Couponstar – my lessons building an international company

Couponstar Ltd, formerly Cashstar International and later Coupons.com Ltd (post acquisition in late 2011) was a journey I will never forget. A journey which changed me. From being a corporate guy to an international entrepreneur. The 5 years building Couponstar Ltd from ground up were boisterous, convivial and challenging. It is also what took me on a journey to Silicon Valley and ignited this blog.

The journey

It all started back in Sydney, Australia, on January 2004. Having been made redundant from AMP Pty Ltd (the best thing that ever happened to me) I joined Cashstar (as it was formerly known) to work with Jared K (a 2 man team) in changing the retail world using coupons.

Early days

We were in the market providing coupon and media solutions to the gaming and entertainment industry in Australia. We licensed Coupons, Inc. technology outside North America and set out to “couponize” the rest of the world with our high-tech customized solutions which were aimed to drive online traffic into bricks and mortar stores.

Couponstar, as it was formerly called. Now Coupons.com
Couponstar, as it was formerly called. Now Coupons.com Ltd

Below is a picture of the early days (vintage 2004) when it was only me and Jared. We drove 800km in my car from Sydney to Melbourne to attend ADMA (Australian Direct Marketing Association) trade show. Airfares in Australia back then were expensive.. ahh the memories of those early days. I (a software engineer) also got to learn some sales techniques from Jared and via the experience of marketing to customers at ADMA.

From left: Me (Ernest) and Jared Keen (founder of Couponstar Ltd)
From left: Me (Ernest) and Jared Keen (founder of Couponstar Ltd)

The tall blurry banner in the picture above was something we did ourself in-house to lure by passes getting hooked on trying to read it properly. Then Jared and I would swoop in.

On top of sales & marketing I also got involved in every aspect of strategic, operational, technical & engineering tasks while we grew the business. Jared & I even folded print & mail envelopes on the floor of our rented space. Hey it had to be done!

Early pivot

With time we grew to a small lean team of 6 in the Sydney office. After a lot of sweat, we also realised early on that Australia just wasnt the right market for what we were doing. Australia (even today) is slow to adopt new disruptive technology.

So we decided to pivot and opened an office in London under Couponstar Ltd. We realized that Europe had more potential since the market was far greater than Australia and the concept of coupons (vouchers) was partially engraved into the culture for over a century.

Our determination, forward movements and the never say die attitudes sparked Coupons.com’s interest and they invested in us. This helped with the UK & ultimately European expansion. Bonus!

Acceleration

Fast forward to the end of 2008 and Jared and I were in discussions to work out what is the best way forward for the business. Working across multiple continents  Australia, USA and Europe was very taxing on us and we knew there were better alternatives. I proposed I come to Silicon Valley and run the international engineering team from Coupons.com and Jared would go to London to focus on the European market from there. It made perfect business sense. And it was also already on Jared’s mind. Bang! Let’s do this.

So I set off on my journey to Silicon Valley in March 2009 and Jared to London. The International business flourished and expanded fast and in late 2011 I got my exit. Couponstar was 100% acquired by Coupons.com. Ultimately giving Coupons.com an International presence.

Below is what the UK office looks like today, 2012. Nicely staffed team of smart folks.

Couponstar UK office in 2012
Couponstar UK office in 2012

Top 6 lessons

In August 2012 I decided to move on to a new venture and start my own business in Silicon Valley. I am a co-founder / CTO (hello again) of Medlert Inc. We combine industry expertise with innovative technology to deliver critical information to your family, doctor/s and emergency response units to save your life in an emergency. Powered by leading edge secure and encrypted technology to save lives fast.

Yes it’s a totally different shift from saving people money to saving lives.

But before I end this, here are the top 6 lessons from Couponstar days (in no particular order):

  • Customer is no#1. It is alot harder to get a new customer then look after your current one. Your current customers took alot of hard work to bring on board – look after them! I’m sure you have heard to “always under promise and over deliver.”. We always over delivered and made sure the customer was happy and if not asked how we could improve.
  • Business intelligence (data) is super important. Collect collect collect and Analyse analyse analyse so you can understand pain points, what isn’t working and what is. This allows you to create action points to correct what isn’t working so that the customer can see the value in your solution and feel confident about their decision. We used a host of client and server side analytics along with feedback forms throughout our service to collect this data. We also found that trends can be a great indicator of something having gone wrong so being able to correct it early is key. Without data, this would not be possible.
  • Fire fast. The worst is having an unproductive employee dragging not only you but also your team. The rest of the team is very well away of others who are unproductive and this has the potential to rub off on them. So fire fast! Have a chat with the under performer to find out what is going on and should it repeat give them a formal warning and if it repeats again – fire. Your competitors aren’t going to stop while you sort out your internal mess. Act fast.
  • Never run a data center in-house. This point might not be relevant in today’s times since the boom of cloud computing but still requires mentioning. If data center management is not in your specialty or it takes too much red tape to set up in-house forget it. Leave it to the pros and let them manage it. Believe me, you will sleep better at night, scaling will be a thing of the past and your bills will be much lower.
  • Automate everything you can. If you find yourself repeating something too many times. Automate it. From data capture to reports. Spend some time automating it so you can move on and focus on stuff that really matters. Like growing the business, customer base, technology stability etc… Automation is not putting people out of a job, automation it is running lean and mean and most of all FASTER!
  • Working inter-geographically is not for everyone. We all heard of outsourcing and teams working in different regions of the world – some with success and some without. Work out whether this is a good direction for your business to be pursuing, what are the pros and cons and the unforseen. We worked on GMT, EST and PST time zones – round the clock. It was a drain on people and their productivity. Unless the teams are loosely coupled it may not be worth doing this. This is just one of the reasons we decided to shut the Sydney office and move overseas. Has it worked? To some extent yet. But then you have other issues to deal with 😉

So there you have it. I got involved in helping grow a business past those critical startup years into an international company. Along the way sold to the company we partnered with and landed myself in a country where I had to start from fresh (building credit history, new home, new friends, new location, new experiences). Change is scary and also rewarding. I hope this post inspires at least 1 person to make a difference not only to their life but also the life of the people they will touch through their company.

~ Ernest

Author: Ernest W. Semerda

IQBOXY cofounder, GSDfaster founder and The Road To Silicon Valley founder/editor. Follow me on Twitter: @ernestsemerda or Google+.