Starting an Online Gift Business

Interview with Rob Carpenter, CEO of Friendgiftr

If you've ever puzzled over what gift to get for a friend, you'll love Friendgiftr. It allows you to purchase gift cards from the web, social media sites and mobile phones. CEO Rob Carpenter shares his thoughts about how to get your own gift business up and running.

Interview with Rob Carpenter, CEO of Friendgiftr.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Friendgiftr is the premier digital storefront company currently offering over 140 of America's favorite retail and restaurant gift cards through our website, social media sites like Facebook and MySpace, mobile phones like the iPhone and Blackberry, and other innovative shopping platforms. We are the first social media and mobile-based e-commerce 2.0 company in the world, and are commercializing social networking sites and smart phones for the first time. We'll be moving into other unique, groundbreaking platforms soon, too.

When did you start the business?

I founded this business in October of 2008.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

I have a pretty eclectic background, having had experiences in the public, private, and civic sectors. I worked in the White House Office of Political Affairs, as an aide to a former U.S. House Speaker, as special assistant to the CEO of Teach For America, and as a business columnist for the Los Angeles Business Journal. I also co-founded a transportation nonprofit which helped build a coalition of over 75 organizations and pass a groundbreaking ballot initiative, Measure R, which is expected to generate $40 billion for new transportation projects like the Subway to the Sea in Los Angeles. That said, these cross-sector and cross-industry experiences allow me to apply unique insights into my first startup company, Friendgiftr, that many peers in my industry may not have.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

Yes, absolutely. It has been very useful both in terms of thinking out strategic and tactical issues as well as navigating unknown landscape. Some entrepreneurs might disagree, but I believe not having a business plan is like going on a road trip in a foreign country without a map or GPS system--it just doesn't make much sense. On the flip side, I have had to make many adjustments and improvisations to the plan as well, so being flexible and very open-minded allows me to stay ahead of the competition while continuing to know where I'm going.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? Has that worked for your business?

There have been a number of areas we have outsourced at Friendgiftr. Some of these are by choice and others are by necessity. In the early days when money was tight and expertise was required, outsourcing made practical strategic and economic sense. Over time, though, some of these areas that were initially outsourced have been brought in-house for a more customized, tailored approach. I feel this approach is the quickest and most cost effective way to scale a business like ours. We've gotten project-based, speciality knowledge that has helped structure and stabilize our company very quickly.

Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?

Definitely. Friendgiftr is the first social-media based e-commerce 2.0 company in the world, so social marketing has generated a lot of traction for us by taking this novel approach. It allows us to reach consumers in a much more authentic and egalitarian way than our competitors. More importantly, though, it allows us to respond to their needs and improve our service in real time.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Hiring the right people and getting out of their way. For any business--and this applies doubly for a startup company--you have to recruit the best talent you can because they will be just as responsible or more responsible for the success or failure of your business than the founder is.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

I didn't expect it to be so much fun. I knew I'd learn a lot and that there would be emotional and economic rollercoasters, but the sheer moments of unadulterated fun that come from taking a far-out idea and seeing it grow is profoundly mind-blowing.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Entrepreneurs always have to believe--they have to believe in themselves, believe in their company, and believe in the notion that they have the ability to create a better future. As simple as it sounds, this belief is enough to break barriers, move mountains, and redefine reality.

That's an inspiring thought and a great note to end on. Thanks for speaking with me, Rob.

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