Value Added: This mompreneur runs a daily deals site for families

Thomas Heath
Reporter May 6, 2012

There’s been a lot of talk this Mother’s Day season about the difference between stay-at-home moms vs. working women.

Jamie Ratner, 34, is a stay-at-home mother of two (ages 5 and 3) who runs a daily deals Web site called Certifikid out of her Bethesda home. The business is projected to sell around $2 million in deals this year, focused on family stuff.

You want to put a chicken coop in your backyard? (Not this writer. We have foxes in the neighborhood.) How about Disney on Ice (a big seller)?

Compared with LivingSocial’s estimated $750 million in revenue, Ratner owns a tiny niche. But it’s lucrative. Crunch the numbers, and the cash to her bottom line will net her about $350,000 personally this year.

Not exactly Carlyle-like, but it puts her within striking distance of the “1 percent” club.

Her office is her home, or her minivan, or the street outside the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington where she recently was pestering a pedicab operator for his card so she could do a deal with him.

Her job starts when she gets up at 6 a.m. and heads to the bathroom with BlackBerry in hand — and lets out a screech if she sees a competitor has stolen one of her deals.

“I see every single purchase and how much I’m making every day,” said Ratner, who owns the entire business, although her father will get a piece in return for handling the accounting.

Certifikid works like this: Ratner calls businesses and offers a custom-designed deal to help them increase their family-friendly traffic. To boost weekday business at a water park, for example, Certifikid might offer a family pack at half price. Of the $10 half-price that a family pays, Ratner might take half and the waterpark the other half. Ratner said she is more flexible than other competitors when it comes to the restrictions and fees on the deals, which has helped her survive.

Since opening her business two years ago, she has worked with about 1,000 businesses in the Washington-Baltimore area. She employs 15 part-timers, including her husband, a full-time antitrust attorney who reviews Certifikid’s deals each evening, even when he is in China.

Ratner, who grew up in Rockville, studied criminal justice at Penn State and earned a master’s in security management at Northeastern University.

She ran security at a defense think tank in Alexandria before answering an ad for a similar position at Williams & Connolly, a downtown law firm (which represents The Washington Post Co.) in downtown Washington.

The job involved ensuring day-to-day security for the firm’s 12-story building and making contingency plans for natural disasters and other emergencies.

“I am always prepared for the worst,” she said.

In late 2009, she was noodling around on her blog, called Little Miss Fun Finds, which meshed with her hobby of finding cheap stuff on things to do and buy, from restaurants to magazines.

She discovered Groupon and LivingSocial, the giant daily deals sites, and immediately bought a $50 dinner at a local Asian restaurant for $25.

“The whole thing seemed too good to me,” she said.

The aha moment hit in December 2009, when she and her husband were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way to a Christmas holiday in Pittsburgh. She threw out the idea of a daily deals site built around family. It was the first time her husband liked one of her ideas. She knew she had to move fast to grab the family niche because no one had yet discovered it, she said.

Limited by a self-imposed $5,000 budget, she went to work. She found every deal site she could on the Web to learn the business. She jumped on the Internet to get a domain name for Certifkid. Ratner went to Craigslist for a Web designer. She found a 20-something candidate in Washington with an attractive portfolio.

She made a target list of 1,000 kid-related businesses that, as a mom, she would patronize. Then she started calling those businesses on the telephone, explaining Certifikid and the daily deals model.

“No one had ever heard of Groupon,” Ratner said.

She began compiling an e-mail list of parents who would be potential customers, even standing in front of the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda to stuff flyers into the hands of every parent she could find. She went on Facebook to push her friends toward Certifikid and find other moms to sign up for her e-mail list.

Not everything went smoothly. Her Web designer disappeared for days, only to turn up on a Twitter account showing a photo of him in South Beach near Miami on spring break. Panicked, she finally located the designer’s business partner — “a nerdy kid” who lived with his parents — and dealt with him instead. She was told not to call after 11 p.m.

Certifikid launched on May 24, 2010.

She made money right away, selling around seven deals for a local magician called the Great Zucchini at $175 a shot. She took 30 percent of each deal, netting her about $300.

Two months after Certifikid’s launch, she left her job at Williams & Connolly.

On average, Ratner takes about 35 percent of each deal. Her first year, she grossed around $150,000. Last year, she hit $1 million. She is on track to sell $2 million worth of deals this year.

Not every deal runs smoothly.

After becoming concerned that a vendor who offered an Easter deal on Certifikid could not deliver as promised, Ratner did some background checking. She called other deal sites that had done business with the vendor and even contacted the owner’s family members across the country. Ratner became convinced that the owner would struggle to fulfill orders in time for Easter.

So she warned her customers that they should purchase a backup gift and offered a refund — and an apology. Good thing. Many of the takers did not receive their product or got damaged goods. Ratner took at $2,500 loss on the deal, but the lesson she learned was worth much more.

“If they have a post office box or their first question is, ‘When can I have my money?,’ those vendors are out,” she said. “I am very, very cautious about every vendor I use.”

Spoken like an experienced mother.

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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