My name is Matt Frye and I am one of the founders of CardNow - an innovative management tool for reward and incentive gift cards for small businesses and moms to millennials as well. I have been living in and around fintech leadership roles and an entrepreneur for the last 20+ years, focused on payments and card processing technology solutions. From experiences with our previous successful eCommerce gift card businesses which we sold to Blackhawk Network in 2014, the CardNow model was envisioned as an innovation where most providers are not focused - the physical gift card. CardNow brings much-needed innovation and efficiency to the management of physical plastic gift and reward cards, focused on where the personal nature of gifting and incentive activities mean the most.
CardNow was created to provide more efficient management of gift cards for gifting and incentives or rewards by giving a household Mom or Dad or small business owners and operators an inventory of inactive gift cards that can be loaded and handed out as needed. The service is a better way to manage gifting (as well as rewards) for all occasions by bringing the gift card rack from the local grocery store down the street to a home or office drawer instead. We want to reduce the need for that last-minute trip to the nearest strip center instead of just opening a CardNow box behind a receptionist desk. You can read more about how the idea was born in our first blog post here.
At CardNow, we want to help create simple and efficient access to gift cards for rewards, incentives, and gifting. This way, business owner-operators, and all gift-givers from moms to millennials never have to miss the chance to have the impact of a gifting gesture for all the occasions that are planned or unplanned.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
My journey to driving a start-up is the reverse of most of the flashy silicon valley stories. I got the bug in my college days when working in bars and restaurants and helping open new concepts in San Antonio and Austin with some partners. It drove me to Oklahoma City where I opened a new restaurant concept and was working 80+ hours - and loving it. But then I took a turn to fintech with some friends who were in early ISo and ATM businesses, got my MBA, and ended up starting a 22+ year run in and around payments.
It is not just about ‘making pivots’ based on market shifts, it is about creating a culture where there is a willingness to change, try things, learn, and especially to fail.
I have toggled back and forth from startup or early-stage companies and then some bigger enterprises (like JPMorgan Chase and Visa to name a few). Most of the pattern of back and forth is because of some event (businesses sold, businesses acquired, funding, or buyouts puts me on a team at a larger firm). But I am always drawn back to the smaller operations where I get to wear the most hats. I like to build and create, and I have really grown to love the small team dynamic and collaborative approach needed to make new ideas a success. So one way or another, I end up either leading or contributing to a group like that, and the passion to create something never seems to be completely satisfied.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
As a result of building a network of great contacts and collaborations across the payments/fintech industry, over dinner one night I was referred to as “the Kevin Bacon of payments” since I am rarely separated by more than a few connections to that person or expert needed for whatever question is at hand. Along with a humorous moniker, I also have the benefit of great friendships, and I rarely lack opportunities to work with great minds in the industry. These friendships also take me from one opportunity to the next since I am always looking for the next challenge and for ways to bring together a great team...or just be part of a great team.CardNow is the result of connections and past collaborations coming together.
The primary catalyst was my time spent with Blackhawk Network, where I landed in 2015 after Blackhawk acquired another venture I co-founded in the early 2000s. My time at Blackhawk wrapped up in 2018 when Silverlake Partners acquired Blackhawk (sensing a theme?) as they took them private (they bought the business completely, and moved it off the NASDAQ). Silverlake set out to reshape the business and the global operation to create greater value down the road. While I was excited to be a part of that effort, I also saw it as a chance to restart my own path, and after a little more than a year after I left Blackhawk, I reconnected with some former colleagues to create the business we have today in CardNow.
This one was a bit different than some from the past, putting me solely in the driver’s seat as opposed to being in partnership with others. When we got the seed funding, I took the reins myself - not knowing that there was a pandemic on the horizon. The idea for CardNow came while we were at Blackhawk, and a group of us saw a gap in the market where small business owners and operators were left to fend for themselves when they needed gift cards for rewards or incentives, and there were no platforms that were targeting that market directly. Additionally, with so many new entrants focused on small value promotions and digital delivery models, we knew there was a gap in the physical delivery model that we could attack.
It was a sound plan, based on good data, a unique POV on the industry, and the technology needed to get something together. After we filed a patent, we were on our way. A few months in, everything was turned upside down with Covid. The logistics and how we planned to manage the fulfillment was one thing, but Covid was also a direct hit to one of the main value propositions we had surmised in our business plan - providing a tool and service for workplace spot rewards handed out in person. Rallying through the challenges Covid represented seem small in retrospect, especially compared to real issues impacting real lives that continue today. But it was a pillar of our strategy, and we quickly tweaked the plan and “go to market” strategy to create a wider funnel, and to explore more options with channels, affiliates, and even retail distribution. I am ecstatic with how far we came in just a short six months in the market. As a result, we are pressing into the early part of 2021 as the real catalyst for growth for us and creating the long-term value we envisioned early on.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have our proof of concept done and we are actively looking at capital options via strategic investments or partnerships, or through additional sources for a second round. We are currently building content and are focused on B2B channel activation as the primary marketing activity, while the technology is being updated for access by third parties as a service layer in addition to supporting our original vision of direct sales. . These are the exciting efforts that will keep the teams engaged for the next several months, with active partners and new dev teams accessing our tech for their own execution - it is a very exciting time.
Our direction after Q1 will depend on the partnerships that emerge through the capital raise, Where we press on B2B or retail distribution for more B2C usage will be a joint approach with new investors, and this is also a very exciting collaboration to be driving with our team.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Being in a start-up is a double-edged sword, with the highs being really high, and the lows can be magnified as well. High risk? Yes. But the high rewards I think are more than just the eventual exit, it comes in being part of something new. Getting the chance to wear every hat on a small team, have a hand in every aspect of an early-stage concept keeps me engaged. I also work with very talented folks, who also like to stretch themselves and continually learn as much as I do, so the collaboration is constant.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify for eCommerce, and our mobile app for iOS and Android is homegrown, built on the Flutter framework. The back-end is also a mix of services plus custom development to stitch it together - to/from the app and back again. All managed in Azure/Microsoft (we may be the only start-up not on AWS) hosting.
We have outsourced development to teams in Vietnam and a small development shop in Tennessee as well. The teams use Slack, Asana, Jira, Confluence, Teams, and Zoom to manage priorities and effectively communicate, we are never out of touch with one another! Remote work has really become less and less of a barrier. Now we have to get our teams to settle on one communication tool so we can grow efficiently. I remember when Y! Messenger was all we had. Aaaand I am old.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Playing to Win and The Lean Start-Upare go-to guides as far as I am concerned, and recently I read Humor, Seriously as it was recommended by a former colleague of mine, Chad Smith. I really liked that read, as I fully embrace the need to have a good sense of humor in a start-up to balance the frenetic pace and pivots that can be stressful for some.
Otherwise, I listen to sports podcasts more than anything - to try and unplug from drinking in business-speak all the time. Sports and athletics are also a great reminder of the value of work ethic and how hard it is to stay on top.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My answer to a question like that has changed over the last year as the world continues to change. I guess my answer may have always been at least related to this concept, but now more than ever I think that there needs to be flexible throughout an organization when it comes to the roles and structure of the organization, the ways problems are approached and solutions are created, and of course in how you meet the needs of clients and grow a business. I want to be clear it is not just about ‘making pivots’ based on market shifts, it is about creating a culture where there is a willingness to change, try things, learn, and especially to fail.
Back to what I said earlier, connecting with the team and building the ability to actually have productive discussions across a company and with your clients is more important now than ever, and if you can act on what you hear to test or implement a shift, you are better suited to building a culture of passionate contributors. I have found that it is often the bite-sized moves and subtle shifts that produce the best results. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – even in the face of a pandemic, business models still generally hold. You can find the paths and the tweaks within the broader teams if you have the culture that allows for it. You rarely have to turn the tanker around, but a nudge in another direction for a few degrees can be all it takes.
Where can we go to learn more?
The CardNow website is where you can order your own CardNow Starter Box and learn more about the service. And we have several Social Media pages including Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and a YouTube Channelwith videos about how to use the service and more.
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