Whenever I have to make a difficult decision, I try to ask myself if my ego is getting in the way.
Joe Graceffa is the co-founder of Linfield Media, an award winning company in Venice, CA that uses technology and their flagship coupon website, PromoCodesForYou.com, to drive sales to ecommerce sites such as Nike, Hotels.com, and other top 500 internet retailers. The youngest of three children, Joe was born and raised in Augusta, Maine. He played varsity hockey and captained the varsity golf team at Amherst College in Massachusetts, then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. After getting his MFA from the University of Southern California’s Graduate Screenwriting Program, Joe spent five years writing and pitching screenplays. In 2008, emotionally and financially drained from the entertainment industry, Joe took at job at a small start-up in Los Angeles (a coupon website) where Joe was tasked with growing affiliate revenue via paid ads on Google. It was there that he met his co-founder, Jose Ramirez; Joe and Jose left to start their own company in the summer of 2011. Linfield’s team quickly established themselves as thought leaders in the affiliate space, winning prestigious industry awards in each of the first three years of business. Even as the coupon space has been consolidated by public company acquisitions, Linfield has been able to innovate, disrupt, and grow market share. Joe currently lives in Venice, CA with his wife, Elsa
Where did the idea for PromoCodesForYou come from?
My cofounder, Jose Ramirez, and I had both been in the coupon industry for about three years. We saw the way things worked in the space and we just felt as though we could do some things better.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I know the right answer here is probably that I wake up at 4:30am, go for a cold swim, meditate for 30 minutes, then start making money but…I tend to stay up late and sleep in pretty late. I start my day with a shower. Always. Not because I desperately need to be clean but because I desperately need to be awake. My team and I get to the office around 10am and, fortunately, I get enough support that I don’t have to start my day by trying to sift through 1,000 emails. I spend a lot of time these days dealing with tech/product issues (testing new features on our site, talking to developers about bugs, talking to my team about our most pressing needs). Most of my days are also sprinkled with operational, accounting, and HR responsibilities. I don’t have any revolutionary tricks for staying productive, but being able to effectively prioritize is something I feel I’ve gotten pretty good at.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I went to Grad School after college for screenwriting and I spent several years as an extremely unsuccessful screenwriter. Mostly those years taught me lessons about humility and rejection, but I also think I picked up a few habits that have been helpful in my current career. Such as the notion that ideas come to life when you talk about them with people whose opinion you respect, and when you first start discussing an idea, it’s okay if it’s pretty lousy. As a writer, I subscribed to Anne Lamott’s theory that you need a lousy rough draft before you can ever have a great final draft, and I think that often works in business as well. We talk a lot at my office about, “What’s the bad version of this?” That’s usually where I start because it’s usually pretty easy to come up with a bad version of an idea.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited that Amazon is building technology in grocery stores that allow you to just walk in with your app, grab stuff, and then walk out. I think I’d grocery shop a lot more often if I didn’t have to spend fifteen minutes waiting in line at Ralph’s just to buy a carton of eggs and some almond milk.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I take my relationships pretty seriously. What I mean by that is that I keep in touch with a lot of people and take lots of lunch and breakfast meetings. I know that for a lot of people that stuff can get in the way of productivity — I try to schedule them before work (breakfast) or at times when I’d be breaking anyway (such as lunch), but for me, these relationships have been instrumental in moving our business forward. I also don’t think of it as “networking.” To me, networking is shaking someone’s hand at a party or meeting them once for coffee and then hoping they can help you at some point. I don’t think that works. What works for me is developing authentic relationships where you try to give more than you take. On that note, I also do my best to make time for younger entrepreneurs who have questions or issues that they feel I can help them with. I’d like to believe that I make time for others because I genuinely care about other people, but I also think there’s a selfish benefit to building strong relationships.
Also, I definitely think it’s a habit of mine to try to challenge the status quo. My team probably finds it annoying but I’m pretty constantly asking them if the way we’re doing something is the best way to do it, and asking them to consider drastic changes to our model. 99 times out of 100, those questions lead to nothing. But every once in a while, that strategy moves us into a better place.
What advice would you give your younger self?
While I don’t totally regret my years as a failed screenwriter, I do wish I had known how cool it is and how much you can learn from working at a small start-up with smart, driven, kind people. So I think I’d tell myself to go find a small company with smart people that is building a business that you could potentially become a big part of. I think people get hung up on looking for jobs at sexy companies or at companies doing sexy things. Perhaps I’m biased because coupons aren’t sexy but I really believe that, as a young person, the business model is less important than the people. We’re also in the Golden Age of start-ups. There are so many brilliant people building companies. Find one, get in on the ground floor, learn from your bosses, and prove your worth.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
If you asked 100 people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their physical appearance, I bet people would be self-aware, if not too critical of themselves, and you’d have a very broad spectrum of answers. But when it comes to intelligence, every person in this world thinks that he or she is way smarter than average. People who did lousy in school will flaunt the fact that they’re “street smart.” There is nobody in this planet who thinks, “Yeah, I’m book dumb and street dumb.” But you know what? Just as some people are in the bottom 10% of physical appearance, some people are both book dumb and street dumb. There is something deep inside all of us that prevents us from being self-aware when it comes to intelligence. Heck, I might be both book dumb and street dumb because I, like everybody else in the world, have no real credibility when it comes to an analysis of my own intelligence. There is no moral to this story but it’s true.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Whenever I have to make a difficult decision, I try to ask myself if my ego is getting in the way. In other words, is this decision what’s best for the business or what’s best for my ego? The answer is rarely clear, but I think that forcing myself to think about that often leads to a better decision.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
While we didn’t realize this when we started the business, very early on we recognized that our industry had some key influencers. While it was a very daunting task to try to convince every potential client to give us a chance when we didn’t have a proven reputation, we found that by convincing some key influencers of our value prop, they could become essential advocates for us. What made that strategy more likely to work for us was that the key influencers were the most knowledgeable about our space, and so it was much easier to make them understand why and how we can help potential clients.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
While this question is probably looking for a different answer, I thought of myself as an entrepreneur when I was writing and trying to sell my screenplays, and I certainly felt as though that mission ended in failure. I spent two years getting my Masters in Screenwriting and almost five years writing screenplays. I’ve never thought of myself as a quitter so it was really hard for me to accept that it was time to turn the page. I feared that I’d never be happy if I gave up on my dream. But once I actually started a job in a new industry, I realized that it wasn’t hard for me to find passion. It wasn’t hard for me to care. I was able to quickly set a whole new group of goals/dreams in a completely different space and I was a lot happier because I was having some success, or at least some validation that I was doing good work. That’s something I hadn’t had in a long time with screenwriting. So I guess the answer to how I overcame failure was that I dove head first into trying to solve the new set of problems. It’s difficult to wallow in despair when you’ve got a ton of work to do.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Everyone is aware of the fact that the internet is watching our every move, and that visiting nordstrom.com could subject you to a month full of nordstrom banner ads on every website you visit. As people become more and more concerned with their privacy, I think there’s an opportunity to start a website where people can willingly share (with advertisers) facts about themselves and items that they’re actually interested in buying.
In other words, imagine a website called show-me-these-ads.com, where I can write down my age, gender, income, interests, etc., and then every month I update it with what’s going on in my life and the items I’m looking to purchase. For example, I might be getting married and looking for a pair of shoes to wear for my wedding. Or maybe I’m looking for a nice leather couch for my living room.
I think I would fill out a profile if I could get discounts. Perhaps Spectrum cable would give discounts to every user who uploads her profile into her Spectrum account. Why? Because then maybe Spectrum could start showing Mesothelioma commercials to people who actually have Mesothelioma. Okay, so maybe Spectrum is a bad example because they will be out of business in ten years. Let’s use Hulu. Hulu has commercials. Perhaps Hulu would give me a little discount if I was willing to share all that stuff with them. Even if I didn’t get a discount, it would be nice to see an ad for that nice leather couch I’m looking for.
There are lots of challenges with this idea — that’s why I’m sharing it here.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Just before my wedding, about a year ago, I was very stressed figuring out who was going to move our speakers from the ceremony to the cocktail hour. This problem was among about 500,000 problems that we had yet to solve. I was committed to being as frugal as possible so I didn’t want to solve problems with money. Plan A involved having three different people help move the speakers and set them up immediately after the music stopped playing at the ceremony. At some point, I realized that for $100, I could rent two new speakers and eliminate a whole lot of disaster potential. I made that decision about two hours later than I should have, but it was a fantastic decision.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
We use a software called shoeboxed.com. All we have to do is put all our receipts into an envelope and toss it in the mail. Shoeboxed scans and categorizes all of the receipts. There’s also an app so I can take pictures of the receipts then toss them in the trash. For not much money per month, it makes life a lot easier than saving all receipts in shoeboxes or trying to scan them ourselves.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” by Daniel Pink.
It really changed the way I thought about what motivates my employees and how to best manage them.
What is your favorite quote?
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Before you make an important business decision, ask yourself if this decision is what’s best for your ego or what’s best for your business?
- Great ideas often start with the bad version of that idea.
- Overcome failure by diving head first into your next project.
- Identify key influencers in your space and convince them of your value prop.
- College grads who are looking for jobs — don’t worry too much about what the company does, just find a small company that has smart people who will mentor and promote you.