Standing in line at a local restaurant recently, Karim Kaderali caught a glimpse of a customer holding out a Santa Barbara Axxess card to get a discounted dinner.
“I still think, ‘Sweet’,” said Kaderali, founder and CEO of the card’s namesake.
The sightings are happening more often than ever, a sure sign of the 15-year-old Santa Barbara Axxess’ record of success as a membership program and marketing tool.
The business is having its best year yet, thanks to a simple concept that’s finally caught on.
Businesses advertise discounts in the Axxess book — 2-for-1 deals are most popular — and customers buy the book and accompanying card to get the deals throughout the calendar year. Businesses, in turn, have a clear way to track marketing.
Kaderali expects to sell out of 2014 cards by May 1 — a whopping 32,000.
That’s happened just once before, back in 2012 when the total was closer to 20,000.
About 1 in 2.5 people on the South Coast have a card, a fact that Kaderali both marvels at and understands.
“It’s tipped,” Kaderali said on a recent afternoon in his Funk Zone office. “It’s a product that people will buy. It supports local businesses.
“The first year I couldn’t even get my best friend to use the card,” he laughed.
Kaderali’s business was a hard sell in 1999, a year after he graduated from UC Santa Barbara with an anthropology degree and a desire to stay in the coastal city.
Santa Barbara Axxess was modeled after a program Kaderali first saw in San Francisco, and its name came from the UCSB ACCESS identification cards students still use today.
Kaderali secured a $20,000 loan from a Women’s Economic Ventures program, which was just enough to print the first book with 120 businesses.
The company operated out of Kaderali’s apartment the first three years and didn’t turn a profit until year six.
The 2014 book boasts more than 600 businesses from Carpinteria to Goleta, and the more recent editions also feature mobile and online ads in addition to print.
Tri County Blinds has partnered with Axxess from the beginning because it’s great for business.
“It’s like a household name now,” said Mick Ventura, president of the blinds company. “People ask me ‘Do you carry the Axxess card?’ all the time. He brought a great tool to Santa Barbara County, and it answers the businesses and experiences with the businesses.”
Kaderali started franchising the business three years ago, expanding the idea into Ventura, the South Bay and Conejo Valley — the latter a West Lake/Thousand Oaks operation Kaderali now also manages.
He’s put the brakes on expansion for now to focus on the current four markets, especially in mobile marketing and with technology acquired when Axxess bought SBClick, a coupon-type company, last year.
The company just surpassed the $1 million mark in donations to schools and nonprofit organizations, which sell the cards for fundraisers, and Axxess was just recognized with a “Small Business of the Year” award from the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce.
Kaderali hopes his company’s recent success will entice the businesses in town that haven’t yet bought into the idea.
“It’s cool to see that now it’s taken off,” he said. “It really could kind of reach anybody in a community.”