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MyLocalHotSpots.com goes from cost-cutter to moneymaker

RIDGELAND — Things are humming at MyLocalHotSpots.com. The company that offers to-do guides for tourists and locals in the markets it serves is landing so many new contracts that it is having to add to its staff, thanks to a new product that has founder Jason Johnson believing that MyLocalHotSpots.com’s brightest days are still ahead.

All of this is even more impressive when considering the company was established almost as an afterthought just a few years ago, and was completely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

Unforeseen success, challenges

Johnson was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and went on to earn a degree in business management in 1996. He was hired a week out of college selling for a company that designed Web sites. The Web was in its infancy then, and the Internet and Johnson grew up together.

“I couldn’t even spell ‘Web site,’” Johnson said, smiling.
Johnson not only learned about Web sites quickly, he gained valuable experience about reaching key decision makers.

“I realized that it would take me forever to get to business owners going door to door, one business at a time,” Johnson said. “So, I decided to go after associations. One day, I parked my car in downtown Jackson and hit a number of them. The first one I stopped at, the executive director called his members, while I was still in his office, and recommended me.”

Johnson eventually hired on with Mississippi-based Venture Technologies, a company he would spend five years with and still works with today. In this capacity, Johnson sold high-end IBM products across the map. He also worked with State Auditor Phil Bryant on the state’s egovernment initiative, another valuable lesson.

After his stint with Venture Technologies, Johnson returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to establish an indoor advertising company. As plans formulated, Johnson saw a need to establish an online directory of local places and events that would compliment and support his advertising company.

“I thought maybe it would help keep costs down for the indoor sign business,” Johnson said.

However, it quickly became obvious that this online directory had the potential to be much more than a money saver — the response from the Coast pointed more toward a moneymaker. The original intention was to offer restaurants and other businesses a template Web site that would provide a means for capturing and displaying events, coupons as well as provide a newsletter. Administrative tools would be created giving the customer the ability to manage and maintain his Web site through a secure Internet log-in system.

But, the team took the concept a step further. They developed a portal, a one-stop site offering events, coupons, retail and shopping guides, etc. With that, mscoasthotspots.com was created, incorporating in 2002.

It proved a success, though it wasn’t immediate and meant 15-hour days for Johnson and his “team” — an engineer and a graphic artist working out of an old condo. But, six months in, mscoasthotspots.com established an advertising relationship with the television station WLOX. Beau Rivage was landed as a sponsor. A state association and tourism commission came calling. And, that proved to be only the beginning.

Winds of change

With the overwhelmingly positive response from the locals to mscoasthotspots.com, Johnson realized that the concept could be rolled out in other communities. The name of the company quickly transitioned to MyLocalHotSpots.com.

The company subsequently won 60 Mississippi customers representing 18 different market sectors and business types. It looked as if MyLocalHotSpots.com had the world by the tail — until August 29, 2005.

When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it laid to waste MyLocalHotSpots.com’s business. Many of its customers were literally washed away. Johnson’s personal loss was as great — his Coast family had seven homes impacted, and he spent the next three weeks cleaning his mother’s devastated residence.

But, from the rubble rose a brand new opportunity. Before the storm, Johnson had formed a relationship with Houston, Texas-based Uniperk Inc., which specializes in customer loyalty programs based on card-processing technology. In fact, one of the first contacts he had with the outside world was an e-mail from the Uniperk CEO inviting him to come to Houston.

So, Johnson headed west and was presently surprised when he was offered a vice presidents position with Uniperk and a merger between the two companies was executed. More than that, Johnson picked up MyLocalHotSpots.com’s “passport” to a new place and future.

The company’s Passport Card allows users to purchase dining and services up to 50% off at local businesses. Additionally, users can earn instant rebates to the card at local merchants and its national online mall.

It meant a whirlwind “marriage” as the companies integrated the technologies and concept. Johnson quickly established a new office in Ridgeland and moved the company there from the Coast in January 2006. There, Johnson and his team retooled, having to realign the way it operated to accommodate the Passport program.

Once again, Johnson has been amazed by the response. With no advertising, MyLocalHotSpots.com’s phones have lit up. Now with eight on the payroll, Johnson is currently looking to add to his sales force to meet the crunch for a program that he said has only scratched the surface of its potential.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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