Tinnitus is like a lion in the room — it is very hard to ignore it and turn off your brain. It affects everything. It was incredibly difficult to read and focus on writing code for the coupon website I was building. There was even a period of time when I couldn’t drive, and I was living out of my car with no family to help me. But I didn’t let it stop me. I prayed, meditated and eventually convinced my mind that the Lion was chained up and could be ignored. As I was able to overcome Tinnitus and focus on writing software, the traffic to the site grew to tens of millions of people. I raised $500k in venture capital and then sold the company. And the other companies I have been able to build and sell over the years.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Wolfe, the founder of GiftYa. GiftYa is an innovative digital gifting service that enables you to send a personalized gift by text, for any merchant in the USA. Jason also founded GiftCards.com and sold that business to Blackhawk Network in 2016. He’s an internet pioneer, having invented the first coupon site/business in 1995 that he also sold to a public company in 2000. Having grown up in an orphanage this has been quite an accomplishment.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jason! What is your “backstory”?
Thank you for interviewing me. It’s my pleasure to be with you. My story is rags to riches, and the struggles along the way. When I was 6 years old, my father left our family. Within a couple of years my mom was on welfare and mentally disabled. I wound up in the Milton Hershey School (formerly called an orphanage, today, it’s called a school for the disadvantaged). I graduated there in 1987 with a suitcase of clothes and $100.
By the mid-nineties, I was homeless and living out of my Jeep (after a bad accident). I picked up a few books from the library and learned how to program/write software. I proceeded to build the first coupon website, generating millions of visitors a month, and ultimately sold it for $23m in 2000. I went on to build Direct Response Technologies, which I sold in 2006 for $22m, and I built and sold GiftCards.com in 2016 for $120m.
Can you share the story of how you developed tinnitus, and what you did to not let it stop you?
In 1995, after 2 major spinal surgeries and fusion in my spine, my girlfriend left me, and I had developed tinnitus. I sat in a bath tub, shower raining down on me, crying. Not wanting to live. I summoned up my courage and reached out to a few people to help me. Donna Glenn and Barb Sherman were the first two. Barb, I met online and she was so inspirational to me. She would encourage me as I wrote the code for the coupon site. Little did I know at the time that she had her own physical disabilities, couldn’t raise her head fully, and could barely see, battling for a long time with arthritis. Donna would tell me how smart I was and that she believed in me, which gave me confidence.
Can you tell us about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is like a lion in the room — it is very hard to ignore it and turn off your brain. It affects everything. It was incredibly difficult to read and focus on writing code for the coupon website I was building. There was even a period of time when I couldn’t drive, and I was living out of my car with no family to help me. But I didn’t let it stop me. I prayed, meditated and eventually convinced my mind that the Lion was chained up and could be ignored.
As I was able to overcome Tinnitus and focus on writing software, the traffic to the site grew to tens of millions of people. I raised $500k in venture capital and then sold the company. And the other companies I have been able to build and sell over the years.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
I would tell them to not quit, not to give up. Despite growing up with no family support system, homelessness and the issues with my health, I was able to push through. No matter what obstacles you face, it is what’s inside you that matters. Drive, integrity, and hope got me through.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Absolutely. Milton Hershey — the man who started the Hershey Chocolate company and the founder of the school I grew up in — the Milton Hershey school. If it were not for him, I would have grown up with a sick mom on welfare with a warped sense of reality and future. I was given discipline, hope, and education, and I have Milton Hershey to thank.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At GiftCards.com, we had the You Gift, We Gift program where we would take a portion of the proceeds from every gift card we sold and drive around the country bringing gift cards to homeless shelters during the Holidays. We hand delivered gift cards to thousands of kids. We drove thousands of miles. My wife and I also have fostered two little girls (3 and 6) whom we are about to adopt. I now sit on the board of directors of the statewide adoption network, and we have our own Wolfe Family Charitable foundation where we give out hundreds of thousands of dollars to local churches and organizations that help the needy.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood about people with physical limitations” and why.
My main physical limitation has been my Tinnitus. People hardly know I have it because it’s not a visible handicap, but it can dramatically impair my ability to concentrate.
There are five things I wish people understood about those with any form of disability:
- That we feel the need to overcompensate for our limitations so that people would not see our issues.
- That oftentimes limitations are not necessarily limits on ability.
- That the tapestry of life includes all of us and that perspective, if heard, can be very valuable to understanding.
- That tech advancement can actually help people overcome their limitations.
- That we often don’t contemplate the idea of wanting people to understand our limitations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ―C. S. Lewis
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
I’d love to meet and have lunch with Mark Cuban. I emailed back and forth with him a few times when I owned GiftCards.com and we were looking for investors, but we never met in person. He is from Pittsburgh, like me. And I always admired his life story.
Thank you for all of these great insights!