Entrepreneurs and businesses should make taking care of the people that work for them of the utmost importance. When they do this, their good employees will stick around longer, and they’ll spend less on hiring and training.
As he cruises around his loft-style office on a OneWheel, Luke Knowles personifies his business credo: never stop having fun. A former creative director and graphic designer, Knowles founded Kinoli Inc. in 2007 with the launch of his first online shopping site, FreeShipping.org. What followed was a series of successful tools and websites rooted in Knowles’ desire to be first: Free Shipping Day, the first national shopping holiday to use free delivery as its cornerstone; Coupon Sherpa, the first mobile coupon app; and Gift Card Granny, the first gift card comparison website.
This series of “firsts” represents the foundation for Knowles’ success and continues to be his North Star as he seeks out new ideas and opportunities. Joined by a team of a dozen employees, Knowles places equal emphasis on efficiency and enjoyment, choosing to eschew traditional business lynchpins like meetings in favor of actual decision making. Kinoli Inc.’s open-office environment is designed to cultivate collaboration, with the main brainstorming space featuring a rope swing and a white board wall.
Currently, Knowles’ primary focus is Coupon Sherpa. Featuring online, in-store and mobile coupons for retailers, restaurants, grocery stores and service providers, the app and website are undergoing constant improvements as Knowles and his team develops ways to offer the best experience for millions of users.
Where did the idea for Coupon Sherpa come from?
In 2008, I wanted to create a coupon brand, and my PR and marketing background told me that we needed to be the first to do something new. The iPhone had just come out and apps were all the rage. So we set out to create the first in-store mobile coupon app. In March of 2009, the Coupon Sherpa app that allows shoppers to access coupons on their phone and have them scanned at checkout was launched. A couple months later it was an iTunes Staff Favorite app.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Most CEOs will probably answer this question by telling you about the endless hours they work. That’s not the case with me. I try to put in an honest 40 hour week and spend as much time as possible with my family. I learned early in my career that a well-run company doesn’t need to burn out its employees or its CEO.
I start my day at 8am with a workout and arrive at the office by 9am. I then answer emails, review the performance of our websites from the previous day, and check in on my employees. Once that’s done, I put my headphones on and get to work on any major projects that I’m working on. I try to schedule any phone calls or meetings for the afternoon. I’m usually home by 5pm to play video games, skateboard around the neighborhood, or play soccer in the backyard with my kids.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When I get an idea, I usually run it by a couple employees and then bring it to the attention of our entire staff. If we think it’s a winner, we work as quickly as possible to make it happen. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, being the first to do something new can give a company a huge advantage. That’s why we try to get our ideas out quickly.
On December 5, 2008, I had the idea to create an online shopping holiday for procrastinators. In less than two weeks we held the first annual Free Shipping Day with over 250 participating merchants like JCPenney, Pottery Barn and Macy’s. Today, Free Shipping Day is part of the shopping lexicon and is a major shopping holiday. I’d like to think that pushing the idea through quickly in 2008 is why it’s so successful today.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I’m really excited about the combination of mobile and local in the coupon space. We’re working on some really exciting features for Coupon Sherpa that make coupons available for over 100,000 businesses, restaurants, and local services on our app and website.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think that having new ideas for your business is a real key to running a long-term successful business. My brain doesn’t seem to turn off, which allows me to have ideas almost 24 hours per day. Without this blessing or curse (depends on how you look at it), we probably wouldn’t have had the ideas to create the new websites and apps that we have.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
The worst job I ever had was also probably the best job for my career advancement. I worked for a company that had a very high turnover rate and eventually went bankrupt. Even though it wasn’t a great environment to work in, I learned a lot of the necessary skills to be successful at what we’ve done the past 10 years. I won’t go into much detail about the company I worked for since that wouldn’t be fair to that company.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken the hiring process more seriously early on. We made some poor personnel decisions.
We now have a great hiring process which has lead to many great employees who are the reason for the success of our company.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Entrepreneurs and businesses should make taking care of the people that work for them of the utmost importance. When they do this, their good employees will stick around longer, and they’ll spend less on hiring and training. We purposely spend money on standing desks, dual-monitor workstations, 24-HR ergonomic chairs and fun company get-togethers to make our employees lives better. I think it’s a good investment.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, being the first to do something is super important. Instead of copying what others are already doing, we try to create something new.
When we wanted to get into the secondary gift card market, we could have made another gift card exchange business. Instead, we opted for creating the first comparison shopping engine of secondary gift cards with Gift Card Granny. It’s been a big success.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I tend to look at what other people might call “failures” as experiences that lead to big success later on. We’ve pivoted the direction of a brand or website on multiple occasions. You have to start somewhere, and we tend to learn quickly if we’re on the right track or if there might be a better opportunity by pivoting to something else.
In the first couple months of running my first coupon website back in 2007, I thought there would be a really big opportunity for somebody to create the first (there’s that word again) free shipping-focused website. I quickly shut down the small coupon site and created FreeShipping.org, which has been a big success for us. The coupon website that we shut down wasn’t a failure. It gave us the experience we needed to create a successful free shipping-focused website.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Somebody needs to create a sun visor for a car that’s on a track so you can block the sun when it’s on an angle to your face. The visor on a pivot just doesn’t cut it. Maybe somebody already has created this, but I haven’t seen it.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Personally: I spent a little more than $100 on a new skateboard, which I ride almost every day when the weather is nice. It’s important to have fun.
Professionally: We spent close to $100 on a swing for the office. It’s important to have fun.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
We use a lot of Google’s online services like Gmail and Drive. I like how I can access my emails or documents from any device or location, and that the information isn’t saved on my computer.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Without hesitation, I would recommend any book that Al Ries has written. My experience lines up almost perfectly with the marketing ideas he’s been writing about for 30 years. Start with his book Positioning or The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I don’t follow any blogs or websites in particular. I pick up gems here and there and share them when relevant. Last year I read ReWork by 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Henemeier Hansson aloud to my staff every week. Each chapter is only a page or two and many of the concepts they share parallel my thoughts on business management.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.