Get the Message

The new age of bootstrap marketing

Back Longreads Jun 1, 2013 By Jeff Wilser

David Carrozza is a retired laboratory scientist. He likes to ride his bike through the Sacramento foothills. One hot summer day, while pedaling the American River Bike Trail, he happened to cross a sprinkler in a local city park that sprayed cool water on his neck and face. It felt … glorious.

“I kept thinking about that sprinkler, about how good it felt,” he says. An idea wormed into his brain: What if he could find a way to reproduce that cooling feeling? A scientist to the bone, he designed a contraption that, when hooked to a bike, would spray the rider with a cooling mist. It worked like a charm. The following summer, he used this contraption everyday, and it allowed him to comfortably cycle through the 108-degree Sacramento heat.

Then he got serious. Working with his son and daughter, Carrozza, 59, filed for a patent, hatched a business plan, hired a design firm to improve upon the prototype and created a name: “Spruzza.” Now he’s ready to bring his invention to market.

But how, exactly?

It’s the classic entrepreneur’s dilemma: How do you market your product, idea or service when money is tight and the consumer doesn’t even know you exist? Like all hungry entrepreneurs, he faces some cruel statistics: 50 percent of all small businesses fail in the first year; 95 percent fail within the first five.

Feast or famine can hinge on marketing. And “marketing,” of course, is a term that’s cartoonishly broad — like “history” or “sex.” MBA students plunk down $100,000 to crack the concept. But, generally speaking, where do you begin?

“Marketing is, at its essence, delivering a message, through a channel, to a targeted audience, to serve a strategy,” says Lila Wallrich, the CEO of Wallrich Creative Communications, a firm whose clients range from small companies to Mercy Hospitals to the Sacramento Public Library. She suggests a 4-phase model that can be used for plucky entrepreneurs like Carrozza:

• Develop the message. “Know the business’s defensible claims, competitive advantages and points of differentiation. Decide if you want to build a brand (general awareness) or create a call to action (buy this or that) or both.  Don’t try to do both with one message,” says Wallrich. 
• Define the target. “Who are the customers? Where are they? Are you sure? What do you want them to do — be aware of you or do something?”
• Develop the plan. “Get your message into the hands of your target by way of paid and earned media. This does not have to be expensive. It just has to be strategic.”
• Execute. 

A tactic that’s not part of this plan: Assuming you can hawk your product immediately.

New products like Spruzza, which carve out a niche that doesn’t even exist, first require a period of market education. “Some companies make the mistake of looking for dollars in the cash register right away. You first have to communicate your service and how it fits in a consumer’s lifestyle,” says Gordon Fowler, CEO of 3fold Communications, a Sacramento-based marketing agency. “The days of the yellow starburst ‘Buy Now! Buy Now! Buy Now!’ are long gone.”

A case study: L Street Lofts, a client of 3fold’s, had the goal of introducing lofts to the Sacramento real estate market. In 2003, lofts were still a rarity in the city, and baffled apartment-seekers asked questions like, “How many bedrooms?” (Answer: Somewhere between 0 and infinity. Lofts can have as many rooms as you want.) The market wasn’t ready for a hard sell. So Fowler’s team helped create a series of “Loft Living” workshops demonstrating how to divvy up space and convert one big room into a home.

“Rather than push the product, we pushed the lifestyle and the location,” Fowler says. “It was very gentle.” Bonus? These workshops were packed with potential customers who jotted down their names and emails on a clipboard, making for a killer prospect list.

This all takes time. Research shows that, on average, it takes 9 times for someone to hear your message before they whip out a credit card; worse, they only hear your message one out of every three times they’re exposed to it. So brace yourself for 26 whiffs before that one magic yes. (It’s a lot like dating.) “Marketing does a lot of good things, wonderful things. But the one thing it rarely does is work in a hurry,” writes guru Jay Levinson in “Startup Guide to Guerrilla Marketing.”

To this point, the marketing roadmap for Spruzza has hugged this idea of patience. “We’re going for base hits, not home runs,” Carrozza says. He knows he hasn’t fully defined his target customer: are they competitive racers, casual bikers or somewhere in between? He needs more data. He considered crowdfunding (pooling investors on the Internet), but he knows that if he promises too much too soon, it could backfire. (Exhibit A: Entrepreneur Seth Quest raised $35k on Kickstarter to create the “Hanfree” iPad stand. He couldn’t deliver, faced a lawsuit and went bankrupt.) As a gradual rollout, Spruzza is sponsoring racing teams, dressing cyclists in Spruzza-branded jerseys, purchasing booths at races, engaging in the online biking community and taking pre-orders. Based on how the market reacts, he will course-correct and throttle up or down.

Carrozza understands that for all the glittering techno-wonders like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterist, Instagram and Vine, there’s still much to be said for elbow grease. That’s how Wallrich built its clients.

“[We] spent hours in the public library — there was no Internet — and hand-copied hundreds of prospect names from local business reference directories,” Lila Wallrich says. “Then we sat in our office and made cold calls. On a good day, 25 calls might turn into 5 meetings, which might translate into two proposals and maybe into one project. It was humbling, but also exciting.”

Jubal DeLong is the CEO of JDID, the design firm that partnered with Spruzza. He tells a similar breaking-in story. In the early days, DeLong didn’t passively wait for the market to come to him. He made things happen. In person. He did some Internet searching, learned that a potential client was presenting at a trade show and showed up to give him his pitch. “It’s like “Mad Men”; just an old school pitch,” says DeLong. This helped him build a relationship with GlobalStar, a leading maker of mobile satellites. DeLong also offers a reminder that the product is part of marketing. There’s no separation of church and state. His firm works with clients to adapt, tweak and reengineer products based on their marketing goals and customer feedback.

You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Successful marketers diversify. “Wannabes wait for their lucky break. Guerrilla entrepreneurs engineer four, five, six plans and execute them in tandem, wagering that at least one will get traction,” writes Levinson.

When educating the market about lofts, 3fold backed up their workshops with radio ads, billboards and crafty grassroots tactics. To spread the concept of cubic square feet — a key selling point of lofts — they hid branded Rubik’s cubes throughout midtown and slapped “Wanted” posters around the city. If you found a lost Rubik’s cube in a local bar, you could return it for a reward at the L Street Loft sales studio, which also generated both content and eyeballs for their website. “We just wanted to be part of the community,” Fowler says.

The same principles that make you a good person — giving, thinking about others — make you a good marketer. When Wallrich started out, they supported local nonprofits with pro bono design work. “We branded and promoted dozens of events and programs for the local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Heart Association, Red Cross and others in order to build our portfolio and make contacts.”

Small gifts can have big returns. “Bootstrap marketing” describes the tactic of one Los Angeles apartment building. It’s neighboring buildings had a 70 percent occupancy rate, but this one building had 100 percent occupancy. The star building offered this clever gift: “Sign a lease … get free auto grooming.” Whatever it cost to pay a car washer was chump change compared to the value of operating at capacity.

Sneaky-smart ideas can trump low budgets. Levinson tells of how one florist, hoping to goose his off-peak revenue, used a billboard that said, “How mad is she?” (His January sales boomed.) Or there’s the small retailer who was sandwiched between two bigger stores; the store on the left advertised “Grand Opening — Prices Slashed 50 percent,” and the store on the right advertised, “Monster Clearance Sale — Prices Slashed 75 percent.” Outgunned on price, the middle store hung up a sign between the two that read, “Main Entrance.”

When asked to identify the most common hiccups in bootstrap marketing, Fowler doesn’t hesitate: “The name. Just because your neighbors think it’s cool, doesn’t mean it’s a good name. Don’t get married to it.” In fact, when meeting with a prospective client, one of the first things he asks is whether they’re willing to change the name. If not, he might not work with them. A clunky name could cause speed bumps like awkward spelling, an unworkable URL or copyright infringements.

“What gives a product power is not the name, but the branding associated with it,” Fowler says. Just look at Apple, Google or even Subway. “There’s no reason you’d want to associate a turkey sandwich with a hot, steamy, gross, crowded New York train, but the marketing has overcome this.”

Another pitfall: assuming social media is a cheap, miracle solution. On the one hand, as Wallrich says, “Social media is low or no cost. The small grocer on the corner can conceivably reach as large an online audience as Whole Foods. New media has leveled the playing field.” But this has a trade-
off. She adds, “Branding is a two-way conversation now. Customers have a voice. Their loyalty is harder to win now. A one-sided perspective isn’t good enough anymore.” Twitter can pack a punch, but it’s less about selling to your community and more about engaging with your community.

In Fowler’s experience, companies can have an unrealistic expectation about what Twitter can and can’t do. For example, “Teenagers don’t hang out on twitter.” He explains that teenagers like their privacy, and they like being in control of who can see what. (A “Business Insider” article titled “Teens Hate Twitter” reports that 72 percent have never once used it.)

How about old-school print campaigns? Quality matters. There’s a reason companies hire firms like Wallrich and 3fold. “The quality of your print communications plays a major role in the way clients and prospects judge your competence and professionalism. Perception equals reality,” writes Levinson.  It’s tempting for a scrappy entrepreneur, hoping to spread her budget as thin as a pancake, to do all the creative legwork herself. This can result in common mistakes like a lack of negative space, haphazard typeface, schlocky language or a cheesy color scheme.

A more fundamental problem is trying to be all things to all people. Experts stress the importance of knowing what you do, who you’re targeting, and how, specifically, you will serve their needs. Wallrich says do-it-allers “run themselves ragged and either fail or never achieve true greatness. They become jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.”

One final pitfall: thinking that marketing is a means to an end. It’s not an end in itself, and it’s easy to get distracted by the bells and whistles. “Yes, there is a magic in the creative process that we love. But marketing serves a business need first and foremost,” Wallrich says. “It starts with a methodical analysis about what will best drive revenue to the bottom line. Then we whip out our magic wands.

As for Spruzza? The brand’s potential is summed up by the cheeky language on its website: “Spruzza is based on the 80/20 Rule. During hot riding seasons, 80% of the time we would like to be 20 degrees cooler.” It’s got a lot going for it. A fun idea, a promising product and even a catchy tagline — “A cooler way to ride.” But their main asset could be a cautious, targeted, marketing plan. It’s unlikely that you’ll see any Super Bowl ads or billboards on Interstate 5. And that’s just fine with Carrozza. He’s after his targeted customers, not the global masses. Swinging for the fences can lead to strikeouts. He’d rather get on base.


Recommended For You

Arcade Belts, a 3-year-old startup based in Squaw Valley, is supplying all-weather belts to retailers in six countries.

Arcade Winnings

An all-weather accessory company advances to the next round

A slope-loving trio needed durable, weatherproof belts that would fit comfortably, last a long time and look good. So the self-proclaimed ski bums decided to make their own. Olympic Valley-based Arcade Belts launched three years ago from a living room and specializes in belts made specifically for winter-sport enthusiasts.

Oct 1, 2013 Kibkabe Araya