Since October 2008, Rob Carpenter’s Los Angeles-based enterprise Friendgiftr has developed quickly. Carpenter, Friendgiftr’s CEO who refers to himself as a social entrepreneur, brought e-commerce to social media and mobile phones via his company’s website, friendgiftr.com, and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, iGoogle, Bebo, and Ning, where you can purchase virtual and physical retail and restaurant gift cards from approximately 145 quality name brand businesses such as Macy’s and Starbucks. He plans to expand into iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm, Nokia and other mobile platforms soon. Rob is unsure if Twitter has the potential to make money, but it is certainly a possible new market for selling his products.
Friendgiftr is the first and only company to offer gift cards this way. Carpenter never needs to worry about inventory or shipping large packages. Additionally, gift card recipients can even exchange their gift cards without the buyer knowing, or can split the gift card across multiple merchants. Friendgiftr is here to stay.
Getting the idea for Friendgiftr was a mix of innovation and logic.
Carpenter, a writer, who previously ran a nonprofit organization to address the future of Los Angeles and tackle its traffic problems, was ready for something more innovative and fast-paced. The Facebook explosion included both individuals and organizations and businesses; and the idea of gift cards appeared potentially lucrative. The marketing of gift cards via Facebook and other social networks seemed like a partnership that would succeed. And, indeed, it has.
When asked if he was scared before embarking on this new venture, twenty-four year old Carpenter is quick to point out that many very successful start-ups have been established by young entrepreneurs. (Ever heard of Bill Gates?) Rob admits that he had no real expectations; he just jumped in and persevered, moving forward quickly. And because what he was doing was new and different, nothing about the inception of Friendgiftr really surprised him. Friendgiftr was funded by Tech Coast Angels, America’s largest Angel investor network. Carpenter now has approximately twenty-one independent contractors working for him and several employees.
Marketing and developing a customer base involves both big and small concepts.
Persuading merchants sell their gift cards via Friendgiftr and other sites was Rob’s biggest initial challenge. But it certainly didn’t long for merchants to see its value, and start approaching Carpenter about selling their gift cards. Once merchants understood the concept of the value of social media for commercial endeavors Friedgiftr’s growth exploded.
Finding a customer base is difficult for any start-up or even an established enterprise. For Carpenter, family and friends were his initial customers; social media sites members came next. With the phenomenal growth of Friendgiftr, despite an economic recession lurking in the background, one would think that Carpenter had a secret formula for his meteoric success, but when asked what has been his most effective marketing technique or tactic, he chuckled. Changing his pitch from “Buy” to “Try” caused sales to skyrocket. Additionally, Rob feels that the recession may have worked to his advantage because merchants needed more avenues for selling the gift cards. And with unemployment rates being so high, it was rather simple to find and hire competent, affordable employees.
Advice for young entrepreneurs can often be profound.
Rob Carpenter’s advice for other young entrepreneurs sounds surprisingly profound, like something your wise old grandfather may have said to you. “Dream big, work hard, be true to yourself, enjoy life, and have confidence in yourself because if you aren’t confident, others may not be confident in you either.”
Rob warns, “If you’re not innovating, you’re dying; the world is changing very fast.” He adds that there is no longer any true job security. He encourages young entrepreneurs to develop skill sets that are transferable between government work, non-profits, public and privately owned businesses. He strongly advises to aim for developing multiple streams of income.
Success breeds success.
It’s no accident that Rob Carpenter has earned numerous awards. He’s the recipient of the Henry Kravis Award in Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship and of the Technology Trends competition. He was appointed by the Los Angeles Mayor to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Transportation where he is one of seven members who oversee all transportation in the city of Los Angeles. Rob is its youngest Commissioner.
He’s also Chairman of the Inner-City Arts Young Professionals Board of Directors, a nonprofit which educates 8,000 LAUSC students annually thought the visual arts. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Story Project, a nonprofit which teaches inner city students literacy and empowerment though the performance arts by connecting them to Hollywood executives and celebrities like the writers of Superman or Men in Black. Carpenter has worked in the White House Office of Political Affairs where he was responsible for writing political, economic, and multi-state legislative briefs along with working for a former U.S. House Speaker on issues including educating, the environment and science and technology.
Being an entrepreneur is challenging, in any kind of economy. Being young and not having had many of life’s experience also has drawbacks. But, Rob Carpenter seems to take it all in stride as he continues to develop new markets for the gift and industry though Friendgiftr.