How a 3"x2" piece of plastic raised Millions for Non-Profits
(actually thousands of 3"x2" pieces of plastic)
Looking back at my 23 year old self, I was basically unemployable. It wasn't that I lacked intelligence or grit, but more so that I thought I knew more about business (and the world) than I did. In many ways, that weakness was also my greatest strength because my ignorance forced me to build my first real company. The other option - working for someone else - was not viable.
I started Bright Discounts out of my apartment in 2004. My sister, Ashley, and I were both athletes, so we had participated in a number of fundraisers growing up.
Pretty much all of those fundraisers sucked.
They sucked for the:
* players because we were required to sell something that no one wanted and often times we had to go back later to deliver products (labor intensive).
* organizations raising money because the profit margins were low, the required effort/management was high and the entire process took too long.
Bright Discount solved these problem.
Our fundraisers were:
Fast - players could sell and deliver the product in one afternoon. Bam - fundraiser complete in a few hours!
Easy - sales and delivery happened at the same time. People wanted the product because they offered discounts to places where they already shopped. For customers/donors, it was a no-brainer purchase that also helped a local organization.
Profitable - $5 profit to the organization for every product sold. Organizations could easily raise $5k or $10k in one weekend.
How Did It Work?
Bright Discounts lined up great offers/coupons that would be valid for one year with unlimited use for the card holder. The offers were printed on the back of 3"x2" plastic cards (we printed the organizations logo, picture and/or schedule on the front of the card).
The card paid for itself after one or two uses, so it was a high-value product for customers/donors. For participating vendors, it was a way to support a local non-profit without having to make a donation. Everyone wins!
We handled all of the contracts with vendors, designed and printed the cards, and more. All that the organization had to do was distribute the cards to their players, sell the cards, then send us a check for our part.
The business model was sound. For every $10 sold, we kept $5 and the organization kept $5. High margin, high volume, diverse client base spread out across the United States.
We worked with athletic departments, individual sports teams, school systems, other non-profit organizations and more. Businesses loved us because we weren't asking for cash donations and it only cost them something if a person used the card, which meant someone was buying something from them. We would work with businesses to come up with offers that were valuable and would draw people in, but didn't break the bank if a lot of people used the cards.
If I were smarter, I would have rolled this into forming GroupOn before Groupon existed because their business model is pretty much what I was doing with fundraiser cards. Duh.
I thought I had it all figured out. I landed what seemed like a huge customer right out of the gate. The soccer club owner told me that they had hundreds of kids and that they wanted to raise tens of thousands of dollars. It was Bright Discounts' first fundraiser and it was going to be huge!
I ordered over ten thousand cards for the Team Dayton SC fundraiser in 2004.
It was a nightmare. The club owner was massively unorganized. People lost cards. I printed in the absolute most expensive way possible because I had no idea where to get my cards printed.
W.I.L.: Control costs. Control costs. Control costs, Dummy. No matter how much you think you'll make on a deal, control costs.
I lost over $5,000 on that fundraiser, not including the time I spent driving back and forth to Dayton trying to get things on track.
HUGE lesson in controlling costs, mitigating risk, forming agreements and more. Remember how I told you I thought I was smarter than I really was. This was one of many life experiences that showed that I had a lot to learn.
W.I.L.: Don't be overly trusting of others and do your homework. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
Believe it or not, email marketing wasn't always a "thing" back in the early 2000's. Sending emails that had colors, pictures, logos, etc. was very uncommon. These emails stood out big-time. No one was doing it. I had just learned about a company called Constant Contact.
With Constant Contact, you could send full color emails to a bunch of people with one click. Also, you could track who opened the email, what they clicked, etc. Amazing stuff huh? Well, at the time it was.
Now I had the system, but I needed the email lists. I was pretty good with finding my way around the internet and was able to find lists of coaches and booster club members. Next, I found lists of school administrators and athletic directors. Before long, my phone and email was on fire with groups wanting Bright Discounts to help them raise money.
W.I.L.: Keep your eyes open for an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage or "edge." If you can gain an edge (in this case, a technological edge), exploit it. Double down and go. Don't wait. It can make all of the difference.
Bright Discounts raised well into the 7 figures for non-profit organizations across the United States. The company operated in 28 states - from Maine to Hawaii.
The business had 1 full time employee = me. Everyone else was a contractor (artists, sales people, etc.). I would sit in my apartment making calls (on a landline - ha ha) from 8am until 2am because many of our clients were in different time zones. I did this while wearing board shorts and a t-shirt. Not a bad life for someone in their mid-20's.
It was highly profitable, but extremely boring. I would go out to lunch every day so that I could have real-life interaction with people, even if it was just the waiter/waitress. I only met in-person with about 3% of our clients - everything else was done over the phone.
As 2009 rolled around, I founded another company, Titanium Lacrosse, that was built around a few of my passions in life - lacrosse and helping people. My interest in Bright Discounts faded and I only worked with renewals. Eventually, the people who served as booster club presidents, school administrations and other volunteers of their organizations moved on. As this happened, fewer and fewer renewals came in. It didn't matter to me because was focused elsewhere.
If I could go back, I would have told myself to position the company for sale so that I could get more (financially) out of what I had worked so hard to build. This lesson would carry forward into my next venture as I would position my company for sale as I began to lose interest.
W.I.L.: Figure out your exit strategy before you lose interest and move on to other things. Otherwise, you won't extract the full value out of what you have built.
W.I.L. stands for "What I Learned"