GiftCards.com boss: From orphanage to entrepreneur

Jason Wolfe

"To tell the truth, I didn't think I'd be alive," says Jason Wolfe, chief executive of GiftCards.com - the biggest gift cards website in the world - when asked if he ever dreamt he would end up as a successful entrepreneur.

That's because it is hard to imagine the future when you are 10 years old and your mother - disabled, on welfare, and struggling to cope with several children - sends you to live in an orphanage.

Mr Wolfe, now 45, says he spent his early years just wondering if he would make it into adulthood.

Today Mr Wolfe is the head of a successful firm that allows customers to buy pre-paid Visa or Mastercard gift cards that can then be personalised with a photograph.

Start Quote

I can remember lying under a blanket one Christmas Day because there was no heat in the house”

End Quote Jason Wolfe GiftCards.com

And it's a booming business - between 2010 and 2013 Pittsburgh-based GiftCards.com saw its annual revenues rise by 72%, from $64m (£37m) to more than $110m last year.

Mr Wolfe says that while his upbringing might not have allowed him to dream about his future, it definitely helped prepare him for it.

"Going through difficult times as a young kid makes you resilient - so I felt like I could overcome pretty much anything," he says.

Chocolate inspiration

Mr Wolfe says that while he never set out to be an entrepreneur, he was inspired by the man who established his orphanage - the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The founder, Milton Hershey, was also the creator of Hershey, the famous US chocolate and confectionery company which is now worth an estimated $20.8bn.

Jason Wolfe with his mother Jason Wolfe grew up in Connecticut with his mother until he was 10

"Probably subconsciously it was inside me that I wanted to walk in his footsteps," says Mr Wolfe.

He adds that the inspiration to get into the gift-giving business specifically came from memories of his childhood.

"I can remember lying under a blanket one Christmas Day because there was no heat in the house.

"Somebody knocked on the door and we looked outside and there was a box outside of gifts for us."

A fateful accident

In 1994 Mr Wolfe graduated from Bloomsburg University determined to set up a coupons business, initially thinking he would sell them door-to-door to video stores.

However, he was then involved in a serious accident which put him in hospital.

line break
GiftCards.com sample
GiftCards.com facts
  • The average GiftCards.com buyer is a 35-year-old woman
  • Each customer buys on average 2.5 cards per year
  • Average card value is around $100
  • Customers can buy Visa or Mastercard gift cards, or ones for a range of shops
line break

Mr Wolfe says: "It was lemons to lemonade - I was recovering from spinal surgery, getting fusion in my neck, and I was just lying there.

"So I got a book and taught myself how to [computer] code," he says.

Milton Hershey school The Milton Hershey School today has 1,925 students from diverse backgrounds

With his new found programming knowledge, Mr Wolfe decided to ditch his plans to focus on video stores, and instead be more ambitious and develop his coupons idea as a website. And so his first business was born - MyCoupons.com.

This was a a prescient move in 1995, when the internet was just getting off the ground.

Yet Mr Wolfe struggled to get the company up and running, making just $1,000 (£586) that first year. And then his girlfriend dumped him.

"I don't think she thought I was going to make out too well in life," he says.

As Mr Wolfe had been living with his girlfriend he suddenly found himself homeless, living out of his car for two months while renting office space from a friend.

Jason Wolfe on high school basketball team Jason Wolfe (top row, fourth from left) says his upbringing at the Milton Hershey school inspired him

Finally, he made a sale - to the owner of a company selling Italian espresso machines, who wanted to put a coupon on his website.

When the businessman said how much he was willing to pay MyCoupons.com for the coupon - $1,500 - Mr Wolfe said he knew the internet was his future.

From there, things picked up, and sister company GiftCards.com was founded in 1999 under its original name Directcertificates.com.

But only a year later near disaster struck when Mr Wolfe agreed to sell MyCoupons.com - which was by then getting 20 million page views per month - for $20m just as the dot-com bubble burst.

With the purchaser suddenly finding itself in financial difficultly, the payment was delayed, and Mr Wolfe ultimately only received $2m.

"I had to figure out how we were going to survive," says Mr Wolfe, who eventually trimmed his then workforce of 40 people to 14.

Growing market

Mr Wolfe then successfully launched and ran a data tracking company, before taking a back seat from his business interests to help raise his son who was born in 2004.

"I grew up thinking that my father was dead - but he really took off when I was just four," says Mr Wolfe, adding that spending time with his own son was incredibly important.

Jason wolfe in haiti Today, Mr Wolfe also spends part of his time working with impoverished children in Haiti

However, when his son started going to school in 2008, Mr Wolfe decided to refocus his time and efforts on running GiftCards.com.

Last year, gift cards accounted for $118bn in sales globally - 90% of which was offline, at grocery stores and the like.

Mr Wolfe says he thinks sales will shift further to the internet in the next five years, and that GiftCards.com is well placed to take advantage.

And so far, he has refused any outside investment in the business.

"I want to control the outcome of it - I feel like we have something special," he says.

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    07:24: New fund BBC Radio 4

    Nigel Wilson, chief executive of asset manager and insurer Legal & General, says the firm will put £1.5bn for a new infrastructure fund in the UK on Today. "We are very long-term investors - 20, 30, 40, 50, years," he says. Longer-term financing from fund managers like him are the future rather than shorter-term bank lending, he says. Will £1.5bn be enough? He's attracting outside investors and will borrow money to grow the fund to about £25bn.

     
  2.  
    07:15: Royal Mail chairman
    mail

    Donald Brydon will step down as chairman of Royal Mail, the company says. The company is looking for a new one. Mr Brydon will carry on until the firm's annual meeting in the summer.

     
  3.  
    07:10: Shell earnings

    Shell has reported full year earnings (on a current cost of supply basis) of $19bn compared with $16.7bn a year earlier. Fourth quarter earnings were also higher at $4.2bn compared with $2.2bn for the same quarter a year ago.

     
  4.  
    06:58: Eurozone union BBC Radio 4

    Bank of England Governor Mark Carney yesterday said the eurozone needs fiscal union to manage monetary union. James Bevan, an asset manager CCLA, tells Today "a root cause of the problem is absence of growth," low money rates alone won't get growth going.

     
  5.  
    06:48: Shell results
    Car lights are seen streaking past an oil rig extracting petroleum

    Some discussion here on the business livepage as to just how cheap it really is to extract oil in Saudi Arabia. So we thought we'd open it up to the floor. How much do you think it costs Saudi Arabia - per barrel - to extract oil from the ground. Send your answers to bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet @bbcbbusiness. Usual rules apply: no peeking at the internet.

     
  6.  
    06:38: Shell results Radio 5 live

    How does the lower oil price affect alternative ways of exploring for oil such as shale? Michael Hussein of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money shale oil exploration is largely dead in the water. Getting shale oil out of the ground is still far more expensive than getting oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, he says. What pushed up Saudi Arabia's oil extraction costs was the welfare programme the country introduced when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. He adds Saudi Arabia can live with a low oil price for a long time.

     
  7.  
    06:23: Shell results Radio 5 live

    "I think there is a good chance that we could see a reduction in [Shell's] dividend and that could affect pension funds here in the UK," Michael Hussein of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money. He doesn't see that happening just yet, but if the oil price continues to fall, or stays low for a long time, then he thinks it is unavoidable.

     
  8.  
    06:11: Shell results Radio 5 live

    Michael Hussein of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money he expects Shell's revenues will be slightly lower when it publishes results later this morning. He is, naturally, interested in how Shell is coping with the lower oil price. He doesn't think "we've hit bottom yet" in terms of oil prices. "The Saudi's have still got their foot to the floor in terms of market share," he says. "The low hanging fruit in terms of getting oil of out the ground is gone," he adds.

     
  9.  
    06:01: Apple analysis
    apple

    Apple caught up with Samsung as the world's biggest smartphone seller in the fourth quarter of 2014, thanks to booming sales of its new iPhone 6, market researcher Strategy Analytics said. Strategy Analytics said Apple flogged 74.5 million handsets in the fourth quarter, compared to 51 million a year ago. Samsung shifted the same number, which for them was a reduction from 86 million the previous year.

     
  10.  
    06:01: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning. Do get in touch at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet us @bbcbusiness.

     
  11.  
    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning everyone. Overnight, McDonald's has said Don Thompson will retire as chief executive of the fast food firm to be replaced by British-born Steve Easterbrook, the company's current chief brand officer. We have house price data from the Land Registry at 09:30 and Shell's results to look forward to. Stay tuned.

     

Features

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.