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.”

Think ahead, but focus on realistic targets

Starting a company isn’t exactly a picnic, especially when the founding team consists of only two people. The long road ahead would be enough to spook even the most determined entrepreneurs, which is why Bell and Finnegan focused on the short-term targets – while keeping their larger vision in mind. “If you look at the six-month timeline in front of you, how could you even move forward?” Bell asked. “You’d completely run in the opposite direction. But if you break it down to just tiny, digestible goals, it’s much easier along the way. “

“We always say had we been very calculated about it, maybe we still would have taken the leap, but the fact that we didn’t really think about all the downstream impacts or the longevity of our decision ended up being helpful,” Finnegan agreed. “All the focus was just on each milestone, and each milestone was just a week, a month, that kind of thing. So we never saw this big, scary black hole of ‘You’re going to be broke, you’re going to be putting in all of your time and energy, you’re going to be newly married and never see your husband.’ Those conversations happened little by little and on our own terms.”

Friendship is no guarantee of professional compatibility, but it’s definitely a plus

A business partnership demands a different level of dependability than what's required than in your average friendship. Luckily, having worked together at J. Crew and A.T. Kearney, Bell and Finnegan knew they could depend on each other.

“It’s so important that you’ve seen each other in that professional, stressful experience,” Finnegan emphasized. We often meet people who say ‘Hey, I have this buddy from business school,’ or ‘I have this friend from college, and I’m going to start a company with him.’ Which may be great, but it’s such a different relationship from the one you have with your drinking buddy or your brunch buddy. You should do something really hard together like train for a marathon. That 5am wakeup call when you really want to sleep in – is that person going to push you to get up? Will you be responsible? That’s really what you need.”

A diversity of strengths helps, too. “We have the same professional work experience and we both had a liberal arts undergrad, but we both work very differently, and we recognize that and play off that.” Bell added, “It’s a little good-cop-bad-cop. Not to say we can’t switch roles, you absolutely have to be able to do that, but you also need to be able to complement each other.”

Next steps – leveraging data; hukking hamster wheels

How does a free tool that saves people money make money? So far, through affiliate and referral fees. But Finnegan and Bell see room to expand that by carefully utilizing the data they collect. “If you’re a guy who loves half-zip sweaters and has hukked a bunch, I can potentially tell you about more, which you haven’t hukked, but which we think you might be interested in, Bell explained. “That’s really valuable to a retailer or to anybody who’s trying to get in front of you, because we know exactly what you want. And it’s not invasive for our customers, because recommendations are tailored for them.”

They also see room to move beyond their current market. “Eighty percent of what we track today is apparel and accessories, but we do also track home goods, electronics and appliances. It’s not our core marketing message yet, but people are starting to figure it out on their own and our goal is to help educate consumers in the coming months and make sure they realize it’s a universal platform. People have started to hukk interesting things, like hamster wheels or toilets, but I guess they just want to get discounts on everything they can.”

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