Always be pitching: Lessons from Hukkster’s Katie Finnegan & Erica Bell


Ones to watch for 2014: Hukkster

The brain-child of Katie Finnegan and Erica Bell, Hukkster tells shoppers when items they covet go on sale – in store and online. Customers download the bookmarklet or app, add it to their toolbars, and use it to “hukk” things they’re interested in but don’t want to pay full price for.

Whenever the items go on sale or an applicable coupon code becomes available Hukkster sends an alert.

The e-commerce startup has been growing rapidly. Launched in September 2012, it now has 200,000 customers, works with 500 retailers across the web, and has closed two seed financing rounds of $1 million and $2 million.

In May, Hukkster was listed as one of Time’s 50 Best Websites of 2013. In December, Finnegan was recognized as one of the Irish America Business 100, and she and Bell were recently selected to join the New York Times’ She Owns It business group. After expanding their team and moving out of their first office space (Finnegan’s Manhattan apartment), Hukkster recently moved from the Flatiron district to the uber-trendy offices of fashion site Refinery 29.

Here are a few things to take away from their journey so far:

Often, the best ideas are the ones you can relate to

Hukkster was born out of Bell and Finnegan’s shared frustration with finding good deals. They first met at J. Crew, where they both worked in merchandising, and where they enjoyed a significant employee discount. In 2008, Finnegan left to earn her MBA at Duke. Upon returning to New York, she was hired by consulting firm A.T. Kearney, where Bell joined her.

“Having been merchants we knew how many offers were out there, and we knew how much we could afford to pay for items, but we just didn’t have time to sort through all the emails that were flooding our inboxes from retailers, from Groupon, LivingSocial, Gilt Groupe, whatever it was. It was completely inefficient and overwhelming, and ultimately I’d just run to the store and pay full price. We thought there had to be an easier way,” Bell explained.

So they came up with one: Hukkster. They knew it was a good idea, especially since their background in merchandizing meant they would be able to consider things from the perspectives of both retailers and their customers. But before deciding to start a company together they made sure it was one they would be really passionate about. As Finnegan said, “With startups, the highs are so high and the lows are so low that it can’t just be something that sounds like a good idea, it has to be something that you think is very important, something that intrinsically impacts and motivates you.”

Be your own beta version

People with great ideas but little experience in tech often run into a stumbling block when the time comes to test their vision. Finnegan and Bell’s solution? Be your own beta version.

Before bringing in any engineers or web designers, they reached out to 10 women with different lifestyles in their target demographic (25 – 40) and asked each to name ten items they were interested in buying. “We started every morning at 6am,” Finnegan recalled. “I had one day, Bell had the next. There were 100 products in total, but some of them were across retailers, so it ended up being a few hundred things we were tracking.”

“We unlocked some pretty incredible savings for them,” Bell added. “And then the emotional responses we were getting – the emails, the feedback – it was overwhelming.”

“Nearly every idea you can do that way, without the full-blown solution,” said Finnegan. “It’s not pretty, but at least then you can ask – are people excited when they get the emails? Are they likely to act on them? We got that feedback before we spent tons of time, money and energy building a full site.”

Always be pitching

From finding an engineer to bringing investors on board, the Hukkster ladies found that just talking with people paid off in dividends. “We reached out to anyone and everyone who would have a conversation with us – a friend’s sister’s husband’s cousin who might be an engineer,” said Bell. “It was hard and it was definitely frustrating initially, conversation after conversation, but they eventually led us to the right people.”

Such conversations were how they got introduced to the Winklevoss twins, whose VC firm, Winklevoss Captial, became an investor. Jerome Griffith, the CEO of Tumi, also became a backer, as did Chris Fiore, the president of Henri Bendel, who was a mentor of Finnegan’s at her first job. “I was just having dinner with him, catching up,” she recalled. “I had no intention of asking him for an investment, because I felt like that would have been crossing a line, but I was telling him about Hukkster and how excited I was, and he asked how he could get involved. It’s really important to know that you’re always on, you always have your business cards with you, you’re always pitching.”