On The Record: CEO Steven Boal on the future of CashStar and Portland’s tech scene

Steven Boal, a Silicon Valley tech executive, is the new interim CEO of CashStar in Portland

Steven Boal was already a digital revolutionary when he came up with the idea for CashStar.

Having disrupted the coupon world as CEO of Coupons.com, he had the idea for a company that would do the same thing to the gift card industry.

Today, CashStar employs more than 80 people; has nearly 300 clients, including Starbucks, Best Buy, Home Depot and Williams-Sonoma; and has attracted more than $30 million in venture capital. All from its headquarters in Portland.

Being based in Maine was not the original plan.

About five and a half years ago, not long after coming up with the idea for CashStar, Boal met David Stone and, impressed with his experience in the payment industry, hired him to launch CashStar.

Boal assumed Stone, who lived in Maine, would move to California and set up shop in Silicon Valley, where Coupons.com is headquartered in Mountain View. He was wrong.

“[Stone] convinced me that Maine was the place to be for this, and he was absolutely right,” Boal told me Friday. “Fast forward [five years] and CashStar is the absolute leader in the space. … It’s a trailblazer when it comes to the digitization of the gift card industry.”

Stone recently resigned as the company’s CEO. Both Stone and Boal, who serves as chairman of CashStar’s board, say it was a mutual decision.

Boal, in the meantime, has stepped into the role of interim CEO for the Portland-based company. I had the opportunity on Friday to speak with Boal via telephone about his plans for CashStar, Portland’s startup scene and whether it’s catching the eye of more Silicon Valley companies.

First things first: Will CashStar remain in Portland?

Any tech company in Maine that receives venture capital from outside the state could be in danger of being forced to relocate, as that investment can come with strings attached. But Boal said CashStar is safe.

“I can say that what started in Maine will stay in Maine. I can say that with absolute certainty,” he told me. “I’ve become a real fan of Portland, and the center of gravity for the company will stay exactly where it is.”

Boal’s not against the idea of having other offices, though. CashStar already has a small office in San Francisco, he points out.

He said he’s been very impressed with the local team assembled in Portland.

“I don’t see any reason why we don’t continue to build and grow in Portland itself. We’re attracting people from Boston, we’re attracting people from all over the place,” he said.

CashStar, and its targeted market, is primed for growth, he said.

“The time is right for CashStar to scale its business, continue to drive adoption in the marketplace, and go from a small- to medium-sized company to a medium-sized big company,” Boal said, “and sometimes that requires a different style of management.”

Stone himself told me earlier this month that he prefers launching startups and pursuing early, rapid growth. Once a company gets to a certain size, it’s a different ballgame, one Stone said he was happy to pass off to someone else with more experience growing large companies.

Boal has that experience at Coupons.com, where he remains CEO. He’s grown that company over 15 years from a three-person startup to a 500-person company operating in more than 13 countries.

CashStar could be that big, Boal said. The gift card industry is an “unlimited market” as the push towards mobile payments continues to gain traction, he said. CashStar is in a perfect position to take advantage of that market potential.

“We’re at the very beginning stages of a complete transformation from physical cards to digital,” Boal said. “And like the coupons industry and what we’ve done at Coupons.com, what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias, what Craigslist has done to classifieds — all of those marketplaces were completely transformed. And CashStar is a perfect example of an enormous market that will be completely transformed from physical cards to digital over the course of the next several years.”

To remain a market leader and continue pushing the gift card marketplace toward digitization, a slight shift in CashStar’s strategy will be required, Boal said.

“Small companies tend to spend a lot of time selling future products to future clients,” Boal said.

That’s been CashStar’s focus for the first five years of its existence.

“CashStar is now in a market position where it will be focusing on selling existing products to future clients, and future products to existing clients,” Boal said. “That’s really the primary difference in focus of the business going forward.”

What those future products might be Boal won’t say. “I can tell you we have some really exciting stuff in the pipeline,” is all he would offer.

Asked if Portland has a chance of attracting other satellite offices for Silicon Valley companies — companies like Coupons.com, for example — Boal couldn’t say. He personally was surprised to discover that Portland has a great pool of digital payment and creative talent.

But “given there aren’t many high growth technology companies in Maine… if I was to put a Coupons.com office there, there’d be poaching back and forth.”

And though he has come to really enjoy Maine, Boal doesn’t see relocating here any time soon.

After all, Boal is still only interim CEO of CashStar. I asked if there’s a chance he’d assume the role on a permanent basis.

“It’s a very active dialogue with the board and existing management team,” he said. “Stay tuned on that front, but I’m enjoying the role right now.”

Want to connect? Hit me up on Twitter at @whit_richardson

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Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.