Please enjoy this transcript of this episode with Jason Wolfe, CEO of Wolfe Inc, LLC. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos.
Jason Wolfe: 00:00 When you see something broken, it’s your obligation to try to fix it.
Doug Smith: This is the L3 Leadership podcast, episode number 223.
Doug Smith: 00:21 Hey everyone and welcome to another episode of the L3 Leadership podcast. My name is Doug Smith and I am your host. I hope you’re doing well. In today’s episode, you’ll hear my friend Jason Wolf, CEO of Wolf LLC, share his story and some of his advice for entrepreneurs. And we recently had Jason speak at one of our speaker series events here in Pittsburgh and he was incredible. And so in this episode again, you’ll hear him share his story. And in episode number 224 you actually have an opportunity to listen to our entire question and answer session with Jason, which was incredible. So I encourage you to listen to both. And if you love the content that Jason is as providing here, you can actually go back and we interviewed him in episode number 58 of the podcast as well. So lots of content from Jason. If you connect with him in this episode, I encourage you to listen to all three.
Doug Smith: 01:05 They’re all fantastic and if you’re unfamiliar with Jason, let me give you just a few things that you need to know about them. One, and I don’t want to spoil this, but he has an amazing story and he’ll share it in this episode, but for me personally, as I’ve watched Jason and learned about his life. I am just, I just can say that I am always inspired by someone who’s able to rise out of unfortunate circumstances and do something great with their life. And Jason has, and I’ve admired the way he’s led his companies from a distance. I admire the way he lives, his personal life and some of the things he’s done there. And again, you’re just in for a treat when you get to hear him share his story in this episode. A little bit of background on Jason and business.
Doug Smith: 01:42 In 1995 he founded the first online coupon site known initially as Couponsdirect.com and after growing the company he sold it to a competitor for roughly $23 million in 2000 and then he required it in 2002 he then began to build an affiliate tracking technology and platform called Direct Response Technologies and he sold that company to Digital River River in 2006 for 22 million and in 2008, Jason Launched giftcards.com, that company was acquired by Black Hawk Network Holdings in 2016 for 120 million. And he is now the CEO and founder of a company called Gift Ya in which he is trying to disrupt the gift card industry. Jason’s an incredible entrepreneur, he’s an incredible leader and you’re just going to love this talk. But before we dive into it, just a few quick announcements. One, I just want to say thank you so much for listening to the podcast. It means the world to me, thousands of podcasts out there,
Doug Smith: 02:30 so thank you for joining in. And if this podcast adds value to your life, it would mean the world to me. If you would share this with your friends that you think would add value to as well. Think of, you know, three to six other leaders. Send them a link to the podcast, encourage them to subscribe as well. And that’ll help us grow our audience or thank you for that. I also want to thank our sponsor, Henne Jewelers. They’re a jeweler owned by my friend and mentor, John Henne, my wife Laura and I got our engagement and wedding rings through Henne Jewelers and we just loved them as an organization. Not only do they have great jewelry, but they also invest in people. In fact, they give every couple of this engaged that comes in their store, a book to help them prepare for their marriage. And we just love that. And so if you’re in need of a good jeweler, check out Hennejewelers.com. With that being said, let’s dive right into Jason’s story and I’ll be back at the end with a few announcements.
Jason Wolfe: 03:17 I don’t know if I’m going to need a microphone but we’ll see. So yeah. Thank you, Doug, I appreciate the introduction and having me tonight. I was out at the statewide adoption network yesterday. I’m on the board and they decided that they were going to have their all hands meeting 350 women and me and four guys. And I was on a sort of a panel talking about adoption about men that are going through the adoption and foster care program. So, and I’m fortunate enough to be going through that process right now. So I intended to write some material so that I had stuff to talk about, but I got caught up because they stuck me on a panel and I was in the thing all day, so I didn’t get a chance to write anything down. But Doug said to me, give a little bit about your journey, talk a little bit about being an entrepreneur, some leadership skills that maybe I can pass on to you guys if you find some interest in it.
Jason Wolfe: 04:17 I did jot down some notes today. Hopefully, this’ll be helpful. So my journey goes back to, and I’ll spend probably 10, 15 minutes. I could probably spend hours on it. But the brief version of my journey starts back when I was young. My mom and Dad, my dad worked for the CIA. We lived outside of a restaurant, Virginia or in restaurant Virginia outside of Washington. And my mom was a beauty queen. My Dad’s boss was George Bush Sr. I can remember riding a bike. I remember all the great things of my life at the time. And then I was six years old, six or seven, my dad loads us up into a car, his car, and drives us up to Connecticut where my mother’s family was from. And he drops us off. And I remember my dad leaving and I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t see my father again for about 20 years.
Jason Wolfe: 05:13 And he left and my mom was acting strange. Didn’t know what was going on. Well, it turns out my mom had a nervous breakdown. She was, she ended up being taken away as I remember, they called us to the hospital. I go to the hospital, my sister and I are playing. My mom’s back in some room. She comes running out with a straight jacket on and they took her away for two years to a mental institution because she was really, really bad. She gets out. So we popped around from family to family, you know, member to member of a case worker. Now ironically am going through the foster care program and now I’m seeing these two girls I have and I recall being one of those kids going from this family member to another family member to strangers. The people that just watch us for a while.
Jason Wolfe: 06:00 My mom eventually gets out of, the mental institution and back then they used to shock people and I was, I don’t think they do that anymore. She came back sort of like a Zombie and they allowed her to take the kids back. So we lived with her and I, we lived on welfare and I can remember there’s three of us, my brother, my sister, myself laying under a blanket during Christmas with no heat in the house, knock on the door, go to the front door, look outside, see a frozen Turkey and some games because people, everybody in the neighborhood knew we weren’t because we were the poor ones, right. Where the poorest kids. And you know, I had like two shirts that I would go to school with. So life was not, you know, life went from idealistic to very serious struggle. As the Lord would have it, we were in a Catholic setting and one of the nuns said, hey, there’s a school down in Hershey, Pennsylvania called the Milton Hershey School.
Jason Wolfe: 07:00 Maybe she’ll look into it. So my mother went down to Hershey and looked into my grandparents. Of course. Does anybody here know what the Milton Hershey School is? Raise your hand. Who does not? Okay. So Milton Hershey is the founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company and in 1909, he and his wife, they couldn’t have children. They started an orphanage. And when he died, and they couldn’t have children. So when he, his wife died, he spent all this time with the kids. 1945, when he passed away, he left his entire fortune to the trust. So today when you buy a Hershey chocolate bar, if anybody buys one today or tomorrow, look at the back of the wrapper, you’ll see that there’s a little paragraph back there and talks about it. And that school helps 2000 students every year or all the time because you live there like you live there, you live in a home with other kids.
Jason Wolfe: 07:56 And 76% of the voting stock of the Hershey Chocolate Companies owned by the trust. The trust today is $15 billion dollars, so it helps a lot of children. So we went down there and I’ll never forget, September 20th, 1980 and it was a cool, crisp fall day. Some of you may have been born then probably watching football, you know, it’s, it was a Sunday. And I remember going to founder’s hall and I remember standing there, I was my mom and my grandparents walk away and I didn’t know what was going on. I was 10 years old and they never came back. And so I grew up in the school and I graduated when I was 18 and you know, I’d go home to my mom’s house, my grandparents once a year, maybe twice. And when you graduate in 1987 you got a suitcase of clothes and 100 bucks and they basically, that’s it.
Jason Wolfe: 08:48 They didn’t say, Hey, you know what? You know, here’s some more help. They basically just said, hey, kick you out. So I remember sitting on a curb with my suitcase and my hundred dollar check, although I couldn’t get 100 bucks for it cause I had no bank account. So I had to go to a check casher I learned what a check casher was. And so I got probably $67 or something like that and I had to figure out what to do. So what I ended up doing was trying to put myself through college. I got a job as a bartender eventually. And then I got into sort of Whitewater raft guiding and stuff and I became an outdoorsy guy and eventually got through college. And, I was in an accident and it was in Katanning so I was actually from Hershey and I moved out here because I was chasing a girl and I was living down in Deep Creek, Maryland.
Jason Wolfe: 09:37 And I was a guide at Ohio Pile and I was in an accident and I had, two major spinal surgeries. So I had fusion of the c five c six. And I couldn’t, couldn’t do anything. The girl that I was with kind of thought I was sort of a loser because by now it’s 1995 and I’m sitting on the computer and I’m trying to learn how to write code. And she’s like, what are you doing? And like, you know, I lost all this weight because I wasn’t eating and it was terrible and she was, she was Jewish. And that becomes relevant later in the story. She ends up breaking up with me and so I have nowhere to go. So I have no, no family here, no other place to live because she paid the rent and I didn’t know where to go. So I basically sold my stuff and lived in my car.
Jason Wolfe: 10:27 And my friend, I had a friend that said, well if you want to you can put your computer inside my office. And I was like, yes. And his office also had a shower, so I was able to take a shower there and then I get my car and I go drive down a road and I’d sleep and I would drive by Light of Life. And I thought so many times we’re going in there, which was one of the reasons why I in the past have donated. I still donate to Light of Life because I know what it was like to be there, where you have nowhere to go. No family recovering from major spinal surgery. And I had tinnitus, major facial issues because I hit my face on the crossbar, the hang glider. And so as God would have it, I got a book from COMP USA and it’s, it was learn Perl in 21 days. So I learned how to write software and I was self-taught, I taught myself how to write code and I created the first coupon website and that was in 1995.
Jason Wolfe: 11:30 So from there I hired my first employee and I paid her $50 a month and she’d go around the Internet, she find all these coupons and I’d be writing the code and I’d be all doing all the graphic design work and I’d be like, you know, putting the stuff on the website and we’re getting traffic to our website. We went from, you know, I made 4,000 bucks, I think in 96. 97 was like something, 98 was 180. I’m mean, I was a million. I raise a half million in venture capital. And then eventually I sold that in 2000 right before the bubble burst for 2022 23 million. So eventually I got eventually moved out of the car. And you know, as I was going through that struggle, I was, you know, sitting in a bathtub before I started to make it as I was homeless. A friend was letting me, you know, take a shower there.
Jason Wolfe: 12:26 I told you, I was just sitting there. I just didn’t want to live. I was like, I don’t want to live. I have no family. I have these major spinal surgeries. I’ve got tinnitus now. I don’t even know what I’m going to eat. And I prayed that the Lord would come into my life. And from that moment on he did, which I believe enabled me to be successful in business. It’s those 2000 and you know, that bathtub situation was in like 96. In 2000, I got the tap on the shoulder, hey Jason, do you remember you said you were going to give your life to, you know, to me, I’m going to help you and you’re going to be my buddy and you’re gonna, you know, give the word to people because I helped you get out of the situation. And in my mind I’m thinking, yeah, now I have to start going to church.
Jason Wolfe: 13:20 So I did and I was sat in the back, I was the last guy in the first guy out type of thing. For years. And, I was able to build the next company, which was Direct Response Technologies, which grew from, and after assaulting the coupon business, there was a little bit, you know, the Dotcom bubble bursting and the company I sold to didn’t pay their full balance to us. So we created another company called Direct Response, which we grew to about 75 people. And then I sold that in 2006 for about 22 million. And then I, then I started another company that was a video ad technology. So the video ads that you see, we had a power behind that. So I sold that to a private equity firm in 2010 for 15 million that I focused on Giftcards.com and I built that to 120 employees and I sold that, 2016 for 120 million. And so now I have four or five different companies that I invest into underneath this Wolf Company that sort of, owns all this stuff. So that’s my journey sort of gone from, you know, decent to
Jason Wolfe: 14:33 I don’t know where to go, crap, I guess to kind of eventually getting out of that and making it in life. So that was my journey to where I am today and now I’m building this product called Gift Ya, which again, being in the gift card business for as long as I have been, I realized that the product is actually broken because a lot of our revenue is generated when people didn’t use their cards. A lot of it that, you know, that was what powered our company when people would lose their car, we were making money. So what kind of gift is where you’re making money when people don’t use it? Right. So I kind of felt bad about that. I was like, this is terrible. And then I started seeing these news articles coming out and I started getting phone calls from law enforcement and then I started realizing, you know what, these gift cards are also being used for prostitution and child trafficking.
Jason Wolfe: 15:25 Majorly because they’re not traceable. And so what the prostitutes will do is they will accept gift cards as a form of payment. And A, because we’re not holding cash and stuff, they get pulled over, they don’t have a bunch of cash on, they get gift cards and the police don’t bother them, let them go. So, but on those cards is money that can be then sold in the secondary market for cash. And so I realized all this stuff and as I said, as a Christian, I felt like now here it is again knocking on my shoulder, you are obligated, you see something broken as it’s a redemptive thing. As I’m broken, I need to fix it. So we created a thing called Gift Ya, which is a gift credit. So the concept is inside your wallet you probably have a Visa or MasterCard. Most people here. Yeah.
Jason Wolfe: 16:17 So if I got a Benjamin, a Gift Ya for Starbucks, he would get a text message from me. He’d say, Oh cool, Jason got me this Starbucks gift yet because we just had coffee and he links his Visa card to it, just like Venmo. And the next time he goes to Starbucks, we identify the transaction, we credit his card with the gift. And so there’s no more gift card. And so there’s no more loss, there’s no more criminal activity. And so that is what I’m building today as one of my core businesses. So yeah, when you’re given money or success, I believe you need to give back. Very important. And when you see something broken, it’s your obligation to try to fix it. So some of the things I wanted to talk to you about, about being an entrepreneur or people in leadership aside from my journey and one of the things I like to do is tell the story about kind of, um, the, the idea of going to college and the four-year process.
Jason Wolfe: 17:22 So when you’re in elementary school, I mean that’s four years, right? And then you’re in middle school and that’s kind of four years. And then you get to high school and that’s what, four years and then you’re going to college and that’s what, four years. And there’s a pattern here, right? And then there are the four years after college, which are going through, I find in yourself. And then you may get married and you have four, then you have kids and then you’re going through their four-year process. And I have found since I’ve built like five companies from nothing to something, it takes four years. And just like when you go to college or your freshman and you’re wandering around trying to find the class and you get lost, you get drunk, you drink too much, you fail, you fail out as business. Same thing.
Jason Wolfe: 18:09 And then you get to your second year and you’re, you make a decision which is bad, right? And then the Greek term for Sophomores, moron, right? So the simple goal, it gives you make a stupid mistake. And that’s how it is a business. You may rely on one client too much and they don’t pay you and you’re out of business. And so I’ve looked at, you know, growing companies that way, by the time you’re in your third year, you’re living off campus, you got a job, you know, you’ve got maybe a car. And so you’re connected. And by the fourth year, you know, you know what’s happening. And for me, in my case, it took me five years and through college, but some people four or five years and so and so I’ve seen this pattern over and over and over. It’s happened for every company I’ve done.
Jason Wolfe: 18:54 And it’s happened for most of the people that I know that are successful. And so I would say think about that. If you’re in business or you’re thinking about starting a business where you are in your business that it’s a minimum of four years and you’re going to have to eat ramen noodles and you’re going to have to struggle. And people that would get a bunch of money and then they don’t go through this, a lot of times fail because there is a four-year process that you do have to go through. My opinion, my opinion, only, only my opinion to be successful, you know? And so that’s what I’ve learned. I’m going through it now with Gift Ya. I see the same thing happening and we’re in our second year, I could see where we are people. We’re all freaking out and nervous around me and I’m like, Nah, it’s okay, we’re fine.
Jason Wolfe: 19:40 But remember that. Trying to think about that. The other thing, two more things. The next thing I would encourage you to do if you’re building a business is to think about people first. A lot of times when you’re trying to build a company, what you’ll do is you’ll hire people because you need the talent and the talent will supersede the person’s value system because you need the talent because you’re building a company. And my advice is to not do that. My advice is to put your culture down first. Understanding what your value system is first and hire people because they fit your culture and value system. And not because of some talent that they have. I’ve only learned that after building multiple companies and being frustrated. By the time I got to my fourth company and this one here that I’m building now, we hired, Lisa Slade from the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation came in and we sat down culture right away, right off the bat we got everybody involved, we worked on our values, we had everybody working together and doing them corp and the disc and everything.
Jason Wolfe: 20:50 Understanding strengths and weaknesses where people kind of self-selecting, which is cool, right? Because they don’t fit. That’s fine. They self-select. And I would strongly suggest doing that because that at the end of the day as your adult copy reality, it’s your people. It’s not you. So once you get over yourself and realize that’s what it is, focused on the people, focused on the people that you’re hiring and make sure that they fit into the value system they have. I was at church last week down at Deep Creek. The pastor there said to me too that if I did the whole place to the whole congregation that you are, some of your five closest friends. I thought about it when you’re talking about how him up stack alone, reality is, think about your five closest friends. Think about their value system in you are the average of those five people. Same thing happens in the company. So very, very important to hire the right people and have them fit culturally. And then the last thing I want to talk about is one of the biggest predictors of success. And I was just watching a Tedtalk and you guys can write this down if you’d like. It was by Angela Lee Duckworth and you can look it up. Angela Lee Duckworth and she did a Tedtalk and she was talking about the characteristic that is a predictor of success and very interesting. What do you guys think of the personal characteristic of a person is that determines how successful they’ll be?
Jason Wolfe: 22:34 Who says IQ intelligence?
Jason Wolfe: 22:38 No.
Jason Wolfe: 22:40 Kindness?
Jason Wolfe: 22:43 Okay.
Jason Wolfe: 22:44 Integrity?
Jason Wolfe: 22:47 What else is there? Willing to take a risk? He got it. Grit, that’s right. Yeah. I didn’t think it was going to get it, but it’s true. She says that grit is the, is the character characteristic or character trait that they’ve been able to identify as the character trait that is indicative of people that become the most successful in, they’re actually trying to now teach this. They’re trying to boil it down to figure out how to teach this to, I might even be able to talk. Hello. Hello. They’re trying to boil this down, is to try to teach this to kids because you know, they’ve, they’ve learned that kids with the highest IQ tend to not be those that the nicest kids tend not to be those in and the characteristic of the person who goes above and beyond. And I remember I used to call it, you don’t want to say how come you’re making, I said, cause I’m like a cockroach. You step on me. I just keep going. And then I said, that doesn’t sound so good, grit sounds way better. Yeah. So look it up.
Jason Wolfe: 24:00 How many minutes I got a couple of minutes left? Okay. So you know, I said about Milton Hershey, you know, giving his entire fortune I believe is very important to as you become successful to give back, you know, cause without Milton Hershey, I would not be here today. So I, I tried to say that a lot when I speak and I like the close here with a passage from the Bible as well. It’s Revelations 12:11 and it says this and they overcame by the blood of the lamb and by the word or their testimony. Okay. And I say this because I believe that is very important for us to tell our stories to people. This is how people learn. And this is says in the Bible. My testimony and I gave you my journey is my testimony to hopefully touch people in business of course, but also what’s important in life. And so that’s all I got. Thank you for listening.
Doug Smith: 25:08 Hey everyone, thank you so much for listening to Jason share his story and some tips on entrepreneurship. Again, you can find ways to connect with Jason and what he’s doing and links to everything that he discussed in the show notes at L3leadership.org/223 as I mentioned earlier, you can also listen to our entire question and answer session with Jason, from the event in episode 224. So I encourage you to dive over to that episode and listen to that now. And if you really like is content, you can listen to our initial interview which is in episode number 58 of the podcast. I want to thank our sponsor Alex Tulandin. Alex is a full-time realtor with Keller Williams Realty and if you’re looking to buy or sell the house in the Pittsburgh Market, Alex is your guy. He’s a member and a supporter of L3 Leadership and he would love to have an opportunity to connect with you.
Doug Smith: 25:50 You can learn more about Alex at Pittsburghpropertyshowcase.com. As always. Again, thank you so much for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast, leave us a rating and review and share this on social media or send the link to someone and help us spread the word. Thank you so much for that in advance. It really does help us grow and if you want to stay up to date with everything we’re doing here at l three leadership, you can sign up for our email list at L3leadership.org and you’ll get a free copy of my ebook Making the Most of Mentoring, which is my step by step process for getting meetings and cultivating relationships with mentors. I think it’ll help you immensely. As always, I like to end with a quote and I love Brian Houston quotes and Brian Houston said this recently said “A leader’s goal, be an opportunity giver and a people believer. When you want the best for people and help them grow and become better, you will build great people.” And isn’t that all of our jobs as leaders? Hey, thank you so much for listening and being a part of L3 Leadership, Laura, and I appreciate you so much and we will talk to you next episode.