When we started our business to reward people for being healthy, the “rewards” we were going to use were gift cards to national retailers. This led us to another idea – to create the “1-800-FLOWERS” for gift certificates that enabled consumers to purchase the gift certificates of their choice from a network of national retailers through a phone number and the Internet. We believed it needed to be called 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE and we agreed on one thing if we didn’t get the phone number that corresponded to the first seven letters of gift certificate, the business was not worth doing. We set out to see if anyone owned 1-800-443- 8237 or 1-800-GIFT CER
We called the number a few times to see what would happen, but no one answered. After some digging, we found that the phone number was owned by a man who lived in Las Vegas. We used a connection at AT&T to see how much the number was being used and it turned out that there had been limited amounts billed to the number. While the number was already taken, at least it wasn’t being actively used. We tried to get a different phone number for the owner, but we couldn’t find one.
My brother and I crafted a plan to purchase the number from the owner. We decided that Dan and I would take turns calling the number every other day. We agreed that if we did reach the owner, we would say that the number was the “800” version of a New York number that we used in our real estate business and we wanted it. We debated how much we should offer for the number. We didn’t want to seem too anxious or that the number was so valuable to us. Offer too little and he might not consider it. Offer too much and he might realize that there was something more here. We agreed to offer him $500. We would have paid much more.
This went on for weeks and no one answered. Later that month, purely by coincidence, my parents were going to Las Vegas for an anniversary party. We joked that they should go to the owner’s house and take the number at gunpoint. Not the best plan for my seventy-year-old parents. We continued our alternating calls and weeks went by without any answer. We were starting to think that this business idea was going to die before it even got started.
On the day my parents left for Las Vegas, my brother made his standard call to the number. The owner answered. Dan was a little surprised at first but went on to explain to him why we wanted the number as we had planned.
The owner paused and responded, “Sure. Why not? We have not used it in years.” Dan did not want to let him off the phone without making arrangements. In addition to paying him, we needed him to sign a document required by AT&T to transfer the number. Even though it was a long shot, because my parents were going to Las Vegas, we gave them a copy of the AT&T transfer document “just in case.” We were grasping at straws but now it was real. We told the owner that by coincidence our parents were going to be in Las Vegas and asked him if he would meet them to exchange the paperwork and receive payment. Dan arranged with him to meet my parents on Friday at 6 p.m. at the sports book at Treasure Island casino. It felt like we were arranging a drug deal.
Dan got off the phone and immediately called me. My parents had already boarded their flight to Las Vegas. We didn’t want to let any time go by so Dan started looking into flights to Las Vegas. We talked about it and decided that unless we came up with a form of travel that could get us to Las Vegas in three hours from New York, the best option would be to wait until my parents landed. My parents did not have cell phones back then. We called their hotel and left a message for them to call us as soon as they got the message. We waited for their call. It was the longest six hours of our lives.
Finally, my Mom called. Dan conferenced me in. We told her what happened and started to talk through the details. Dan explained to her that they would meet the owner at 6 p.m. at Treasure Island on Friday. My mom responded with an answer that only a Jewish mother could. “We can’t meet him then. That’s the same time as the party.” We said “Mom, come on, that’s ridiculous.” She said “We are not missing the party. We have to be there.” There was a pause and I think Dan and I said, in unison, “Put Dad on the phone.”
Dad agreed. I have this picture in my mind of my Mom holding on to my Dad’s leg trying to prevent him from going to the meeting. We gave my parents the details and called the owner back and confirmed. We told him my Dad would be at the sports book at Treasure Island and would be wearing a red hat. We asked him to bring his driver’s license as it was required by AT&T. Drug dealers would have been proud.
We sat on pins and needles until the next day. The time came, and my Dad met the owner as planned. Dad was to pay him, get the paper signed, give him his money and get out of there before the owner started asking questions. He immediately recognized my Dad with his red hat. Dad handed him the papers and they asked someone in the casino to make a photocopy of the owner’s driver’s license. They exchanged some pleasantries; the owner signed the transfer papers and Dad handed him an envelope with $500 in cash. They shook hands and started to walk away. Then the owner said, “Hey, by the way, you don’t have anything to do with those gift certificate guys, do you? Those guys called me a few years back and said something about gift certificates.” My Dad put on his poker face and shook his head, no. A day in the life of the entrepreneur.
1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE was alive!