Why Pat Sajak Wants to Power Hyperlocal Daily Deals for SMBs

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Pat-SajakPat Sajak has spent the better part of three decades selling vowels to animated contestants on one America’s longest running game shows. The Wheel of Fortune host has remained active off-the-air, as an investor and political commentator, and most recently, as a surprising entrant into the local marketing industry.

Last year, Sajak joined Great American Deals, a daily deal company that franchises its brand and technology to local entrepreneurs, to help the firm stand out in an increasingly competitive daily deals market. The company, which was founded by Michael Silber, a friend of Sajak’s, expanded nationally this summer, taking the franchise beyond the seven California markets in which it currently operates.

Street Fight recently caught up with Sajak, a prolific tweeter and media veteran in his own right, to talk about the daily deal project and discuss his thoughts on the outlook for local media, the culture of oversharing in social media and the increasing sensitivity of the digital domain.

So: Wheel of Fortune to a daily deal franchise — help me connect the dots.
If I pitched Wheel of Fortune to a network executive today, the pitch would last about eight seconds. He or she would say, “this can’t work in 2014; it’s a throwback.” What’s worked for our show, and what I find interesting in the [model of Great American Deals,] is the ability to connect with real people. We are always traveling the country to find players that represent America in all shapes and sizes, and economic strata.

To an extent, it’s a similar thinking behind our strategy with the deals business. We wanted to build a hyperlocal alternative to Groupon where the people who sold to the small businesses were from the community. I really like the idea that while there’s some big businesses doing well, this is a model where local folks deal with the painter down the street or the restaurant owner around the corner.

The economy has recovered somewhat, but the outlook for small businesses in the U.S. remains unclear. Do you think it’s that small business owners are better off today than they were when you started on Wheel of Fortune three decades ago?
First of all, I’m just amazed at the resilience of people. To some degree, we’re coming out of the doldrums of the recession, but the recovery remains spotty. It’s amazing to see the amount of time and money which the owners of a family-owned restaurant, for instance, invest in their businesses. I think things are coming back. Small business have always been a great entrant into the American success story.

You spent a portion of your early career working in local media as a broadcaster, and you own a radio station in Annapolis. Are you more or less confident in the future of local media than a decade ago?
If you asked me ten years ago, I would have been fairly pessimistic about the prospects for local media companies. Everyone was merging with everyone else, and with satellite radio and the web there was a more national “feel” to the media landscape.

But that’s changed in the past few years. The way they’ve solved that problem is similar to what we’re doing, which is to be hyperlocal. You see very little national news on the local news cast these days because that’s covered by everyone else. Almost every local news cast has become more interactive, and brought in social media. The local folks have adapted to the changes, and it’s worked for a lot of them.

You’re a fairly prolific Tweeter. How do you approach social media and does your interest extend beyond Twitter?
It’s a mix. One thing that worries me about social media is that we’re getting close to creating a great irony here: we have all of these forms of communication that didn’t exist before — where people can express themselves freely— and yet everyone is increasingly sensitive about what you say and how you say it. We have more opportunities than ever to be heard, but a lot of folks are afraid to contribute. It’s just hard to express a joke in a 140 characters and make sure everyone gets it.

We’re just becoming a little less civil to one another. It’s in part due to the anonymity of the medium: it’s much easier to call someone names if you’re hiding behind a user name as opposed to being the guy who lives next door. Even if it’s a brownie recipe, it only takes about four comments before someone calls someone else a Nazi. There’s always going to be a small number of people who get their panties in a bunch.

Do you ever check-in on Facebook or Foursquare?
I really haven’t. I sort of stayed with Twitter, so I wouldn’t spread myself too thin. I don’t even have a Facebook account. I’m not sure where that places me.

As a celebrity, you forgo a certain degree of privacy. Do you have qualms about the extent to which we share our lives, and surrender that privacy, via social media?
It’s amazing to me how willingly we have given up privacy. And it’s not that people are even stealing our privacy from us — we’re just saying “here it is.” If I went to my kids 10 years ago, and said: “I’ve got an idea. Let’s go to Staples, and we’ll buy some posterboard. Then, you can put your friends and hobbies or maybe, your plan for tomorrow on the board, and we’ll post it in the hallway at school.” They would say absolutely no. It’s amazing to me how much info we’re willing to share with strangers — much less friends.

A decade ago, the thing I dreaded most was when a friend would say “come over to our house and I’ll show you slides about my vacation.” Now, I’m looking at everyone’s vacation. I don’t know, maybe it’s validating for people.

In part, what makes you such a good host on Wheel of Fortune is your ability to connect with regular people in a setting — a television set — that for most contestants is remarkable uncomfortable and foreign. What can you draw from those skills to offer in helping technology companies selling to small business owners?
The first thing is to treat them with the respect they deserve. In both Wheel of Fortune and Great American Deals, they’re the glue that keeps the thing together. We try to instill that this is more than a sales call — you need to find out what they’re about and be flexible to make it work. You don’t want to a structure a deals that hurts the business.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

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