Stephanie Nelson’s tips for new entrepreneurs:
— Measure success multiple ways, not just by money. Think customer feedback, personal satisfaction.
— Some people won’t support your vision, but one yes could get you off the ground.
— Be flexible. It’s about the vision, not the plan.
— Find meaningful ways to thank people who helped you.
Based in Marietta.
Stephanie Nelson, CEO and founder.
Launched website in 2001.
Annual revenue: $4.5 million in 2013. Projecting $3.5 million this year.
Staff: seven part-time independent contractors.
“I didn’t even own a computer. I didn’t do email. I had no idea how I was going to spread this concept.”
“I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. In my head, I said, ‘I’m not giving up.’
“It was four years of super hard, not-making-much-progress time. But I would have told you how successful it was because I wasn’t measuring it by money.”
Stay-at-home mom Stephanie Nelson thought teaching people couponing skills could encourage them to donate more to a local food pantry. That was 14 years ago. Her adventure blossomed into Marietta-based Couponmom.com, a business that she says has 1.5 million visitors a month and should hit $3.5 million in annual sales. The free site gives registered members weekly lists of local grocery deals and coupons. It led her to write a New York Times bestseller and to 55 national TV appearances.
She went without pay the first few years. Now, at the age of 50, she works just 30 hours a week and said she earns more than $1 million in annual profits. Better, she said, the site helps people afford to eat.
I came from a frugal family. I’ve always loved to make money, and I’ve loved to save it. Not a big spender.
A finance major in college, she did sales management for Proctor & Gamble and Marriott. Her husband was in sales and marketing.
I stopped working to be home with my kids. Our income was cut in half. I learned the easiest place to save in the household budget is groceries. It was fun to figure out that whole strategic shopping thing, how to save with coupons. By the time my kids were old enough to go to school, I didn’t need to work.
I saw in the church bulletin a list of items that the local food pantry — North Fulton (Community) Charities — needed. We are in this nice community and the food pantry was out of food? I'll see how much I can buy with my coupons and go donate it. I ended up getting $60 worth of groceries for $15.
I sat in the lobby of that food pantry, and that’s when I had my epiphany: there are women like me, with kids like mine, waiting here for a couple bags of food. What if they knew how to do what I know how to do?
I collected coupons from my neighbors and at the church. Almost every day I would go and buy groceries (to donate). And I realized I was not making a dent. Ninety percent of grocery coupons are thrown away each week. That’s a ton of money. Every week there is at least one item that is absolutely free with a coupon. If every household donated one item a week to charity, we would flood the food pantries in this country.
At that point I didn’t even own a computer. I didn’t do email. I had no idea how I was going to spread this concept.
Nelson’s mom suggested creating weekly lists of deals and coupons, laying out plans people could follow to feed their families. Others encouraged her to create a website. She got a computer and a software package and learned to create a site, CutOutHunger. Nelson heard from some detractors, including a local community leader.
He said, “It’s a bad idea. The grocery stores are not going to like it. The coupon companies are not going to like it. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. In my head, I said, “I’m not giving up.”
You cannot expect everyone to get your vision. I don’t need everybody to be inspired. I just need some.
Supporters suggested she apply to create a tax-exempt non-profit organization, so she could get grants to help fund the work.
I never was crazy about that idea. I’ve always been a free enterprise capitalist. If I was applying for a grant as a hunger organization, essentially I’m competing with the very groups I’m trying to benefit. (But) I’ll never forget the day that the IRS examiner called me up to tell me that it had been rejected (for tax-exempt status). I started to cry on the phone.
I’m working about 30 hours a week doing data entry. I’m walking around grocery stores getting prices. I’m getting up super early before my kids are up. I’m staying up super late. I’m working every Saturday night, every Sunday. I really didn’t have money to hire help. It was four years of super hard, not-making-much-progress time. But I would have told you how successful it was because I wasn’t measuring it by money. “Look at all these emails we’ve gotten from people saying how wonderful it is.”
(At one point), the frustration of it not getting off the ground was kind of interfering with my life. Maybe I was being crabby with my husband, with my kids. So Sunday night I got down on my knees and asked God to take this stress away. The next day the phone rings, and it is a friend of mine. He said, “How did you get (consumer guru) Clark Howard to talk about your website on the radio?”
Her web traffic shot up. Then, by mentioning Howard’s shout-out, Nelson got appearances on other local TV and radio shows. An acquaintance gave her the number of a producer responsible for booking guests on TV show Good Morning America. Viewership spiked during her segment, and GMA producers kept inviting her back to share money saving tips.
They said, “We are going to call you Coupon Mom, so you might want to change the name of your website. I bought (the URL for) Couponmom for $13 and went on GMA 17 times.
They paid her $750 per appearance, covered her New York travel expenses and, more importantly, helped bring more visitors to her web site.
She started getting advertising on her site, in part by using Google AdSense, which placed ads automatically on her web site in a revenue sharing deal. And Georgia Tech students working on their senior project created a way for her to quickly update information online, devising what Nelson said has become a standard for many coupon sites.
I did a survey of our members. Eighty percent said they donate food at least once a year as a result of using our website. If you look at a list of deals, if there is an item that is good for charity, and it is free, we have a sentence that says, “This is a good item to give to charity.”
A woman came up to me in the grocery store. She held both of my hands. Her eyes were full of tears. She told me, “I discovered your website when my husband went unemployed. It was life changing for us. Thank you so much for what you’ve done.” I get to do this thing that I love and people are saying, “Thank you.”
Some of my friends made comments like, “You are kind of abandoning your hunger cause just to be on GMA, just to be Couponmom.” That would get under my skin. When it was CutOutHunger by myself, I had 5,000 visits a month. As Couponmom I got up to five million. How many people are being helped with me being Couponmom? I got a much bigger platform for the cause.