How This Musician Turned a Hobby Into a Wildly Successful Website

How This Musician Turned a Hobby Into a Wildly Successful Website

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Mike Catania is the founder and CTO of PromotionCode.org, a coupon company that distributes online and print promotion codes for retailers to targeted shoppers. Though the business has seen astronomical growth since its inception, when talking about the money he’s helped consumers save, Catania says, “All of the other stuff just pales in comparison.”

Here’s Catania’s story about starting and growing a business, as told to Nav.

A Hobby Suddenly Hits the Big Time

My background is in music. I finished grad school in 2003. I had a teaching contract to teach a music technology class. Part of teaching that class was doing HTML stuff. Since I knew very little about it, I gave myself a crash course. From there, I had enough knowledge to start developing sites on my own.

I started this site in 2007 because I was working as an adjunct professor and had a day job as a programmer. The site was originally a forum for me and other teachers to share our coupons because, even at the college level, teachers make next to nothing. We would share things like, “Staples has three packages of pens for $2 this week. Here’s a scanned in paper coupon for it.” We had between 50 and 100 regular people who were using the site. At that point, the site was my hobby. I was still composing and gigging and doing all sorts of strange day jobs.

In 2008, the site was picked up by Jean Chatzky on the “Today” show. It just blew up. It went from a site that was getting a couple hundred unique visitors a day to hundreds of thousands. Since I knew nothing about business because my background is in academics and music, I brought on a business partner who’s a lawyer by trade and well-versed in entrepreneurship. We took it from there.

Funding the Business

There were some startup costs at the beginning. I did the development, but I hired a professional designer and got hosting and email servers. Once things took off, those costs shot up. It was funded mostly through credit cards.

At the beginning, I was using all personal credit cards. I knew absolutely nothing about business or about credit. I was a responsible personal bill payer so, thankfully, I had good credit.

The Biggest Challenges 

For our business, because we’re an online company, it requires us to compete in an arena where things don’t have to be absolutely true. SEO is challenging. On the one hand, you have venture-capital-backed companies with millions of dollars to develop apps and go after cash-back customers. On the other hand, you have a lot of spam. Unfortunately, the way the search engines have been updating, they put more weight on the time users spend on your page. If you have a page that has all expired or made-up offers, a user will be on that page a lot longer than they will if that page only has one working offer. It’s a challenging balance to always provide perfect offers every time, knowing that there are five new sites every day putting anything they want online and they’re going to be rewarded for it.

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Managing Cash Flow and Growth

The way the coupon industry works is that once a sale is over for a coupon you’ve been given, there’s a certain amount of time in between the sale and when the store sends the money for it. Because PromotionCode.org was profitable since its inception, we’ve always been far enough ahead that cash flow was never a big issue for us.

The Biggest Mistake in the Early Years

The biggest mistake I made was trying to do too much by myself. I had been kind of drunk on my own success, thinking that I could learn things really fast and put them into production. There are certain things that require expertise. The first few people I hired to help me were really big mistakes. I made really poor decisions because I hired for skill sets, not personalities. Now, finding the right people and working them into the right job skills is far more important than finding the right resume.

The Smartest Decision in the Early Years

With my background in academia, it sort of pointed me towards knowing what needs to be done and what needs to be done well. I had a good balance when I was developing the site knowing what aspects of the site needed to be done well so people could get these offers right away. I think getting on the “Today” show without even trying lends some credence to the original version of the site.

The Biggest Rewards of Owning a Business

It’s creative. My background is in music composition. For me, it’s exciting to know that I’ve made something that really helps people. When you’re in a situation when that OfficeMax coupon saves you $5 that you need because you are completely strapped, I feel great knowing that I had a role in getting that to you. My mindset is always on who’s using this rather than on how we are going to make the most money.

We expect to break $50 million in user-reported savings this year. That is just unfathomable to think that this little site that was started on a bedroom computer could have saved people that amount of money.

Advice for Someone Starting a Business

Spend less time worrying about it and more time doing it. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in all the things you don’t know, especially if you’re a more sensitive person. I feel like in society we spend a lot of time glorifying these Type A, really condescending, industry-disrupting people that make other people who have equally good and sometimes better ideas but not that kind of temperament afraid to jump in. Even if you’re not the type of person who’s going to be screaming your product from the rooftops, know that your product is just as good, if not better. Do your best to tune out all that noise and hyperbole that surrounds those people and find a way to do what works for you.

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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing (http://www.fireworkwritingonline.com/), located in San Jose, California.

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