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Friday, January 19

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Detour

Steve Misetic and I are holed up in an Andersonville sushi restaurant with dragon maki and herbal tea, while Steve — wearing a bright blue windbreaker embroidered with "SaveChicago.org" — explains the ins and outs of building a one-man internet start-up.

"Nothing has ever been as terrifying as starting my own online company," he says. "Every day, it's as though there's a big abyss, like, seated next to me. And all I can do is turn to it and say, 'Hey, abyss!' and keep going."

Now 33, originally from Skokie, he has several careers behind him to compare the experience to: actor, owner of a real estate company and — oh yeah, Steve played football for Notre Dame and was nearly drafted into the NFL. When I hear this, I reflexively babble, "Oh! Part of the reason I want to write about your site is that I loved the Buffalo Bills when I was a kid!"

Sensing Steve's confusion, I backpedal from my own dumbassery and attempt to explain how the late-1980s incarnation of my hometown football team could possibly relate to his new web site: "It's the whole 'underdog' thing. I have an innate appreciation of ambitious people trying to make it against the odds," I say.

SaveChicago.org is now just five months old and could certainly be classified as an underdog. He's starting from scratch at a time when much of the economy has ground to a halt. And the site uses a business model that has never been tried before, as far as he knows: Chicagoans pay a small membership fee (currently $1.99 per month) and gain access to a database of current sales and discounts from retailers in their area. Members also chooses one nonprofit organization to receive a kickback: 50 percent of all the ad revenue goes to nonprofits. In turn, nonprofits encourage the people in their support networks to sign up and select their organization as the recipient of some of the site's proceeds.

Steve dreams of a time when the average Chicagoan will reflexively log on to check out happy hour chicken wing specials, sales at your corner hipster clothing boutique, or where to swig cheap mimosas at brunch on Mother's Day. He envisions it as a win-win-win sort of thing: Members get discounts. Retailers get the word out. Nonprofits generate more members and then receive cash back for their troubles. But he has struggled mightily to explain it to outsiders. "I tend to over-explain," Steve says. "The biggest lesson for me was, less is more; you have to gear your pitch toward who you're talking to. In the first five months of this site, I had to learn that the hard way — and probably lost potential customers because I just made it sound too complicated."

In order to keep the site afloat, he spends at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week working on it, mostly from home. Though he hired an outside programmer and designer for the bones of the site, he's handling everything else: dealing with customers, finances, business planning, advertising — all of which requires boundless energy. Even here in a relaxed, nearly-empty sushi restaurant, he speaks breathlessly, his eyes wide behind wire-rimmed glasses, radiating urgency and the weight of his message.

"I used to try and walk this line between sounding self-promoting and keeping it to myself," he says. "But then I just came to the realization that I can't be embarrassed about selling something. In November I was a salesman about 50 percent of the time. Now I'm a salesman 100 percent of the time. Now it's like, 'Please use it. Please buy it. Please listen.' Everything else is a waste of time."

This attitude shift has, on occasion, made things take a turn for the weird. For example: he's getting married soon, and because the wedding will be Catholic, he and his fiancée are required to meet with a priest several times before the actual wedding. Steve told the priest about the site, and before they left that day, the priest handed him the business card of a potential contact.

His fiancée, a professional writer, is one of his most constant champions and supporters. "She'd look at what I wrote about the company and then edit it way down and harp at me, and I'd be all stubborn and resist until I realized, 'Oh. She's right.' Now I let her do a lot of the writing."

Even with more clarity of message, nonprofits and businesses often don't want to work with him until he's got a critical mass of members signed up. "It's a chicken-or-egg problem," he says. "They tell me, 'Come back to me in six months.'"

So Steve has shifted his focus to signing up new people. Right now, the site can claim just over 1100 members. He's gunning for many more, offering $15 Visa gift cards for signing up. And he's nurturing a growing list of retailers in Lincoln Park, River North and Andersonville who've signed up to showcase their discounts.

Kevin Swier, owner of Edgewater Ethiopian restaurant Ras Dashen, signed up early. "I liked the concept," he says, "especially the not-for-profit connection. I've always wanted to get good communication started between us and non-profits nearby."

Nearby, Ken Kwilosz manages a gift/occult shop called Alchemy Arts. He refers to SaveChicago.org as "that coupon site" and says he needs to update the ads he has posted on it. "But it sounds like a good idea... we signed up because it just made sense."

So far, companies aren't paying to list their sales — which means no nonprofit has received any money yet. But Steve estimates that, when it really gets going, "small non-profits can make one to three thousand per month, medium size non-profits will make $5,000 to $15,000 per month, and large non-profits can earn tens of thousands per month." He also envisions that one day it'll be as ubiquitous Craigslist.

"Save Chicago. That's about as ambitious-sounding as it gets," I tell him.

"You get the double entendre, right?" Steve asks. "You know, like, we're saving Chicago with the money we give to nonprofits. And then people in Chicago can save money."

I reassure him that yes, I got that part. And I ask if he remembers his old life, before all this began, before he had to spend time explaining the very basic concepts behind his company and vision over and over.

"This has sort of taken over my life," he says, the only time I've heard him sound tired. "I honestly can't remember those days anymore." Then his voice fills with determination again: "You know I've been thinking about what you said, that stuff about the Buffalo Bills being an underdog. That's all well and good, but the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls. For me, there will be no losing."   ✶

 

About the Author(s)

Lindsay Muscato escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at lindsayliveshere.org.

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