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Say, Have We Got a Deal for You!
Some might shy away before opening a new business venture at a time when it would be charitable to describe the U.S. economy as "stagnant." Others, however, might embrace opportunity where it happens.
Matthew Balin belongs to the latter group; last year around this time, he launched the consumer deal website MyChinoki.com.
It's hard to miss the enthusiasm that Balin - a 36-year-old resident of Old City who grew up in Richboro, Bucks County, and attended Council Rock High School and Temple University - brings to his company: "For years, I had my own mortgage, real estate and title insurance company," he says of True Alliance.
"I just got so tired of it when the economy went into a recession. Real estate was tanking, and I just really was frustrated with the whole business cycle. I decided to get out of that."
That's where MyChinoki. com came in - offering its users discounts on meals and at retail sites. Active with Tempfe EmanuEl in Cherry Hill, N.J., as well as the Collaborative, a Philadelphia social organization for young adults, Balin explains that his website is "not really coupons."
"We got away from the word coupon," he says, with the focus on text messages. The word chinoki, he continues, means "cherry-picker" in Japanese.
That definition is indeed what a user first notices on the site's colorful, easy-to-use home page, where it explains that it's "the one place where you can pick stores, restaurants and organizations you want to hear from via SMS text messaging for promotions, events and updates."
The simplicity of Balin's concept is conveyed by its easy directions. The instructions explain: " Sign up & hand pick your favorite restaurants, bars, retailers and local businesses," and "When a special deal comes out, you'll get it straight to your mobile device."
The home page, which sports some 30,000 users, keeps it local, offering leading retailers and restaurants from the tristate area.
Balin, who considers his company a "market segmentation on steroids," describes MyChinoki's built-in advantage in terms of brand loyalty, "a very important feature when I'm speaking with these businesses; they don't have to do the marketing; they don't have to find the consumer. MyChinoki does that."
Despite all the sympathy he holds for the many businesses that are struggling, he says that the economic climate of the last few years has been somewhat beneficial for MyChinoki.
"When I originally created the idea back in spring of 2008, the economy was bad, unemployment was high. I have friends who own businesses. Fewer and fewer consumers were shopping, and marketing and advertising were very expensive for businesses to do, whether it was direct mail, newspapers, print."
His website offered them cheaper alternatives to reach targeted consumers, he claims.
But is there too much of a privacy issue involved, too much personal information that has to be provided for use, which could scare off consumers? Balin is adamant about that being a nonissue: "We actually just ask them the year they were born; we don't ask for the day or month. So we try not to get too invasive or too 'big brother' "
Company spokesman Daniel Schwartz states that conflicts are avoided when a consumer's request is inappropriate. Underage customers, for example, will be weeded out when it comes to deals for bars.
The growth of text messaging in the last few years has been a decisive factor in Balin's strategy for MyChinoki, which charges businesses a flat fee of $79 for use and a text messaging fee of 6 cents per unit.
Balin states: "On average, I see the service being used three to five times a month, more frequent from businesses, bars, restaurants."
How does it contrast with Groupon, a national company that recently opened a Philadelphia connection - and whose founder recently turned down a $5 billion offer to sell?
Says Schwartz: "The phrase we like to use here is 'deal democracy,' " unlike the others, he claims, which use "an elective buying model," where there is a discount offered at the website company's choice of businesses.
Balin says that he's now ready to take his company to the next stage: "So far, it's been self-financed, but we are aggressively now entering the angel and funding venture-capital world.