Community has always been important to Kim Stephenson, president and founder of VIP Dining and Entertainment. Kim was born and raised in Butler, and found that over time her home community only grew in importance to her. So when Kim started her discount coupon book business, the Butler community was at the center of her plan.
For three years in the 1980s, Kim owned and operated the Tucson, AZ franchise of a five-door coupon book franchise called VIP Dining and Entertainment. That company dissolved in the late 80s, and she had long been thinking about bringing the concept to Butler. A coupon book featuring businesses in Allegheny County already existed, and Butler residents often purchased it. The problem with that, in Kim’s view, was that the Allegheny businesses are Butler’s competitors, and actually pull business away from the area. Kim’s plan was to create a coupon book that featured Butler-area businesses, thereby helping to keep residents’ dollars in Butler and stimulating the local economy.
Kim brings an eclectic background to her current venture. In addition to her experience with the coupon book franchise, Kim worked as a drug and alcohol counselor. After taking several years off to devote time to raising her five children, she re-entered the workforce as a furniture salesperson. The skills Kim gained as a counselor complemented her already strong knowledge of sales. “The power of persuasion was very important in convincing people with a problem to seek treatment. In sales, you need the same power.”
With the crash of the economy and collapse of the housing market in 2008, Kim saw her income from furniture sales drop substantially. That’s when she was inspired to “resurrect” VIP Dining and Entertainment as a one-door operation, with herself as sole owner. She first heard about SCORE during the planning stages of her business and searched for a mentor because she needed guidance. That’s how she met her SCORE mentor, Ron Cox, whom she credits with much of her success. “Ron has been the man from the writing of the business plan stage,” she says. “He was so accessible, so responsive… I don’t think I could have done it without him.”
Kim explains that at first, “there was too much emotion in the idea. I needed someone who lacked the emotion. It’s common when embarking on a business venture to let emotion cloud reality, to be too overzealous in your projections.” Ron helped Kim by giving her assignments to complete that enabled her to come up with a sturdy plan of action. “He constantly gave points of view I wouldn’t have had.” She describes him as “supportive but realistic. He helped put in place goals and helped map out ways to achieve those goals.”
Now Kim’s plan has become a reality. VIP Dining and Entertainment launched in August 2011 and it has really taken off. There are around 140 participating advertisers from the Butler area, and the coupon book is currently in its second edition, with the third edition set to be released soon. Printed and bound locally in Butler, the coupon book looks like a two-inch thick checkbook and the coupons look like checks. The books usually sell for $25 each, but they can be purchased at a bulk rate of $15 each. She frequently works with fundraising groups, who are given books on loan with no upfront costs and no minimums to sell. They can then sell the books at the full price of $25 and retain $10 per book.
Adding to VIP’s growing list of successes, Kim recently received a Small Business Award from Sam’s Club, part of the Sam’s Club Holiday Giving Campaign. The award honored 102 recipients in the US, two in each state and the District of Columbia, with a prize package including a $1000 gift card to be used toward business expenses and a three-day all-expense-paid workshop, which unfortunately Kim had to decline due to a family issue. She is extremely grateful to Ron for nominating her for the award, and he is also thrilled with the outcome. “She made this possible through her tenacity and hard work,” Ron says. “She doesn’t discourage easily. There were times when it looked questionable if she’d have the drive to keep going, but she did.”
Kim offers the following advice to those looking to start their own business: “You should definitely bounce your ideas off of three or four respected individuals that have no connection to you or your family. Take the emotion out of it; it’s too easy to be blinded by excitement. You have to have a plan, you have to see it on a cash flow chart, that’s when it comes to life. You need to see that to make it real.”
In the future, Kim hopes to take her concept to Beaver County and other places throughout Western Pennsylvania.