Anne Fognano: The Mother Lode

The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention is certainly true when it comes to this mother.

More than a decade ago Anne Fognano, then a new mom, needed a way to earn additional income while being able to work from home.

She had just completed her master’s degree in clinical psychology when her son Austen was a year old. And while it was her dream to be a therapist working with children, she also loved being a mom and wanted to be home with her kids.

However, she was also used to engaging her mind and needed to keep busy. She was a Prodigy user, and paying for dial-up service she surfed the Web looking for parenting sites and family-oriented Web pages, but found little that was interesting or useful to her. Being an extremely curious person, Fognano began opening up the source code to some of those sites and then taught herself some HTML.

In 1997 she started a website for Beanie Baby collectors after being appalled by the scalping that surrounded the hot collectibles. Although not a massive collector, she just thought Beanie Babies were cute, and was irate about people taking advantage of kids by doing unsavory things like tracking the shipments to Hallmark stores or tracking UPS shipments and stealing them.

She also admits that she had a lot of time on her hands and no specific focus or mission. Her site FunkyMommys.com was designed as a trading board for moms and kids to swap Beanies without fear of being ripped off. At the height of the Beanie Babies craze, the site had more than 2,000 members but Ty, the maker of Beanie Babies, began to enforce its trademark in cyberspace and sent cease and desist letters to those using the word “beanie” and even “beans.”

Although Fognano at the time thought that she could have fought Ty (her message board was called Bouncing Beanie Board), she didn’t have the time or money for a protracted legal battle with a big company. She also could have just changed the name of her board; instead, she pulled down the site and contemplated her next move.

THE COUPON CRAZE

By now it was 1997 and Fognano still had a mortgage to pay and two young children to care for at home. So, she decided to put up an online resale shop for moms. She settled on a doll-house theme (see image) and then spent $2,000 to have an artist and programmer create the site. Fognano was very pleased with the way it turned out and thought the site was beautiful. Moms could post ads and pay her 25 cents for each one. Things were going pretty well. The site was getting some decent traffic and Fognano was adding even more content including coupons from an early dot-com drugstore (PlanetRX.com). The popularity of the coupon portion of the site led her to add a coupon box in the lower right corner of the page. Soon she noticed that 98 percent of her traffic was clicking directly on the coupon box.

But instead of being delighted, Fognano was devastated that she had worked so hard and spent so much money to create this site she loved but people were only interested in the coupons. After she emerged from her funk, she signed up with two of the first merchants to have affiliate programs – Amazon and Barnes & Noble – and she decided that she needed to dump her beloved doll-house theme and concentrate on the coupons.

Currently, Fognano has three very successful coupons sites – CleverMoms.com, CleverDads.com (manly things), CleverBabies (baby and toddler items through 5 years old). She is a super affiliate and works with Commission Junction, Linkshare and Performics. She has one employee. Previously, she had two – one full time and one part time. But earlier this fall, she discovered that she could handle some of the load herself as both of her kids went off to school for the first time.

Fognano had been home-schooling her children because each of them had unique learning issues. Her daughter had a language impairment and Fognano battled the school for years. It now has a program and Haille, who is now 9 years old, can attend classes full time. For the last year a teacher had been coming to the Fognano’s home to help. Her son Austen, now 11, is a very gifted student and there was no advanced placement class for his grade. So, Fognano home-schooled him until the third grade.

THE MOTHERING INSTINCT

“I’m one of those mothers that want things to be perfect for my kids,” she says. “I took care of them when the school wasn’t.”

She likes to take care of people. Fognano’s two employees were both stay-at- home moms that she has never met in person or even talked to on the phone, despite that the one in Portage, Wisconsin, has worked for Fognano for four years and the one in Syracuse, New York, had worked for her for one year.

While she admits it was slightly odd to be paying people to work for her that she’d never met, she says it was a great arrangement. Both of the moms were previously loyal visitors to her site and began sending Fognano deals – sales and coupons – and she decided that she should start paying them for their efforts.

Although Fognano has been an affiliate for almost a decade, 2006 has been a year of changes for her and her business. Sending her kids off to school meant more time to attend conferences, shows and events – something she never had time for previously.

Earlier this year she attended a conference in Dallas for women in business (EWomen Network in June). She referred to the event as “one big Oprah show,” but she heard some great speakers and took home some sage advice. Top of the list was learning to delegate.

While she still admits to having this kind of “do everything yourself” attitude, she realizes that is a vicious cycle since there is always something to be done, which means she would never stop working. She said it was amazing this summer when she felt comfortable enough to delegate responsibilities to her employees and take some time off for the Affiliate Summit in Orlando.

In the past she says she would have been in her hotel room updating her site or running from Disney World back to the hotel to check on things. This time it was a relief to know that someone else could handle all the duties. That freedom meant that she was able to have quality face-to-face contact with her peers – many of whom she’s developed longstanding email or instant message relationships with over the years.

And she’s working less as well, dropping down from about 10 hours per day, which was previously just early in the morning and then again late at night – to about four hours a day. But in that shorter workday she’s focusing on more strategic issues such as branding her site and trying to get media coverage to educate users on how to use online coupons and where to get those savings and promotional codes.

“Many customers really have no idea about online coupons. It’s astounding to me. There is a lot of work to be done to get discounts,” she says, adding that she never shops online unless there is a coupon. “It’s an annoying thing if you know someone is getting a discount and you aren’t. If I see a promotional coupon box and then can’t find a coupon, then I won’t shop there.”

The new schedule is also allowing for many things that have been neglected for years, according to Fognano, such as her daily exercise routine, things she enjoys like sewing and scrapbooking, and nine years of photos in shoe-boxes that need to be organized into albums.

In addition, she’d also like to do some writing about online shopping – maybe for business and consumer magazines. And while her experiences and success story would be good fodder for a how-to book on affiliate marketing, she says that route doesn’t immediately appeal to her.

MEASURING SUCCESS

“There are too many different factors associated with being successful in affiliate marketing. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time,” she says, recalling that when she began there were only a handful of coupon competitors. “You could count them on one hand.”

She claims that most of her visitors are type-in traffic and that she doesn’t get a lot of eyeballs from the search engines. But once people get to your site, you’ve got to give them a reason to come back. Her writing helps in that department.

She already has an email newsletter that she sends out every Thursday to her large base of subscribers. She often writes stories about her husband and kids and things that are going on in her life. These personal stories are not intended to be a marketing trick but a reason for visitors to come back to her site. She thinks getting personal has helped others identify with her on a deeper level and created loyalty.

“It’s just me being me,” she says. “About 70 percent of the time, I try to be funny and mostly I succeed. People are always writing to me to let me know they could really relate to what I was writing about.”

But there are times that she gets some negative comments and feedback on her personal tales, but those are far outweighed by the positive responses she typically receives.

She recalls a story she wrote where she mentioned waking up late one morning and rushing around trying to get the kids ready for school, while her county policeman husband was moving at a snail’s pace. Many people wrote to her saying that she should have never called out her husband in a public forum and “shame on her.” She was shocked at the response.

Regardless, she enjoys the interaction with her customers. “This business is not always about making a buck,” she says. “If I can have something that people look forward to every Thursday, that makes me happy.”

Maybe that’s because she has also far exceeded the goals she originally set for herself when she started out with her doll-house resale site: to make $1,000 a month. Many of her work friends from back then shunned her because she chose the mommy track rather than opting to climb the corporate ladder. Now she makes more money than most of them, although she declined to provide specifics on how much she earns as an affiliate.

“I don’t have to make a specific amount per year. I don’t focus on that. As long as we have our bills paid, then I’m happy with the income the site generates.”

She’s also thrilled to be able to work at home. It’s one of the best things about her job. She says that she’s not exactly the affiliate in her pajamas at the computer, or the affiliate marketer sitting out by the pool, but she’s got a lot of freedom. She can have coffee with a friend whenever she chooses. She can attend a sewing conference. She can have lunch with her husband. She can volunteer at her kids’ schools.

But working at home requires self-discipline. Much of that discipline comes from Fognano’s educational background. She paid her own way through college and graduate school, which took her 12 years since she could only take classes as she could afford them. She used to fly to Vermont for 12 days every six months and the rest of her curriculum was done as independent study. While getting her master’s degree she would drive two hours each way to attend classes. She got straight A’s all through her education because she “couldn’t bear to get a B.”

That discipline, coupled with Fognano’s desire to help people and her love of being a mom, is the driving factor in her success. She also has a strong sense of what’s right for her.

“I could not stick an offer up for a quick buck – like something for a gambling site,” she says. “What if someone got hooked on gaming? I just wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I make sure to deal with ethical people that are not spammers. I want things to be ethical, honest and up front.”

The bottom line: “I’m just a mom doing this. I thought I’d never be in sales and never in marketing. I’m just a mom who opened a resale shop online hoping to make money and the coupon site is a fluke or should I say, a blessing. I love doing it.”

The title on her business card says it all – Mama in Charge.