JJ Ramberg talks about her startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling women entrepreneurs who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. 

In December, JJ Ramberg ended a 12-year run as host of “Your Business,” a rare Sunday show on MSNBC dedicated to entrepreneurs instead of news or politics. In a farewell message, she told viewers that she was inspired “by all those who started with nothing more than an idea…and who taught us all that anything is possible.

As always, Ramberg, a petite brunette in an unfailingly cute outfit, was characteristically upbeat as she recounted (on-camera) her years interviewing business owners, from hot air balloon company owners to indoor mountain bike arena operators. She also reminded viewers that she had grilled SBA Administrators and had even testified before Congress about the challenges of business ownership.

When I caught up with Ramberg in February, I expected her to be in a relaxed, perhaps nostalgic stake. Surely she’s been taking some time off, kicking up her feet in the Brooklyn brownstone she shares with her husband and three kids…or at least missing her Sunday show? Nope. She’s been making a major change to Goodshop, the socially conscious coupon site she runs with her brother — and she’s simultaneously pursuing a new television opportunity and starting her next business. (She won’t disclose details of the latter two.) “It’s bananas and so fun and I can’t keep anything straight,” she says.

[Related: Listen to our podcast series featuring women entrepreneur’s startup stories]

Queen of Multitasking

Full disclosure: I’ve known JJ for many years — I’ve been a guest on her show numerous times, and filled in as a host when she was on maternity leave — and I’ve never been able to keep up with everything she does all at once. She is perhaps the one person who can multitask without it making her stupid.

Throughout her entire run at MSNBC, while working as a high-profile television journalist, she was also moonlighting as a social entrepreneur building Goodshop. (On the personal side, she was also busy getting married, to architect Scott Glass, and having three kids within 5 years). “I knew when I was in it that I might look back on it and it would seem crazy, but in the middle of it, it didn’t feel that crazy,” she says now. “Everything was so exciting and I had a lot of energy.”

Her company actually pre-dates “Your Business” — it began life in 2005 as a search engine called Goodsearch. Keep in mind, this was before social media. “The world is so different than when we started,” she says. “There was no Gofundme.” The idea was simple: The major search engines were making boatloads of cash through advertising revenue. What if a percentage could go to a big charity or an individual’s personal cause? She and brother Ken, who is 5 years older, came up with Goodsearch, essentially a Yahoo-powered search engine with a heart. Users could pick a favorite cause, then every time they searched, a penny would go to that cause.

The two launched Goodsearch around the time Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans — an event JJ was covering as a reporter for CNN. “It was such a disaster and it was so heartbreaking,” she says. “But I knew, because we’ve all seen this, that eventually the cameras were going to move away.” She and Ken felt that Goodsearch could “keep the longevity of attention on this cause” by allowing users to raise money for organizations like the New Orleans Red Cross or ASPCA New Orleans every time they searched.

Driven by a goal of helping others, Ramberg and her brother began calling as many charities as they could to sign them up. “I would work basically 24 hours a day in my pajamas. Roll out of bed, work. Roll back into bed. I didn’t have a boyfriend, I didn’t have kids, I wasn’t married,” she says. “This was what I was doing, which was really fun and really exciting.”

That first year, Goodsearch grew quickly. “We got to write checks to all these organizations,” she says. In 2007, she and Ken decided to expand it into a shopping platform called Goodshop. “We had relationships with thousands of online retailers,” she says. Users of Goodshop could pick a cause, and then go shopping. “Goodshop receives a percentage of that sale,” she says. “We donate 50 percent of what we receive to the cause, then the other 50 percent goes to run the company.” To date, the Rambergs have raised about $13 million for a variety of causes.

An Early Start

Ramberg grew up in Los Angeles, and credits her entrepreneurial bent to her family. Her grandfather, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico, “didn’t speak any English, and he literally started as a peddler, going door-to-door selling things,” she says. He eventually opened Phoenix Furniture Company, where Ramberg as a kid would help her dad work. “They sold to a primarily Latino audience, so the commercials were on Spanish TV,” she says, singing a jingle in Spanish, which she speaks fluently. “It’s always in my head. That is my childhood.”

Ramberg says she was most influenced by her late mother, Connie, who had been a stay-at-home parent until her mid-40s, when “my brother [Ken] came home from college and he had an idea for a company.” The brother-and-mother team bootstrapped JobTRAK, a successful career site for college students, eventually selling it 13 years later to Monster.com. “All women should listen to this story because it shows you that life comes in stages and you don’t have to do everything all at once,” she says. (Her mother died of cancer in 2001, a year after the JobTRAK sale).

While Ramberg initially pursued a career in journalism, working at NBC News following her 1992 graduation from Duke University, she decided to get an MBA from Stanford. “I wanted to get more education and more exposure to other things so I could see what else was out there,” she says. She finished in 1998, and like many of her classmates, went to work for an Internet startup — in her case, Cooking.com. “It was in the middle of the dot-com boom,” she says. “It was fun to get to be a part of something that’s so historical.” She stayed 4 years, but eventually missed journalism.

Ramberg moved to New York and reported for CNN, while starting work on Goodsearch with Ken, who was in Los Angeles. “I worked from my little apartment here in New York City,” she says. “We hired a contract designer and a contract programmer. And we just put it up there, very bare bones.”

Not long after she and Ken launched Goodsearch, she got a call from MSNBC, which was creating a new program called “Your Business” focused on small business owners. The network needed a host. “Literally, this is just luck, I was at CNN working at the stock exchange that day, and the executive producer of ‘Your Business’ looked up, saw me on TV and said, “What about her? Is she under contract?,’” she says. “And I wasn’t.” She was told the gig would last 6 months. It lasted 12 years.

Finding What Works

As “Your Business” was taking off, so was Goodshop — although it didn’t happen in a clean, easy manner. Inspired by their initial pivot, the Rambergs launched a host of new sites: GoodDining, GoodTrial, GoodTVAds. “Here is your entrepreneurial cautionary tale,” Ramberg says, with a laugh. “We launched like five Good-things, and then proceeded to kill them off one-by-one because none of them took off.”

But finally one thing stuck: Coupons. “That made Goodshop take off — people were really interested in getting these coupons for online stores,” she says. “We became one of the top coupon aggregators for online stores.”

Today, millions use Goodshop coupons. While there are rivals like CouponCabin and RetailMeNot, Goodshop stands out because it allows users to choose charities — more than 100,000 organizations are listed on the site — to receive a portion of proceeds. As a result of the growth, Ramberg and her brother hired a CEO to run operations in 2012, although they still are involved. The number of employees fluctuates but hovers at about 30.

This past month, Goodshop made a big change, adding a “cash back” option (popularized by sites like Ebates) so that users can direct dollars back to their own wallets instead of charities. “If we can help people pay their mortgages or pay for activities for the kids or pay for groceries, that to us is doing good as well,” Ramberg says.

With her show over, Ramberg is far from resting. Even when our camera crew filmed her in Brooklyn (see video above), she displayed her usual multitasking skills between takes — taking calls from the school PTA, picking up her daughter and chopping vegetables for a dinner party. In the months ahead, she expects to be busier than ever. “I have a curiosity and enthusiasm for new things,” she says. “I’m in a position where I can say, ‘let me try, let me give it a shot.’”

Do you have an interesting story? Tell us here

Read Full Transcript

JJ Ramberg Final Conformed Script

SOT: Hi there, everyone! I’m JJ Ramberg, and welcome to Your Business, the show dedicated…

JJ: My audience are entrepreneurs, people who are in the trenches every single day, and I am one of them. And so, what help can I be to me, right? So, how do I get it so people out there don’t feel alone and feel like there’s a resource?

TEXT: JJ Ramberg – TV Host – Co-Founder, Goodshop, Brooklyn, N.Y.

JJ: I am a daughter of entrepreneurs, I'm a granddaughter of entrepreneurs. My grandfather, my dad, my mom’s father and my mom started companies. No one ever told me, “You should run a small business.” I think because I grew up with parents who were entrepreneurs, it’s just what I think about.

TEXT: JJ studied English at Duke University.

JJ: I always thought that I’d want to start something, but when I graduated college, I didn’t have an idea.

TEXT: JJ moved to New York and landed a job as a receptionist at NBC Nightly News.

JJ: I loved it. I loved working in the news. I did my receptionist job as best as I possibly could so that I'd be considered for other jobs in the future, which I was.

TEXT: By 1996, JJ was an associate producer at Dateline.

JJ: Dateline was an amazing experience, but I wanted to get more education and more exposure to other things. My sister got her MBA and my brother got his MBA, and so it seemed like a natural, good way to go.

TEXT: JJ started her MBA at Stanford’s business school in 1996.

SOT: Thanks, guys. See you next week.

TEXT: But after graduating she found she missed journalism.

JJ: CNN were opening a Silicon Valley bureau, so I went and pitched them and said, “I have business skills and I have journalism skills, but I want to have a crack at being a reporter, not just a producer.”

TEXT: CNN hired JJ as a Producer. And a year later as a reporter and host. At the same time, she began to work with her brother Ken on her first business — a web platform called Goodsearch.

JJ: The idea behind Goodsearch was, you search the internet, you get Yahoo search results, but you select a cause before you search and a penny will go to your favorite cause.

TEXT: In September 2005, just as JJ and Ken were about to launch Goodsearch, CNN sent her to New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina.

JJ: Hurricane Katrina was such a disaster, but I knew, because we've all seen this, that eventually the cameras were going to move away, the attention was going to move to something else. So I thought, “We're just about to launch something that can keep the longevity of attention on this cause. If our idea works, if someone chooses the New Orleans Red Cross, or ASPCA New Orleans, or some tiny nonprofit that's helping people there, Goodsearch is going to be able to do that.”

TEXT: When JJ returned from New Orleans, she juggled reporting gigs and building Goodsearch.

JJ: Ken and I just started calling people. Literally, I would call, "Hi, American Cancer Society. This is JJ, and I have this great new way where your supporters can help you without spending a dime of their own." We did that for all of the big organizations.

TEXT: The Penn State Dance Marathon was one of the first organizations to sign up to be a beneficiary.

JJ: They had made something like $2.37 and my brother and I called each other like, “It's working! This organization has already made more than a dollar, it's working!” And that first year, we got to write checks to all these organizations.

TEXT: Goodsearch grew fast. In 2007, they decided to expand it into a shopping platform called Goodshop.

JJ: We launched Goodshop as a part of Goodsearch. When somebody shops at a store, Goodshop receives a percentage of that sale. And when somebody selects a cause, we donate 50% of what we receive to the cause, and then the other 50% goes to run the company.

SOT: As you can see right now, I am supporting the ASPCA. 1.5% of my purchase will go to the ASPCA.

JJ: Goodshop, that was successful. And then we thought, “We should do Good-everything.” So, we launched Good-dining, Goodtrial. We launched like five Good-things, and then proceeded to kill them off one by one because none of them took off. Except what we did is we added coupons to Goodshop, and that made Goodshop take off.

TEXT: In 2013, JJ and Ken hired a small management team to run the company. For over a decade, JJ has also been hosting an MSNBC show about entrepreneurship.

SOT: This week’s biz star is more than a triple threat.

JJ: I think a lot about my career as an entrepreneur and my career in television, and I feel like I've been really lucky. I was open to the luck that came my way.

SOT: Thank you so much for joining us today. I often take this time in the show to let you know something I learned this week. But today, I’ve got some other news. After 12 years on the air, Your Business is coming close to its final episode.

JJ: Your Business is going to be ending. To say that I'm not sad would be bananas. I am incredibly sad. I am wondering about what comes next. Right? Because this is a moment where something will come next, there's no more status quo. So, we'll see.

TEXT: Millions of people use Goodshop every year. It has raised about $13 million for nearly 100,000 causes. JJ is building her next business.