A wonderful tribe of strange visionaries who threw caution to the wind, flinging themselves into an economic unknown, created our American economy. I speak of the brave individuals who started their own businesses on a shoestring and a prayer. Although their ideas were often untested and they rarely had enough money to advertise – somehow, some way, enough of them made it through the night to become the employers we work for today. In admiration of their courage, I offer these marketing tips to any underfunded boot-strappers who would follow in their footsteps:

1. Time and Money are Interchangeable – A mechanic friend, Tony, carries in his glove box several dozen computer-printed 5X7 flyers that say, “I specialize in fixing BMW’s like this one. Is it running like it should?” When work is slow he drives through parking lots and looks for BMWs. When he finds one, he scribbles a little note to the owner, such as “Arctic Blue has always been my favorite color on this model. I’ll bet you’re proud of it.” Then he slips the flyer under the windshield wiper. Tony often gets calls on his cell phone before he even gets back to his shop. Another friend, Rick, specializes in replacing picture windows with fancy bay windows. Guess where he puts his flyers? You guessed it – on the front doors of houses with picture windows. Works like a charm. Rick says, “The key is to put the same flyer on the same houses month after month. Sometimes they’ll ignore the first ten flyers then call you when they get number eleven.” But we’re not just talking about flyers, here. Time and money are always interchangeable. When you’re short of one, spend the other.

2. Expensive Rent is Cheap Advertising – Be where the people are. Have you ever noticed the shoeshine guys at airports? They make a small fortune even though they have to pay extremely high rent to be there. But it’s a lot less money than they would’ve had to spend on advertising to generate the same amount of business. Is there a place where people could see you? Imagine the volume of business a shoe repairperson could do at one of those little kiosks in the mall. After seeing him hard at work there, hundreds of people would begin tossing their old shoes into the car as they were headed out to the mall. Why isn’t anyone doing this?

3. Free Samples are Cheap Advertising – A few years ago I began working with Andy, the owner of a frozen custard business. On the day we met, Andy said he would be happy to invest $10,000 in advertising if he could count on seeing 500 new customers. It was the middle of winter and his 2 custard stands had no inside dining. I told Andy to prepare enough mix to keep his custard machines running non-stop for 15 straight hours and to get a good night’s sleep. The next day I began airing a 60 second radio ad twice every hour on a medium-sized station offering free, full-sized cones to everyone in town; all they had to do was stop by one of Andy’s locations before midnight. We gave away more than 11,000 cones that day at a total cost of less than $3,000 – including the cost of advertising. Andy’s business exploded and now he’s franchising nationally. The cost of free sampling is incremental. If no one responds to your offer, it costs you nothing. If you spend a lot, it’s only because it worked well. Do you have a product or service that can be sampled?

4. It’s What You Say that Matters Most – The smaller your budget, the more important it is that you make a compelling offer. Everyone is the right person to reach when you’re saying the right thing. But there are no right people when your message is limp. I’ve never seen a business fail because they were reaching the wrong people. But I’ve seen hundreds fail because they were saying the wrong thing. Be sure your message rocks the house.

Give it all you’ve got. We’re cheering for you. The future of our economy depends on the success of pioneers like you.

From the Archives: Dated April 26, 2004

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