(The following is my look back at my time at RedFlagDeals.com and was posted as my goodbye to the RFD community. Fittingly, it is likely the last post I will make on this blog. I do regret not keeping it more up to date, but hopefully this post makes amends.)
Often there are myths around the creation and success of websites and businesses, but Derek was never one for myths and the story we had to tell was pretty good on it’s own. I have unique perspective on the story since I’ve been friends with Derek since we were five years old in Kindergarten. We grew up in Oakville; one of the richest cities in Canada, but we were anything but. Our high school was better known for drug busts and there weren’t any beemers in the parking lot.
The first website Derek and I worked on wasn’t RedFlagDeals.com. When we were 15, we started a gaming website: Game-Interviews.com. We had some mild success. We interviewed famous game developers like John Romero and Dave Perry. Later we flew to Los Angeles –with Derek’s dad in tow– and after talking our way past a few skeptical security guards, snuck into E3, the largest video game trade show in the world. The site never had that many visitors and didn’t make any money, but we did learn something important: on the Internet no one knows that you’re 15 and if you act professionally and get things done, no one cares.
It’s cliche to say, but Derek is a born entrepreneur and shortly after we folded Game-Interviews.com he was looking for a new opportunity. Not all of his ideas were good ones, for example, he wanted to start a pay phone business at one point. Then during our last year in high school he recognized an opportunity to start a business around one of his other passions. For the entire 23 years I’ve known Derek, there has been one character trait that has stayed constant, never wavered or changed: Derek is a cheap bastard. It was only natural then that he start a website around saving money. It wasn’t an original idea; deal websites existed in the USA and Derek visited them often, but there wasn’t much of anything going on in Canada. So on November 25th, 2000 Derek sent me a message via ICQ that said simply “Check this out” and had a link to RedFlagDeals.com. When I clicked on the link I was taken to a terrible looking site, but the content was great. It was an idea that made immediate sense to anyone he explained it to and by the time he graduated high school, there were even a few teachers who were actually half seriously about investing in it.
The site started out with Derek posting just a few deals a day. It was for all intents and purposes a blog, but nobody used that word then. Shortly after the site launched, Derek added a forum, but it was a ghost town. It was so under used that eventually it was just closed. When the site had been running for six months, he decided to try adding forums again. This time it took root. There weren’t that many users, but they were just as passionate about saving money as he was.
It wasn’t coordinated, but Derek and I both ended up going to Queen’s University in Kingston. He was studying Commerce and I was working on an English Literature degree. We didn’t see all that much of each other during the first year, but we kept in touch via ICQ; I moderated the forums and offered suggestions where I could.
The summer between our first and second year of university, it became clear to Derek that the site was growing to the point where it was difficult to expand on his own. So he brought myself and another high school friend, Marc, on to post deals. Those were exciting days. Traffic was growing every week and even though I was making less than minimum wage, I became more and more involved in the running of the site. I worked nights at the Queen’s Alumni office soliciting for donations, spent the days in class, and what time there was in between, working on RFD. Derek and I would meet at least once a week at Stooley’s Cafe to eat burgers (I recommend the western burger) and discuss plans for RFD.
We did everything we could to get the word out about the site. We told friends, family, and stuck stickers up around campus. We went so far as to set up an official scholarship at Queen’s: The RedFlagDeals.com Scholarship. It was the first “.com” scholarship at the school and as far as we could tell, it was the first scholarship set up by a current student of the school.
By the time our last year of university rolled around, I had quit my night job to work “full time” on RFD and Derek had decided that being an accountant wasn’t for him. We had caught a break too. The Toronto daily free newspaper, 24 Hours, had decided to run a daily deal from RFD everyday as content in their paper. Everyday for one year we were in the paper for free. Thousands of new people found out about the site. It dawned on us that this little blog Derek had started in high school had grown into a site with more than 40,000 visitors everyday and we might actually be able to work on the site instead of getting “real jobs.” When we graduated, we decided that we would move to Toronto, set up an office, and pay ourselves just enough to get by (we were used to saving money after all).
After a few weeks of searching, we found the perfect office. It was right near Yonge and Bloor! The previous tenant had even left a fake plant that we could keep! Score! It was also about 350sqft, dingy, the AC barely worked and it was regularly filled with the cigarette smoke from the octogenarian that worked in the office under us. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Part of our grand plan that summer was to launch a new site, PriceCanada.com. We had hired a part time programmer in Montreal to help build it and our first full time employee was supposed to do data entry for the new site. It was a mad dash to get the site ready for its September 1st launch. Conveniently, Derek had decided to get married and take his honeymoon just then. ;) Unfortunately, the technology wasn’t ready for September 1st and I had to make the decision to push the launch back. Finally, in October, the site launched. While never huge, PriceCanada.com would over time find it’s niche as a useful tool for comparing computer and electronics prices.
That Fall we would add two more employees, mostly to work on the new site, but the office was getting no bigger and no less smokey. We knew that we needed to bring on a real salesperson, but we were terrified that anyone who was qualified would see our office and turn away in horror or worse, laugh in our face. Before we did the interviews, we searched for a new office and decided on a still-under-construction space in Liberty Village. When we interviewed potential salespeople, we dropped our normal uniform of ratty jeans and t-shirts for dress pants and dress shirts and presented the candidates with a portfolio containing pictures of our soon to be new office. The candidates could be forgiven if they thought we were trying to sell them a condo rather than interview them for a job.
In April 2006, we moved to the new office. During World War 2 it had been an ammunition factory/warehouse and we had negotiated a great deal on the space because much of the building was still being converted into proper office space. In fact when we left, three years later, it was still in the process of being renovated. The best feature about the new office was that the building’s hallways were at least 200 meters long and if we were working late at night, we could race office chairs down them. Construction noise replaced cigarette smoke as the most common complaint, but at nearly four times the size of our first office, it was definitely a step up. Gradually we filled the office with new people and IKEA furniture. We brought that fake plant from the first office and even added a pinball machine. Things were manically busy all the time, but when we occasionally had time to lift our heads out of the water, it was evident that we had created something real.
RFD went from being a modestly busy Canadian site to one of the largest sites in Canada. I remember sitting in the Skydome watching the Jays one afternoon and realizing that more people came to RFD everyday than could fit in that entire stadium. It was around that time that we decided to hold a BBQ for our readers. We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up and no company seemed interested in sponsoring, but we decided to do it anyway. We didn’t have an event planner, so I organized the event with Jessica, one of our recently hired employees. We rented Varsity Stadium on the University of Toronto campus for a shockingly little amount of money, booked a caterer, planned some games, found a band and hired a company specialized in carnival games to setup a bouncy castle, joust and more. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until the day of, when the carnival games company didn’t show up. We were left scrambling to keep everybody entertained. It’s funny, because I don’t think anybody noticed. The food was great, there was lots to do, and there were people of all ages, ethnicities, and genders. In all about 350 people showed up and because everybody there loved RFD, it really felt like everyone already knew each other.
In the Fall of 2007, we had the kind of luck that is often behind great successes when we took a chance and hired a fresh high school graduate with no real formal experience as a developer, Kaitlyn. A few years later she would be in charge of our development staff.
By 2007, Boxing Day had become an event that required 6 months of planning every year. It was our busiest time of the year both in terms of traffic and man hours. Preparing the backend to handle the surge of traffic involved renting more than a half dozen additional servers just for December. Negotiating exclusive access to Boxing Day flyers took months. The final three weeks of December meant long, long hours when most other places were winding down for the holidays. During the week before Boxing Day (aka Christmas), most of the staff would be in the office until 10PM or later. Every year it was a mammoth effort to put together the best Boxing Day section in Canada. It was and still is our signature event.
2008 seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. That summer we held another BBQ. We hired an event planner this time, but they were next to useless and I ended up doing most of the work on my own. We had hoped to have it at Varsity Stadium again, but perhaps word got out about what a deal we had the previous year, because the stadium was fully booked. Had we unleashed the famous “RFD Effect” on ourselves? Instead we rented an event space, Polson Pier, with miniputt, a climbing wall, and other activities. It had been a summer where every weekend it had rained, but it was blazingly hot that day. I did so much running around that I lost over 5lbs that afternoon and slept for nearly 24 hours when it was over. This time over 500 people came out.
As the year was coming to a close, it was again clear that we needed to find a new office. Our lease was expiring in the Spring, our landlord was no longer willing to give us a sweetheart deal, and we were simply out of space. In the three years we had been in Liberty Village, we had gone from four employees to twelve. We now had people working full time on design, sales, deal posting, programming, and data entry. The main aspect of the Liberty Village office that we wanted to maintain wherever we moved was the openness of the design. So we looked at office space. And then we looked some more. And then we looked some more. In all, Derek, myself, and our dutiful real estate agent looked at over 100 different spaces. When we finally decided on one it was more for what it could be, than what it was. It was a roughed in space right in the heart of downtown that the landlord was willing to customize to our design. Plus it had a very nice rooftop patio. When we moved in in April 2009, the space wasn’t quite finished, but even then it was clear that it was far and away nicer than our previous office.
Even as we added staff, Derek and I never seemed to get less busy. My title was now Vice-President of Community and Operations and my tasks were as varied and nebulous as the name suggests. I did everything from project management, human resources and forum moderation and support to watering the plants and the actual physical setup of servers.
In the fall, we were approached by Yellow Pages Group (YPG), one of the largest companies in Canada. In itself this wasn’t unusual; large companies approached us all the time. We had over 200,000 visitors every day and over 30 million page views a month. There were very few websites with a larger Canadian audience, so companies often wanted to work with us and occasionally there would be an offer to invest in or buy the company. 90% of conversations like that don’t go anywhere, but YPG quickly made it obvious that they were doing more than kicking the tires. Once negotiations to purchase the company began, they proceeded at a feverish pace. The timing also meant that we were right in the middle of Boxing Day preparations. Needless to say, all of my friends and relatives got gift cards instead of presents for Christmas that year.
Ultimately, Derek looked and saw a future for RedFlagDeals.com with as much or more potential for the next ten years with Yellow Pages Group as there once had been for that little blog he had created nearly a decade before. Derek would still be in charge of the site and we would have the resources to expand into new areas that simply weren’t possible before. So in February 2010, RedFlagDeals.com became a part of Yellow Pages Group and we took another leap towards the future.
This is where my own story ends. Over the years some of Derek’s entrepreneurial zeal must have rubbed off on me because I found myself wanting to go back to zero and do it all over again. I stayed for a few months after the acquisition to help with the transition and left my position at the end of spring. But I couldn’t just walk away. My role as we grew the site changed constantly over the years, but I was always heavily involved in running the community, so I stayed on as a forum admin on a volunteer basis throughout the summer. As I’ve begun to work on new projects, I’ve had less and less time to spare, and so after a decade, it made sense to formally end this chapter of my life.
Leaving RFD was an extremely difficult decision and when I had to tell the staff I got so choked up that I barely got through it. As I write this, I find myself similarly overcome, I want to end this with an expression of my true and undying gratitude for the past and present staff, the Toronto startup scene, Sequentia and Infinity, my family and friends, and of course, Derek. Most of all I want to thank the millions of people who came to the site and contributed. It was your passion that made skipping Christmas never seem like that great a sacrifice. I hope I’ve been able to express what an amazing journey it’s been in this overly long note.
It’s been an experience that I will carry with me my whole life.
THANK YOU ALL!
My email: ryan dot mckegney at gee mail