By Brad Fullmer
Salt Lake City-based The Steal Network, a collection of websites that provide high-quality, boutique-type items centered around mothers, women and children, has enjoyed phenomenal growth since it was founded in April 2008, with gross revenues skyrocketing from $600,000 that first year to more than $10 million in 2010.
“We’re on a pretty good growth curve,” said Rett Clevenger, CEO of The Steal Network and co-founder of the company along with president Jana Francis. “But we don’t get too crazy about that. A lot of people start a business with the intent on getting big but that’s not our focus. Our goal is to provide meaningful employment while focusing on our core business, which is selling high-quality items, providing good exposure to our vendors and entertaining moms. It’s as much about entertainment as it is getting good products.”
The Steal Network, headquartered in a 15,000 square foot leased facility on 2181 California Ave. in Salt Lake City, currently consists of four websites launched over the past three-plus years — BabySteals.com (April 2008), ScrapbookSteals.com (June 2009), KidSteals.com (October 2009) and KidCrawl.com (October 2010). Local customers can also purchase items at a small retail store within the building or can simply pick up what they buy online rather than pay shipping charges.
The Steal websites are unique in the online shopping world in that they only offer one product per day for a 12-hour period until the item sells out. New products are offered every day at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., with items anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent off retail prices. Items are typically high-end products that may be difficult for some consumers to find, especially those in rural, sparsely populated areas of the United States and Canada. Kidcrawl.com is more of a complementary site that alerts customers to other good deals across the Internet.
“A majority of our vendors do find that 12 hours on BabySteals.com is some of the best marketing they could ever have, not just with the consumer and creating demand for the product, but with wholesalers and retailers all over North America,” said Francis. “A brand can be highlighted in front of 250,000 moms in North America, and it doesn’t cost [the vendor] one out-of-pocket dime. If I didn’t have the experience I had with Internet advertising, I don’t know that I would have discovered the true meaning of that opportunity.”
“It’s the equivalent of a $15,000 ad in a national magazine,” Clevenger added.
“Our products are rarely discounted and they’re not as accessible,” said Francis, the “face” of the company who excels at generating customer and community interest in the company via social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. “You will never find one of our products at Walmart or Target.”
Offering only one product a day in limited quantities fosters a “buy it now before it’s gone” mentality. The three Steal Network pages on Facebook have more than 225,000 combined “fans,” with BabySteals.com leading the way at nearly 150,000. The Facebook pages encourage Steal Network customers to frankly share their opinions and experiences – good or bad – about various products they purchase.
“Social media had nothing to do with any of my past careers, it was just a personal obsession of mine,” said Francis, who has been on Facebook since it formally launched to the general public in February 2004. “Any new form of communication, I’m always one of the first to at least try it out and understand the pros and cons of it.”
“The truth about products needs to be told, and having it an open forum takes a lot of guts because we don’t like every [comment] we see,” said Clevenger. “We want products to stand for themselves.”
“Facebook gives us a way to get to know our customers more personally, but I wouldn’t say it’s critical to our success,” Francis added. “It’s a great daily reminder for people who like us, and it’s given moms a platform to comment on a product. Moms who are more risk-adverse to purchasing online tend to conglomerate there to retrieve opinions about what other moms think. If the conversation happens off our turf it’s more authentic and allows [customers] to say what they truly feel. If we had that same conversation on BabySteals.com every day, it would add a bit of skepticism to the user.”
The collective success of The Steal Network is even more remarkable given the current recession, but the owners fully believe that offering quality products at sharply discounted prices will always generate interest from consumers, regardless of economic conditions. Francis and Clevenger said gross revenues this year will easily eclipse 2010’s $10 million, but they don’t look strictly at numbers as the barometer of their success.
“We try not to focus on some arbitrary number,” said Clevenger. “If you do the right thing over and over, the numbers will come whether its traffic or revenues or profit.”
Francis’ inspiration for starting BabySteals.com came shortly after giving birth to her third child in May 2006. As her two-month maternity leave was nearing an end, she started lamenting having to return to her full-time job as director of interactive media sales for KSL.com and not being able to spend more time caring for her infant daughter.
“I knew when I was backing out of my driveway that day that I had to change my life and be my own boss,” Francis said. Being a self-described “obsessive” online deal shopper — friends jokingly called her the “dot-com princess,” she looked for months for a website that offered popular, trendy, “cutesy” baby items at largely discounted rates but found nothing to suit her desires.
“I realized that if there was nothing out there that focused on babies and mothers, then I needed to create something,” said Francis. “The best way to market to somebody is to market to yourself. I know the mentality behind the decisions they’re trying to make, the things they need to see in order to make a purchase, the price it needs to be to compel them to try something new. One of the biggest stigmas of getting a deal is people automatically assume there’s a catch. If you get a huge discount on something, you’re going to assume it’s a second-rate item, or it’s going to take six weeks to arrive. We’ve removed all of those barriers.”
In December 2006 Francis started some initial investigation into creating a website that catered mainly to mothers and women, despite the rigors of raising three children and working a demanding full-time job. By spring 2008 she was ready to take the plunge, and partnered with Clevenger, who was the online media manager for Backcountry.com, whose team increased revenue more than 530 percent under his five-year watch. BabySteals.com was formally launched April 28, 2008.
Francis admits that had her third child been a boy, BabySteals.com might never have come about. “I still would have had the motivation of not wanting to leave the baby to go to work, but I’m not sure I would have come up with the same concept,” she said.
During their first year in business, Francis and Clevenger were the only employees. It took a full year before they hired their first employee; now they have 44, with intentions to hire another six in the next week or two. Most employees are full-time and work primarily from home; many are mothers themselves.