[reposted from Oct. 2005]
Mitch Goldstone Leads A Rebellion, This Time Against Credit Card Fees
By Robert Barnett – University of Southern California “Marshall Magazine“It pays to read your mail, as Mitchell Goldstone knows and Visa and MasterCard are finding out.
Goldstone, a 1985 graduate of USC Marshall School of Business, and his partner, Carl Berman, are the co-founders of 30 Minute Photos Etc. and its online sibling, 30minphotos.com which, as the names suggest, develop photographs from film and digitized files, respectively.
Goldstone has made lots of news over the years, but nothing like this summer when his company became the lead plaintiff in a class action antitrust suit against Visa, MasterCard and major banks. The story made the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the New York Times.
Filed in federal court in Connecticut in June 2005 with four other small and midsize businesses, the suit accuses the credit card companies and the banks that issue their cards of illegally fixing the interchange fees that merchants pay for credit card transactions. The credit card companies have defended their interchange fees, with MasterCard’s general counsel calling them “beneficial, efficient and pro-competitive” in a statement the giant credit card company made during a recent Federal Reserve hearing. Controversy is nothing to new to Goldstone. He’s drawn to social and economic causes the way some people have hobbies, and thinks nothing of spending hours and time and money–and overlaying all that with entrepreneurial inventiveness–on an array of projects. In addition to the class action suit, he organized Operation Photo this year to collect digital cameras for families of soldiers deployed overseas. He promoted tsunami relief for the Red Cross on the company website. He ran for city council in Irvine, CA.But the lawsuit against the giant credit card companies represents the biggest, most formidable opponent that Goldstone has ever faced. If he and the other plaintiffs win, it could cost the credit card companies billions of dollars.As with many of Goldstone’s past crusades, this one started almost by accident. In February, Goldstone and Berman received a notice in the mail that their interchange fees were being raised. “I usually throw them away,” Goldstone explained, ”but Carl brought it to my attention. When we started the business in 1990, there were a handful of interchange fees. Now there are nearly 100 different rates. And they’ve all been going up steadily. For example, the fee for debit cards has gone up 300% since 1999.”Goldstone wrote to the senior management at Visa and MasterCard, asking them to rescind the increase. “Always start at the top,” Goldstone stresses. “It’s one of the greatest lessons I learned at Marshall.”
No answer. He followed up with a phone call to the two companies. Still no response. And that got the ball rolling.
Today, Goldstone and Berman write and edit the blog, “WayTooHigh.com,” posting articles and editorials on the interchange fees and arguing that the fees are a hidden tax on consumers since they become part of the cost of all goods and services purchased. Their retail rebellion appears to be spreading. Kroger and six other national retailers filed their own suit against Visa U.S.A., and charged it with anticompetitive practices.
Creating a national groundswell for a cause he believes in is nothing new to Goldstone. In fact, he enjoys it. “It makes it fun,” Goldstone insists, “knowing we’re doing something that is going to help somebody.” In a sense, he sees it as part of his job. “That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about,” as Goldstone sees it. “It’s not just about making money. It’s about doing something that’s good because that’s the ultimate scorecard.”
Organizing Operation Photo is a perfect example of how social and economic issues just seem to find Goldstone – and how he uses his entrepreneurial skills to identify and promote a solution.
“I got a phone call at 7:00 in the morning right after Christmas of last year from Jennifer Petersen, a former 30 Minute Photos Etc. employee who had left to become a full-time mom,” recalls Goldstone. “She’d had a dream the night before. What if her husband was serving in the military and he wasn’t able to see their daughter? Was there any way we could get people to donate cameras to give to military families? By 8:00, the business plan was already cemented and finalized.”
Within days, they had Operation Homefront onboard to coordinate distribution, secured pledges from Kodak and other digital camera manufacturers for hundreds of new cameras, set up a “Operation Photo” website with a link from the 30 Minute Photos Etc. homepage, the press had jumped on the story, and the first cameras were already flooding in.
By the time Operation Photo wrapped up on July 4, it had collected over $150,000 worth of cameras and distributed them to grateful and appreciative families in and around military bases all over the country. In fact, many of the photos of new babies and birthday parties now being shared overseas are being developed at 30 Minute Photos Etc., thanks to its military family discount.
Goldstone always wanted to be an entrepreneur. A New Yorker by birth, he applied to USC specifically so he could enroll in what is now USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Goldstone and Berman started 30 Minute Photos Etc. in 1990 on the premise that family photos were among our most treasured possessions. They separated themselves from the one-hour and overnight photo competition by beating them in turn-around time, delivering a higher quality photo, staying ahead with new technology, and building a client base that included Hollywood celebrities and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the late 1990s, 30 Minute Photos Etc. was blindsided by the digital revolution in photography. Suddenly customers weren’t bringing in rolls of film. They were printing them off their home computers. Business took a nosedive. Goldstone transformed the company into an online boutique photo service, creating a website for customers to format and edit their digital images, and with the click of their mouse, have high quality prints processed and shipped immediately to wherever they lived in the United States. He even put a 24-hour live support capability right on the website.
Still it was a struggle to rebuild the business. In 1997, Goldstone bought some local cable spots for the MTV Video Music Awards, only to discover that the show would be featuring rap singer Eminem performing live. Offended by the rapper’s lyrics, Goldstone bought up all the local commercial time for the awards program so that organizations including the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Human Rights Campaign Fund could ran public service announcements educating viewers on violence against women, bigotry, and gay rights.
“That was extremely expensive,” Goldstone recalls. “This was our whole campaign to get younger adults excited about our business and to use it. Instead we ran those spots because we believed it was the right thing to do. As it turned out, we also got a lot of media coverage for the educational campaign and ourselves,” he continues.
So what’s next for Mitch Goldstone? Wait and see. Visa and MasterCard may regret not answering their mail.
[Robert Barnett, a freelance writer in Los Angeles, is a contributing editor ofthe University of Southern California’s Marshall Magazine].