Thursday, June 2, 2011

DishKin: Local Entrepreneurs Launch All-Food Answer to Groupon

Dishkin's Donny Minchillo / Photo by Nicole Rupersburg
By now you’re familiar with Groupon. Living Social. Half-Off Depot. Hour Detroit’s Deal du Jour. Fox Detroit’s version, the upcoming Free Press version … let’s face it, there’s a TON of copycat discount sites styled after Groupon that follows the same business model – give them your email address, they send you daily emails with discounted deals, and you buy these deals at half off or more from the face value. 

For businesses, particularly new and struggling ones, it helps drive traffic through their doors and gets them huge amounts of exposure they wouldn’t have otherwise had; for customers, obviously you’re getting a great deal and nowadays it’s savvy to save. Win/win (for the most part, though there are businesses that have legitimate objections to just how much they’re actually “winning”).

The thing is, the business model is so new – bear in mind, Groupon launched barely over two years ago in Chicago in November 2008 with only 400 email addresses on their mailing list – and the opportunity so infinite that, while we can of course expect these off-shoot sites to keep popping up by the day and there seems to be an endless supply of consumer support for them, there are also some flaws.

Take Groupon, for example. Aside from the moronically goofy intros they insist on including for each deal, (which I consider a flaw but probably most people do not), the speed at which they grew and expanded into new markets allotted for very little localization, and because of the simplicity of the site – both a blessing and a curse – there is no way to narrow down your search parameters.

In preparation for a recent trip to Vegas, I had to keep consulting Google Maps to see just how far off-Strip the various deals were (most of them were pretty far). Here in metro Detroit, deals are scatter-shot across the broad tri-county area in a way that makes sense to pretty much no one (at the time of writing, deals were located in Romulus, Troy, Sterling Heights, Richmond, Royal Oak and Brighton for offers that included discounted bowling and lunch-only seafood specials). And across the board with Groupon, Living Social, Half-Off Depot and all the MANY many others, the offers include everything from … well, bowling discounts to lunch-only seafood specials.

You’ll also find a lot of spas and salons and nail salons and home décor items and teeth whitening offers and LifeStyle Lifts and … well, pretty much everything else you would have found advertising in the now-obsolete direct-mail marketing books that went straight into your trash bin five-plus years ago. (It was called “junk mail” back in the days of mail.)

^That last line there was for the sake of posterity.

But what if there was a website service, similar to Groupon, that was more targeted (at least for starters) in the denser population areas in metro Detroit (I mean, Brighton? BRIGHTON???), and was also – and here’s the best part – SPECIFICALLY dedicated to food and restaurants.

Helloooooo DishKin.

DishKin was launched a mere 17 days ago. It is owned and operated by Donny Minchillo Jr. and Pedro Ribeiro Jr. These two friends come from totally different professional backgrounds but ironically both originally came from Brazil and perhaps more or less ironically (but who’s to say) met here in Detroit playing soccer.

Pedro is the computer guru programmer/designer, but Donny is DishKin.

“I was tired of working for other people,” says Donny, regarding the genesis of the idea for DishKin. “I knew I was capable of doing my own thing. I’m eager, hard-working, I know I’m capable. I’ve owned businesses before; I had the experience of opening a business and failing, and that has helped me decide that I am ready to make this one successful,” he says with a shy smile.

Donny may live in metro Detroit now but his life story is a colorful one. He grew up in Brazil, then lived and worked in New York as a teenager in the restaurant and bar business, hustling his way up into management. “It was a good experience,” he says of that time. “I don’t know if I’d do it again but I learned a lot!”

Preaching to the choir.

At the age of 23, Donny left the restaurant business, started his own online retail business selling sporting goods and shoes through eBay, and moved to L.A. Why? Because of a girl.

“She wanted to go to school in L.A. and I could run my business from anywhere, so I went. I needed something different. I’m not afraid of trying new things and going outside of my safety zone. I don’t have a safety zone!”

While in L.A., the online retail business failed and Donny started bartending again for huge, lavish celebrity-laced parties. Then, as luck would have it, Donny met his first business partner – while playing soccer. (There’s a lot of patterns in this story; keep reading.)

“While I was there I was playing soccer and I met another guy from Argentina who sold furniture. He wanted to sell online but didn’t know anything about it, so I started selling for him.”

And then, another girl and another dramatic move across the country, this time to Detroit. Followed by another failed online business, this time because of issues on the L.A. end with shipping and filling the online orders. A year and an experimental stab at stock trading later, and Donny ended up at Gaucho Brazilian SteakHouse, where he met the owner – another bonafide Brazilian – and in the fall of 2010 become obsessed with Groupon.

“I wanted to do something similar but not the same because there are already enough of the same,” he explains. “If you target one thing and start small, you can take over that industry.” He references Group Golfer, a discount deal site that specifically targets golf products and experiences. Group Golfer started in Michigan (the owner is a friend of Donny’s) and is now in 14 states.

The growth potential for this kind of business model is massive. “This is such a new business model, there’s so much room to grow,” Donny states. “It is competitive but there’s a bar or restaurant on every corner; there’s huge opportunity.”

But in metro Detroit the competition is negligible. The most well-known brands have the most far-flung offers, and the others – usually run by a pre-existing media outlet – don’t seem to reach much farther than their pre-existing subscribers. As familiar as this business model may now feel, the potential here is relatively untapped.

“A lot of these business owners haven’t even heard of Groupon,” Donny says with surprise. But for a lot of these small businesses, the owner will spend 80 hours a week working themselves, which leaves very little time for keeping up with the Facebook updates of the Joneses.

“From a subscriber perspective, these sites show you the little businesses around the corner that you might not have known was there,” he says. “From a business perspective, the advantage is huge exposure, and the discount covers the cost of food so to break even would be the worst case scenario. [I went into this having] access to the information from both the business owner’s standpoint and the subscriber’s.”

Another thing that sets DishKin apart is that they offer businesses a better deal than the 50/50 split of Groupon and most other sites, as well as opportunities for repeat customers to save more and the increased flexibility in fine print that being a locally-based fledgling start-up enables them to have. They are also emphasizing rigorous follow-up with their customers, providing subscriber feedback and building a relationship with the business owners that goes beyond just getting money from them. “We wanted [the brand] to have a family feel and [for our customers and subscribers] to feel the connection.”

The name “DishKin” is meant to be short, memorable, and evoke ideas of (a) food (“dish”) and (b) family (“kin”). The site is clean and simple, with a look that will be very familiar to users of other discount sites. The site launched a little over two weeks ago and they have more than doubled their subscriber list in only their fourth deal. “I know what it can be and what it’s going to be,” Donny asserts. “I’m very confident in this.”

And he should be. At the rate this business model is growing worldwide, there may come a point at which small independent businesses that don’t participate in these kinds of deal sites might actually be hurting their own growth. (The example I shared with Donny comes from my own interaction with these sites: even right now, while I desperately need a haircut I know that if I just wait a week or two a decent salon in relative proximity to my home will be offering a cut and style for only $30, so why should I pay $65 now?)

For Donny, the prospect is thrilling, but this is also a whole new chapter in his whirlwind life. “The way life happens it teaches people how to handle things,” he explains, referring to both the good and the bad life experiences that brought him to this point. “Life brings you back to the ground when you’re flying and shouldn’t be.”

To use a reference that Groupon would approve of: Donny may have played the part of Howard Hughes trying to get the Spruce Goose to fly with previous endeavors, but now he’d better strap in because he’s about to hit Mach 3 in this new Concorde, DishKin.

…and that’s still not goofy enough.