Maryland couponing app lets customers choose own deals

Ashish Bakshi was making a large pizza order for his son’s birthday party about two years ago. Always an avid couponer, he looked for a deal that would get him what he wanted while taking a few dollars off the bill. He came up empty.

When Bakshi went to pay for the pizzas, he asked the store owner if he would’ve given a coupon for a large order. The owner said yes and the idea for an app was born.

Earlier this year, Bakshi and his wife, Beena, launched My Custom Coupon in Howard County, an app that lets customers post what they’re looking for and business owners can offer deals based on the request. For example, if you’re looking for a restaurant to hold an event for 25 people, you can post the request on the app and area restaurants can respond with a 10 percent discount or a deal for free appetizers. The size and nature of the discount is entirely up to the business owner.

Think of it as a 21st century version of saying “let’s make a deal.”

“Here, we’re telling people, you can decide what to ask for,” said Beena Bakshi.

So far, 100 merchants including restaurants, bars, liquor stores, spas and salons — primarily in Howard County — have signed on to offer deals through the app.

Among them is Union Jack’s in Columbia, a pub that also has locations in Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Annapolis.

“As a merchant, as the owner, I’m constantly trying to find out what customers want,” said Rich Cutair, area manager for all four Union Jack’s locations.

The challenge for Cutair is monitoring the app on a regular basis to offer deals.

“It’s difficult to instantly respond,” he said.

The Bakshis ask users to put in requests two to three days in advance, if possible, to give business owners time to see the request, which they get via an email notification, and offer a deal.

One of the biggest challenges so far has been getting consumers to post coupon requests.

“Never have people requested a coupon like this,” said Ashish Bakshi. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

The app’s goal is to turn the tables on traditional “push marketing” in which consumers are bombarded with emails and coupon clippings for things that don’t meet their needs. Those efforts are expensive for businesses and often don’t yield results. Bakshi recalled talking to one restaurant chain owner who said he sent out 52,000 mailers in Howard County that got close to 3,000 people into his restaurants.

“They send promotions hoping it sticks with customers,” said Bakshi,

Deals on My Custom Coupon are sent privately to the user who requests it. The intent of that feature is to let business owners protect their brand image over posting a deal on Groupon, which is public.

So far, My Custom Coupon has done particularly well with pizza shops and liquor stores, the Bakshis said.

Coming from a software engineering background, Ashish Bakshi designed the app himself and hired a firm in California to do the coding.

Once merchants started signing on, Bakshi quit his day job and the couple put all their efforts into marketing the app. The Bakshis are the only two employees in the company and they run the business out of their home. Beena Bakshi was a stay-at-home mother before she decided to enter the workforce again as an entrepreneur.

The couple, both first-time business owners, used resources through the Maryland Small Business Development Center and the Howard County Chamber of Commerce to get the guidance they needed. They also self-taught by reading business journals and articles.

The app is free and will stay that way for consumers, but the Bakshis plan to charge business owners for a monthly subscription as the app’s reach grows.