"Free Shipping Day" creators Luke & Maisie Knowles

"Why are they charging me $15 to ship my order? That's crazy! I wonder if there's a way that I can get free shipping for this order?"

If you've shopped online, you've likely experienced the pain of unreasonable shipping costs. In fact, it was this pain that led Luke and Maisie Knowles--ardent online shoppers in their own right--to create freeshipping.org, a shipping-saving resource for online shoppers.

The Knowles started the business in December of 2007 and were stunned when it experienced continuous month-over-month growth in site traffic. While they thought it would be a great resource for the cost-conscious online shopper, they had no idea that after a year the site would be attracting 300,000 visitors per month with more than 500,000 during the holiday shopping season.

As Luke shared with me, the creation of this business was not accidental, but neither was it the result of a multi-year investigation or a hundred page business plan. The business came from a pain or as Luke stated, "We were just trying to solve a problem." It was a pain that they had experienced and that they figured might be somewhat universally experienced by other online shoppers.

Prior to the launch of freeshipping.org, the Knowles had a web design and development company (kinoli.com) that they built together. This experience of working alongside one another is clearly not for all couples. According to Luke, "95% of couples couldn't do this. It works for us as my wife and I are very compatible. She's a great communicator and organizer, and I'm not. Our natural giftings complement each other well."

While the concept of "entrepreneurial spouses" is not uncommon, the Knowles offer this advice to couples interested in starting a business together: "there's real value in taking time away from the business--together or alone--so that you don't tire of it or each other."

When asked what he'd share with my entrepreneurially-minded students, Luke offered the following advice from his experience in launching freeshipping.org:

  • Hard work pays off. "We had no real capital. All we had were our skills, our computers, and the sweat on our backs to do this new venture."
  • Do what you know. "We were already in this line of business [i.e., web development and design]. We're just doing maybe 10 degrees different than what we were already doing."
  • You don't need the Perfect Storm, but it helps. "High gas prices made it so the media liked our story. We're the online shopping answer to high gas prices."
  • Novel ideas help...so does a little luck. "We saw some stats that said that online shopping peaked at December 10. We thought that was because people didn't want to risk not receiving their orders in time for Christmas. We thought that was much too early and wondered if we could create a Free Shipping Day site that would provide not only free shipping but also a guarantee that it would arrive in time for Christmas. It was the result of a simple brainstorm and we had no idea that it would result in 250,000 site visitors on that day."
  • Have confidence in your ideas. "Even if someone else thinks your idea won't work, go with it anyway. It was in November 2007, at our dinner table, that I shared the freeshopping.org concept with my wife who was many months pregnant at the time. I said, 'I've got this idea, should we do it?' She said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' We didn't know what to expect, but we figured we gotta try it." [aside: they launched less than a month later]
  • Be well rounded. "As an entrepreneur, it's important to have a big bubble of skillsets. If you have many skillsets, you won't need to hire multiple people. You can just do it yourself. If someone tried to start this same business and didn't have diverse skillsets, they'd end up hiring five people to do what we can do with just the two of us."
I've had a number of students in the past tell me that they could never be entrepreneurs because they don't have enough money to start a business. Luke related that his dad used to tell him, "it takes money to make money." Luke attests that while he didn't "grow up with lots of money", he now views it like this: "it takes money to have lots of chances to make money." The important action is taking chances and trying.

Since launching freeshopping.org and freeshoppingday.com, the Knowles have ventured into two new lines of business with couponsherpa.com and an iPhone app of the same name. They appear to be on the right track with these extended concepts.

Interestingly, Luke's parting comment was that they determined they'd be "the very best at something, even if it was to the smallest market." Instead of taking on the huge online coupon code market space, the Knowles identified what appeared to be a very small niche--free shipping--and promptly dominated it. "We're the purple cow* of the online shopping market space." So far, it's working out very well for them.

*for more info on Purple Cows, check out Seth Godin's writing on the topic.

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