Seth and I went uptown today to meet with one of the large magazine publishers I had been speaking with about our rewards program and the opportunity to offer it to them and their subscribers to bolster loyalty and revenues. I had met with them a couple months ago after some phone calls when I presented the initial concept and business proposition to them. They seemed intrigued with what we were doing and wanted to set up another meeting in April. So we went back in to give them additional information on how the program would work for one of their larger magazine titles.

The weather was terrible and I made the mistake of taking a cab up 8th avenue. I thought I left plenty of time with 20 minutes to go 30 blocks in a cab. However, I arrived at my destination 45 minutes and $20 later. Like I said, a huge mistake. Seth was in another can and got to their offices only 10 minutes late. I told him to go up and start without me. Not the best way to kick things off. I was frustrated and upset that I was late to this meeting and apologized profusely to all parties involved upon my arrival. Anyway, we made a presentation to three senior executives in their marketing department and discussed the functionality we would provide for their program by showing them our own rewards program at iBakeSale.com. They seemed to be pleased with the hundreds of big name merchants we already had in the program. At the end of the meeting, we answered some specific questions they had about costs, payments etc. and left the meeting feeling pretty good about how it went, minus the fact we were 20 minutes late.

Seth and I found a cafe near their offices to recap on the meeting and felt ok with how the presentation went. We were obviously pissed at ourselves for being late to the meeting and only hope that it won’t hurt us in the grand scheme of things. So far, our persistence and our unique value proposition seem to be working out pretty well for us. We just hope that it we come out on top at the end of this process when the publisher makes a decision between us and 4-5 other providers over the next month. We’ll keep you posted…

Bottom Line: Persistence and flexibility have stood us in good stead so far. Follow-up is crucial. Always find a way to engage in a conversation with your prospective customers. Built that relationship and follow-up frequently (no more than once a week). My goal is to be persistent but not annoying. A fine line to tread I know, but we’ll just have to see how it pans out…

JT

We’ve got merchants!!

April 2, 2007

So iBakeSale is in final stages of development (more on that in another post) and we’ve got approximately 300 merchants signed-up for our program. We are going to launch online only to start, since that will give us broader reach across the whole country via the web and not limit us to various locations with brick&mortar merchants. Reaching out to brick&mortar merchants will be further down the road. We’re very please with the traction we’ve gotten with some very large merchants. You can check out a list of some of our larger merchants at http://www.ibakesale.com. The program isn’t even complete yet, and once it’s launched (we’re hoping by end-of-month), we’ll be able to get some other large merchants who are on the fence until we have some initial consumer adoption. I can’t say I blame them. Stay tuned…

JT

Bootstrapping…

April 1, 2007

So it’s been about 9 months so far and things are moving well. We started raising money in February after sending our materials out beginning in December. After three months of raising money (not really pounding the pavement but loosely following up with individuals), we have raised $120,000. The good news is that we did not need the much greater sum of $500,000 we thought we would need to build out a working technology. We initially thought we would have to outsource our technology to India, which would have cost anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000. Instead, we lucked-out by getting an introduction to a team of incredible technology developers out in Bethlehem PA from one of our business contacts. This team is interested and willing to build the technology for us for much much less. We have arranged to compensate them with a combination of cash and equity in our budding venture. Plus, they are local and the communication between us is 150% better than it ever would have been trying to communicate with Mumbai at 3am.

Our major costs so far have been designing and building our website for our first rewards program, which we are calling iBakeSale (more on that later). Legal costs have been a huge chunk of change as well. The drafting of employment agreements for new hires etc. have been very expensive (and a waste of money in hind-sight). We have done a good job conserving cash on this front by hiring a great firm (Perkins Coie shout-out) in CA that is willing to defer most of our legal costs until we raise more money (more on picking a law firm and that process later). The difficulty that Seth and I face is that neither of us are technologists. Had this been the case, we would have saved even more money by doing it ourselves. But I guess that’s just the nature of the beast.

Bootstrapping is a commonly used phrase to explain how start-ups manage to accomplish a great deal with very little money. Some people think this is a myth. Others swear by it. Seth and I fit in the latter category. Entrepreneurs bootstrap for two main reasons. The first is that they can’t raise the necessary amount of money to hire key employees and pay a ton to get it done immediately (that’s us), and the second reason is that they don’t want to lose ownership of their company, even if they can raise the necessary funds, to investors who will want a majority of their business (us as well). Many times, it’s the second reason that overshadows the first. However, there are some businesses that simply cannot bootstrap. Those that require large capital investments for equipment and the like cannot afford to start a business on $100k. Other businesses that can bootstrap decide not to because they are worried about getting to market quickly and end up selling >50% of their business. However, for the tech start-up with founders working from home and hiring good part-time employees on equity compensation, bootstrapping can be a viable reality.

The good news is we still have 80% of our capital in our bank account. The bad news is that it will start going quickly as we start hiring more part-time tech developers to build more functionality for us (we’ll pay them by the hour). We also just hired a PR firm that will help us get our new program out there to our target market (more on marketing and PR in another post). In the end, we will be able to build and launch our first product to the market with what we have and use the snowballing success (god willing) to raise more money from existing and new investors as we move into the next phase of our business.

Bottom Line: We believe that bootstrapping, when possible, greatly increases the chances of success for a start-up, especially given the fact that 98% of all start-ups fail. Save cash whenever possible. When you have the choice of spending money or not, make sure that if the answer is yes, you understand exactly where the money is going and how that will allow you to increase the value of your business (building technology, a corporate website, marketing, sales, etc.). When the trade-off is unclear, save your cash. You’re going to need it when you least expect it. Bootstrapping can’t last forever. The goal of bootstrapping is to allow a business to build traction on a “shoe-string” (with little money) so that (1) investors are more willing to roll the dice on your business and (2) you won’t need to give up nearly as much of your business as you would if you went out to raise money day 1.

JT

Based on our experience over the past few months trying to raise money, we’ve learned a ton of things. I figured it would be helpful to share some of these thoughts with any budding entrepreneurs reading this blog for inspiration and advice…

Based on our short experience, if you’re a start-up looking for money, you’re best bet is to go to friends and family for seed capital. Any little bit helps. These are the people who have known you since you were born and want to see you succeed. They will want to help in any way they can (money or advice), hopefully. It is definitely awkward asking friends or family for money, especially if they do not have much of it.

Be careful who you take money from. Don’t take money from anybody who cannot afford to lose it. That may have come out poorly. But the point here is that you don’t want to take grandma’s last $5k or $10k and lose it if your venture fails. She’ll never forgive you and you’ll never forgive yourself. While it’s easy to take money from just about anybody willing to give it to you, try to be selective and take money from people you know who will not bust your chops on a daily or weekly basis. There are plenty of people out there who expect weekly updates and glossy annual reports for their $10,000.

It’s up to you whether you want to spend the time with investor relations (i.e. dealing with investors) or running/growing your business. This is not to say you should take the money and run. Entrepreneurs call this “Green Money” which basically refers to people writing you a check and not providing any additional value/advice/time/etc. “Smart Money” refers to investors who invest money and are committed to providing advice and help in any way they can. Obviously business angels with wide networks and lots of business experience may be better suited for this than your friends and family. However, you’d be surprised what kind of great advice can come from your family; just ask them.

Start-ups, like us, are forced to raise money from unlikely places. Most people think that start-ups simply to go a bank or to VCs for money. But this is just not true, simply because banks won’t make risky investments in businesses with no revenues and neither will VCs. VCs also want management with proven track records and will typically want to see customers and sales before they get interested. This means that you need to find money through three common channels, two of which are a terrible idea.

1) Loading up on credit card debt

2) Taking our home equity loans or a second mortgage (doesn’t work for you renters out there)

3) Going to friends and family for a loan / sell equity in your business

Out of the three listed above, numbers one and two are to be avoided at all costs. While this seems intuitive (of course, who wants to be in debt), many entrepreneurs don’t have a choice. They need cash and don’t have any family or friends with money. Taking on debt to start a business is like screwing yourself two-times if the business fails. If the venture fails (stats show failure rates at over 95%), then not only did you lose your own money and time you invested in the venture, but you’re now up to your eyeballs in debt and may never dig yourself out. Not a pretty picture…

The third option is the best, if it’s available. It is the most awkward of the three because it’s the only option that involves you asking for money. But trust me, get over it, and it will be the best decision you’ve ever made. Friends and family are the only people who will invest in your business (in you) at this point. If you take a little bit from a lot of people, you can spread the risk around and not have a terrible sense of guilt if you lose every last penny Aunt Jinny had in her IRA account. The key here is to communicate with your family about your business. Be excited and keep them in the loop. That way, it will not come out of left field if/when you ask them to invest. We started this whole business (OnCard Marketing) hoping that we would not have to ask friends/family for money. However, we realized quickly that was not possible. It was a very hard decision to make because we never wanted to be in a position where we had to look across the table at Grandma and Grandpa over the holidays and try to explain why their retirement savings went up in smoke with our venture.

Bottom Line: Try to raise money from friends and family before going the riskier route of taking on debt (credit cards, mortgages etc.). Don’t accept money from people who can’t afford to lose it. It would be ideal to have two investors put in $25k (fewer investors putting in more money). However, most people don’t have rich relatives. If this is the case, spread the risk around to many investors and have them invest an amount they are comfortable with. Anything more will create a world of headaches in case things go south with your venture. I will follow-up with another post on the legal side of fundraising and a run-down of the legal documentation you should have when you raise money.

JT

We received a check in the mail today for $15.50 from one of our merchant partners for a couple purchases one of our beta testers made through our iBakeSale program last month. The good news is that we now have a “top line” (i.e. revenues). The bad part is that it takes about 30 days to receive payment for our ad services. I only hope that the check clears when I deposit it into tour bank account. In other good news, this modest payment proves that our technology actually works and that we can track consumer purchases at our merchants and credit their reward accounts with the cash-back rebates. A definite plus, since we’ve been telling people about this program for about two months now.

JT

Seth and I have been debating for awhile now about the pros and cons of using the OnCard Marketing name for our consumer program. We’ve debated everything from OnCard Marketing, OnCard Rewards to OnCard Community. We settled initially for OnCard Community and even created a logo based off of the OnCard Marketing logo (see http://www.oncardmarketing.com). We were using that logo on the initial site design for about two weeks and were even able to sell merchants into joining our program under the OnCard Community name. However, we got to thinking about our consumer brand and decided that it was not a good idea to use OnCard anything. The main reason is that we don’t own the URL for OnCard. An Australian credit card company owns the website address for http://www.oncard.com, which is a huge bummer for us. Luckily, we already have the trademark for OnCard in the U.S. and they don’t have any presence outside of China and Australia.

Nonetheless, we are stuck in a dilemma where if we call the rewards program OnCard Community, consumers (with their very short attention spans) will shorten the name to OnCard, and then if we get lucky and people actually tell all their friends about OnCard, people will end up on the wrong website confused as to how they were told to sign up with a company based out of China. So, we decided that it would be best to keep the OnCard Marketing name for merchants and create a uniquely branded name (and logo) for our first rewards program, one that reflects the focus on grass-roots fundraising and community giving. I spent hours on GoDaddy.com pouring over hundreds of domain names, emailing lists upon lists of possible names to Seth. Most of them I have to admit, were garbage. But out of all that rubbish, iBakeSale was born.

We like it because it is fun and conveys a sense of community, fundraising, grass-roots organizations, and alludes specifically to a common community fundraising activity (i.e. the bakesale) that we are looking to replace with a more tech-friendly way to shop and save for organizations near and dear to our consumers’ hearts. This could include school PTAs, religious organizations, little league and other sports teams, extracurricular school activities, as well as small to medium size charities looking to increase their fundraising efforts, for free. We are currently knee-deep in tech development and should hopefully be done by end of April for the general public. We will begin testing it on a small scale this weekend. Will keep you updated as we near launch of the program…

JT

When we started OnCard Marketing a few months ago, Seth and I were fresh out of Citigroup with a list of contacts that consisted mostly of friends and fellow financial services professionals. We absolutely had scarce few people we knew in media, advertising, non-profits, publishing, PR, law, accounting, etc. However, we realized very quickly how important networking was to reach the right people we would need to help grow our business. One of my friends suggested LinkedIn to me back in July. I had never heard of it but quickly found out that it was a rapidly growing professional social network or people in business spanning lots of different industries. It was free to sign up, so Seth and I joined the network. We started building our network with friends who were already using LinkedIn and gradually expanded it to business contacts and then even to prospective business partners, new recruits, vendors, etc. It has absolutely been an invaluable tool for us as we constantly look to expand our network and bring the best talent to our company that can help us grow. I have to believe most entrepreneurs would have to agree.

Bottom Line: If you’re just starting out as an entrepreneur, joining LinkedIn is a must. It’s free and will help you get in touch with many people who can help your business. You can sign-up at http://www.linkedin.com

JT