm twisting to a pivotal moment he talks about often. He had breakfast with Daniels soon before Oesterle went to Harvard Business School to earn a master’s degree and more than a decade before he would manage the winning 2004 gubernatorial campaign. Daniels issued a directive: “Come back to Indiana.”
Oesterle didn’t know where he was heading, but he assumed it wasn’t Indiana. He grew up in a West Lafayette household with highly educated parents, including his father, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue University, and siblings who moved out of state. He began his career working for former Gov. Robert Orr and then with Daniels at the Hudson Institute. He could go anywhere after Harvard. But Daniels’ challenge stuck in his head.
When Oesterle started working with Hicks on Angie’s List in 1995, the small, primitive home service review company was based in Columbus, Ohio. After Hicks took leave to pursue her own MBA at Harvard, Oesterle moved the company to Indianapolis. It grew from three employees to thousands. In the process, Oesterle, Hicks and Scott Brenton launched the Orr Fellowship to connect graduating college seniors with career opportunities in Indiana — hopefully to stay.
As Oesterle launched the Orr Fellowship more than 20 years ago, he described his frustration with the exodus of college graduates out of Indiana. “We’re tossing them out with the hope that they’ll just wander back,” Oesterle told IndyStar in January 2002.
He might have been talking about himself if not for Daniels. Oesterle, by then well established in Indianapolis, had experienced the simple power of an invitation. Come back. You’re valued. You can do more here. He would extend the same appeal to others.
Oesterle's one regret
“I don’t understand TikTok that well, but my sense is there’s something there.”
ALS aside, Oesterle’s toughest challenge is learning how to connect with young people and pitch them on a product (Indiana, in this case) with a lame brand. Back when Oesterle and Hicks were trying to bring together homeowners and contractors through little-known Angie’s List, Oesterle used newspapers to get the message out. It’s not so simple now.
I sat in as Oesterle led a marketing meeting at his office, a remodeled bank building on 38th Street. Oesterle bought the old branch, outfitted with five vaults, before he knew what to do with it, mostly because it was ugly and a couple blocks from his house. Oesterle grew tired of looking at the boarded-up structure. Now, it houses the operations of TMap, his 5-year-old startup, and MakeMyMove, a service within TMap that recruits remote workers to Indiana on behalf of clients, including universities and towns.
When a colleague assured Oesterle that TikTok can get the company in front of the young people it is trying to reach, Oesterle needed a little more convincing. “Can you put some evidence behind that statement so I can understand it better?” he said.
Oesterle plans to lead TMap for as long as he can, but he is winding down other responsibilities, including sitting on the boards of the National Bank of Indianapolis and Masonite International. Those are difficult decisions. In some ways, Oesterle thinks he is offering the best corporate governance of his life. Reading is one of his easiest tasks, and he enjoys taking deep dives into dense materials. But the loss of simple functions is forcing his hand. He can’t tie a tie. He can’t carry his computer into a boardroom. His speech can’t keep up with the pace of a meeting.
These obstacles aren’t yet prohibitive for Oesterle at TMap, where he can walk around the office with relative ease and interact with colleagues, many of whom have known him for decades. Whatever Oesterle has to say, at whatever speed he can say it, they’re happy to listen.
“So much of what he did throughout his career was reliant on communicating. He’s a great communicator,” said Ellen Whitt, who works on content and special projects for MakeMyMove. Whitt worked with Oesterle on the 2004 Daniels campaign and served as deputy chief of staff to Daniels after he was elected.
“Obviously, his speech has slowed,” she said. “If you’re not understanding something he’s telling you, he wants you to ask him to repeat it. He doesn’t want you to sit there and nod your head. It’s important to him to be understood.”
Oesterle is “very engaged in the daily work,” Whitt said, and others agreed. I told Oesterle I was fascinated by the urgency with which he is working toward a version of Indiana’s future he won’t live to see. He corrected me to say he doesn’t think he feels any more or less motivated than he did before his ALS diagnosis.
It would be understandable for Oesterle to step off the gas and focus on other areas of his life. He has been working for two decades to turn Indiana into a smarter, more talented state. He can point to anecdotal successes. Overall, though, Indiana is further behind than when he started. The latest bit of bad news, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, is that Indiana’s college-going rate dropped 12% during the past five years. Indiana is a college degree desert, mired in a downward spiral of educational attainment.
Oesterle insists his company can help turn it around. He's not handing out degrees, but he is in the business of reeling in degree holders. TMap uses data to find college graduates with Indiana connections who are living outside the state and attempts to recruit them to move back. The company’s MakeMyMove initiative targets remote workers, in many cases by offering incentives through towns including Greensburg and Muncie to attract them to Indiana.
Oesterle projects that, within three years, his startup will bring in 2,000 college graduates per year. “It’s not a layup, but that is a reasonable prediction,” Oesterle said.
Much like Oesterle is preternaturally sunny about having a terminal illness, he also is optimistic about Indiana’s chances for improving educational attainment and reducing brain drain. He accepts that he is losing the battle over his health. He makes no such concession over his home state's future, despite data showing Indiana is failing. Oesterle insists it is an easy choice to devote the final years of his life to making a sales pitch for Indiana.
“I love where I live, and I love the people I live with,” Oesterle said. “The people in this building are precious to me. This state is precious to me."
Oesterle's path is simpler now than at other points in his life. After managing the 2004 Daniels gubernatorial campaign, Oesterle went through a divorce, which he has described as “the worst experience of my life.” A decade later, in 2015, he mounted the RFRA resistance against poor, dumbfounded Pence, canceled an expansion of Angie’s List’s east-side headquarters and then left the company altogether.
As I sat with Oesterle inside an old bank vault-turned-meeting room on 38th Street, I asked him the obligatory interviewer's question about regrets. He thought for a moment and shook his head. "You can pick out any one thing I've worked on and do it slightly differently," he said. "That gets you down a whole rabbit hole. So, I find that kind of pointless." No surprise here. No deep, dark secrets, at least none that he'll admit to.
But then Oesterle went silent for a moment and his expression changed. He lifted his head up as though a new, interesting idea had just come to mind.
"All right, here's my big regret," he said. “I left Angie’s List because I was tired. Just tired. I saw where the company should go and I thought it would take 10 more years. I just finished a marathon: high-growth company, high-profile IPO (initial public offering), governor’s campaign. It was a busy 10 years. So, I retired.
“If I had it to do over again, I would have been much more overt in setting up my succession. I left that to the board and very intentionally said, ‘I’m not sticking around. I want a clean break for you guys to do whatever you need to do.’ Within two years, the company was in financial peril and sold. I believe in my heart of hearts, if we had stayed on the strategy we were working on, we’d be the dominant player in home services.”
That strategy, Oesterle said, was to make Angie’s List the “Amazon of home services,” a platform people could use to book and manage contractor visits. Under that vision, Angie’s List would have provided monitoring and insurance to eliminate risks for homeowners. IAC, the owner of HomeAdvisor, acquired Angie’s List in 2017 and relegated it to an annex for the HomeAdvisor website.
“I regret that,” Oesterle said. “However, I began showing symptoms of ALS almost exactly a year after I left Angie’s List. So, had I stayed, I would have never done the other stuff I’ve done. That’s an interesting dilemma. I did some stuff since Angie’s List that is really important to me. How am I supposed to look back and try to play what-if?”
'This might be ALS'
It started with his voice.
As the calendar flipped through 2017, Oesterle began talking like he’d had a bit too much to drink. “I felt like my speech was lazy,” he said. “I was not articulate in my consonants. I thought, ‘I’m just being lazy, talking too fast.’ And then that became a little more pronounced.”
He went on a tour of doctors' offices, starting with his primary physician, who sent him to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who told Oesterle his tongue looked “full of worms” and sent him to a neurologist.
“I don’t know, but this might be ALS,” Oesterle said the neurologist told him.
That was halfway through 2017. It took two-plus hellish years of appointments, tests and creeping symptoms before Oesterle would get certainty. In between, it was like someone hit the pause button on his life. From the time Oesterle left Angie’s List in 2015 to the time he got his diagnosis in November 2019, he had considered running for governor, acquired real estate (including the sprawling Angie’s List campus), invested in early-stage companies, fielded invitations to sit on boards and launched TMap. He had a lot going on. Yet, the more Oesterle’s voice slurred, the more every option felt fraught.
“Two years of that wore me out,” Oesterle said. “I was like, ‘Holy (expletive),’ I’m in a startup. This is not a good time to be in a startup. Everything was that way. Everything. Where I am now, I have the gift of knowing about when I’m going to die. So, my plan is incredibly precise. My life got better when I got diagnosed with a terminal disease.”
Better is relative. Each day, Oesterle notices a new limitation. It’s usually a mundane task that he hasn’t tried in a while, but those compound. As Oesterle sat for a recent haircut at Warfleigh Barber Shop in Broad Ripple, he tried to make conversation with the barber. But the combination of Oesterle’s speaking difficulty and the noise of the clippers made him inaudible to the man cutting his hair.
“That means I sit there,” he said afterward. “Normally, I’d chat with him. I miss that. I love just meeting people and talking to them.”
You take eating for granted, until you can’t do it anymore. Oesterle experienced increasing difficulty swallowing until it became unbearable, and he lost the desire to keep trying, causing him to lose weight at an alarming rate. He underwent surgery in May to insert a feeding tube. As he sat in the car outside the hospital before surgery, he offered his wife $1,000 to drive away. She reminded him they share their money and, anyway, he still wouldn’t be able to swallow. He went inside. Now, a lunch break means he sits in the kitchen where Kristi pumps gooey nutrition through a hole in his stomach.
The stress of that May surgery accelerated Oesterle’s decline, just as contracting COVID-19 did in January 2021. Oesterle could still drive before surgery, for example. He came out feeling his muscles more limp than before, knowing he was too weak to get behind the wheel again.
Oesterle goes to physical therapy, but sees few benefits. He arrived for an afternoon session at Team Rehab in Broad Ripple Avenue wearing a black athletic shirt and flexible gray pants that double as business casual attire. Oesterle breezed through a stationary bike ride for 10 minutes and then stepped through stations of leg exercises and arm stretches. Oesterle has retained mobility, with more strength in his legs than arms, but the concentration it takes to summon all available muscles to put one foot in front of the other gives the appearance of an untrained puppeteer guiding him across the room. Oesterle likes the exercise because it helps prevent his limbs from locking up. It can’t restore function or prevent day-by-day decline, though.
“This disease, you never get to rest. It’s never stable. I can’t go, ‘Oh, I lost my arm, now I can adjust to living without an arm,’ because, pretty soon, I will lose something else,” Oesterle said. “It’s almost an algorithmic loss of ability. It’s one thing not to have an arm. Not to have an arm and not be able to swallow, in combination, is burdensome. That requires you to be very rapid in your adjustment to changes. Now, I feel as caught up as I’m ever going to be.”
For Kristi, it’s unsettling to look around the corner. She pushes back on medical prognoses and her husband’s projected timelines, no matter how much research he has based them on, finding hope in doctors' uncertainty and reminding Bill he has been wrong about the disease’s progression before. Unlike her husband, Kristi savored the two-year period without a confirmed diagnosis, because there was space in the uncertainty to look forward to a future of traveling and watching grandchildren grow up. That vision is gone.
“He’s a better planner than I am. I like to take it day by day because I get overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s hard for both of us, but I tend to get more emotional about it. I’m very teary eyed and sad and probably a little depressed. In that sense, where I think he kind of threw himself into projects and keeps his mind busy 24/7, I think that’s actually helped him to have all these distractions, where maybe I don’t.”
Oesterle's methodical approach puts ALS into terms he can manage. He's devoted to uncertainty reduction. He has been working on financial planning, business succession, real estate decisions and changes to his home as his condition worsens. He has a plan, for example, to move out to his pool house when his mobility worsens. (Kristi doesn't like this idea.)
The most terrifying aspects of ALS are the ones he can't control or prepare for. Doctors have told him that, based on genetics, he has a 50-50 chance of developing an insidious form of dementia. The same genetic information suggests his children are at risk of ALS, which has become perhaps his greatest fear.
"I think that bothers him more than him having ALS," Kristi said. "He knows he's passed this on."
The Oesterles have six children in their blended family, ranging in age from 12 to 29. The children seem to be coping as well as possible. The Oesterles treat family time as precious while also encouraging their children to live their lives and not feel bound to home. They worry about what life will be like when Bill’s voice is gone and he is forced to communicate through a computer, which is too slow to keep up with his thoughts.
“That’s going to make me sad when we can’t talk anymore,” Kristi said.
For now, they talk a lot. They talk about how lucky Bill has been to cram a lifetime of experiences and accomplishments into 56 years. They talk about family visits and trips to their lake house in New York. They talk about date nights and how they'll communicate as ALS progresses.
Many of their conversations are reflective. I asked Kristi if she thinks Bill is satisfied with his achievements.
“No,” she said. “What did he say just a few months ago? He said, ‘I want to do so much more in the state of Indiana. And I feel like I’m not going to be able to help. Or, I’m not going to be able to help because I won’t be able to speak.’”
As much as Kristi has cringed over the whispers about what's wrong with her husband, she also accepts his reason for not wanting to talk about it.
“It’s just so exhausting,” she said.
Anyway, Bill has other things he'd rather be doing. It’s not just days that are precious and short in number. It’s also words. Syllables. For Bill to use his fading voice on ALS is to give the disease more than it’s already taking. There is still so much he wants to say. None of it has anything to do with ALS.
Contact IndyStar metro columnist James Briggs at 317-444-6307. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesEBriggs.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Angie's List's Bill Oesterle is fighting ALS, keeps focus on Indiana