How this couple turned $5,000 into a $5 million business and closed a $600,000 deal with Kevin O’Leary

Twelve years ago, my husband Brian and I were raising two young children. Although we were making enough money through our 9-to-5 jobs to support our family, I was itching to start my own business.

I brainstormed ideas every day. But one afternoon, during a four-hour drive, something clicked. We had just enrolled our son in music lessons—and they weren’t cheap. We are always looking for amazing experiences for our kids on a budget.

“What if there was a deals website that focused specifically on what parents want and need? Think Groupon, but for parents,” I explained to Brian.

Instead of his usual eye roll, he said, “I love it!”

This simple answer changed our lives. We invested $5,000 in building CertifiKID, and in the first eight months of 2010, we closed more than 130 deals with local businesses and grew our subscriber base to 13,000. By October 2011, we reached $1 million in gross sales.

We now generate an average of $5 million in sales per year and are on track to generate $6 million by the end of 2022.

Many people want to know how we achieved great success. Here are the most valuable business lessons I learned along the way:

1. Make your business name short, memorable and easy to spell.

When coming up with a name, you really need to consider factors like how people will react to it and whether it will still make sense as your business grows and changes.

Brian immediately came up with the name “CertifiKID”. But looking back, it’s one of our biggest regrets. Every day someone mispronounces it, usually calling us “Certified Kid”.

In emails and documents, people also often misspell the name, including on checks, which requires us to spend time dealing with the error.

2. Keep hiring costs as low as possible.

Instead of coming up with a budget when we started, we only used what we could afford to invest, which was $5,000. We maintained a lean staff with a mix of full-time employees and independent contractors.

It was important to understand every aspect of our business, from social media to customer service, before making any costly decisions.

When we started hiring, for example, we hired people on a contractor basis, with a three-month trial period. Once it became clear that someone was the right fit for the role, we hired them full time.

3. Focus on your local community first.

We have grown organically through word of mouth, social media and even random barter.

For the first two years in business, we focused solely on our base in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area. We asked our family and friends to spread the word. I also did my best to contact every local parent-teacher association, business owner, and media outlet.

After proving our concept, we slowly expanded to other cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Starting locally and taking the time to perfect our business has allowed us to build something with longevity.

4. Great customer service will get you far.

We had unparalleled customer and member service. Jamie was answering customer calls at 11pm on a Saturday and people were shocked to hear the CEO on the other end of the phone.

We’ll refund like candy and absorb transaction fee losses. This approach has created loyalty among our subscribers, inspiring them to make multiple purchases and spread the word about the business.

Sacrifice a little time and money up front and you’ll earn customer loyalty in the long run.

5. Knowing your worth will prevent you from making a bad deal.

In the beginning, we turned down 10 acquisition and partnership opportunities. We had built a great team and wanted to work our way for as long as possible.

Knowing our value helped us tremendously when we appeared on Shark Tank in 2019. Negotiations were tough, but we closed a deal with Kevin O’Leary for $600,000 in exchange for 19% equity.

O’Leary and his team have helped us tremendously in growing the business nationally and dealing with the pandemic.

6. You don’t have to follow what’s popular to succeed.

In our first few years, a big trend with sites like ours was to sell one deal a day to keep the excitement going and bring people in daily.

We followed suit, but the problem was that parents understandably aren’t always good at making quick decisions, so by the time they hear about a deal and want to buy it, we’ve already pulled it from the site and moved on to the next one.

However, we learned a valuable lesson. Our success will come from building relationships, not from trying to copy big competitors. Our philosophy has been that we will not lose a deal with someone we want to build a relationship with because of price.

So over time we built a reputation where we could make things work with any business we wanted to collaborate with and advertise with. This flexibility has become one of the strengths of our business.

Jamie and Brian Ratner are husband and wife co-founders of CertifiKID, a deals website for parents. They are also the authors of “ParentPreneurs: A Decade of Deals from a Messy Minivan.” Follow them Instagram.

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