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Why I Fired Kevin Costner: A Story About Marketing Your Business

Posted by David Wadler on Nov 10, 2016 3:02:55 PM

The Baby Won’t Stop Crying

“I found this thing called gripe water. We have to buy it!” announced my wife.

Gripe water? Why does my wife want to buy gripe water? And just as importantly, what is gripe water?

First, some background….

On the first night of my daughter’s life, she was ferried by a nurse to my wife’s room in the hospital. “She won’t stop crying and she’s too loud,” the nurse said as she handed the baby to my wife. It would be a long night for the three of us — my wife, my daughter and me — and if I slept more than an hour or two, I‘d be surprised. Days lMarketing Crybabyater we were home, where I stupidly turned down my mother’s offer to help. Instead, I found myself pacing around my apartment at 4am, baby pressed gently against my chest as I tried to soothe her seemingly endless sadness. We had been told by so many of our friends that their newborns did little more than sleep. Ours? She barely slept. She was upset about something and made sure that everyone knew it.

Maybe a month later, at a routine pediatric appointment, the doctor uttered the dreaded “c word”: colic. “Every year, I get one kid like this,” she said. “I’m so sorry that this is happening to you guys, but it will eventually get better.” There’s a school of thought that naming things gives us some sense of power and control over it. As it related to colic, this was absolutely untrue. We were exhausted and our baby seemed miserable all the same. So we did what most other parents would do and turned to search engines to find a solution to the problem.

My wife landed on a page that advertised “Gripe Water,” a liquid formulation that purports to soothe colicky babies. “Look at this,” she said, before reciting a testimonial.

“This has been a lifesaver! Our baby stopped crying and started sleeping through the night.”

“We have to buy this,” my wife insisted.

“Huh?” I furrowed my brow. “Why?”

“That other baby stopped crying and started sleeping through the night! We need this!”

Ah, the power of marketing…. My wife is a really smart, well-educated woman who, though compromised by sleep deprivation, would certainly be considered a rational operator. The combination of her emotional state, the baby’s temperament and the product messaging made the gripe water seem incredibly compelling to her. To me though, it just seemed like marketing fluff.

Marketing Doesn’t Work On Me

For years, I thought that, for whatever disadvantages I had in life, I had three attributes which were hugely helpful.

  1. I don’t like the taste of beer.
  2. I don’t like the taste of coffee.
  3. I don’t respond to marketing.

I’ve spent most of the past two decades in New York City and the bulk of my early years here were spent trying to sort out my professional direction or bootstrapping a startup. On occasion, I have crunched some numbers in an attempt to quantify how much money I’ve saved by not drinking beer or coffee. The savings run into the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s harder to figure out how much I’ve saved by not responding to marketing, but for years, I was convinced that this character trait was hugely helpful.

I was wrong. And there was a consequence to my being wrong. Since I wasn’t susceptible to marketing, I made the mistake of thinking that it wasn’t important.

What You Don’t Know

There’s an expression that I encountered many years ago that still resonates with me: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” When you’re neck deep in your first startup, that’s not only true, but extremely consequential. Every quarter or two, you’re inclined to look back and think, “Wow, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing three months ago.” Some things take longer to identify. In fact, you might have to wait years before it becomes obvious to you that you missed something.

When I sold my first business, it was a good outcome. Our investors all made money; our employees all made money; the founders all made money; and the acquiring company added a profitable business that diversified its revenue stream. But looking back, I can’t help but wince a little bit. We could have had an even larger, more successful business had we decided to market it.

The Field of Dreams Approach to Marketing

W.P. Kinsella, author of the book, Field of Dreams, died just a few months before I wrote this. When I learned of his pas sing, I thought back to the book and the movie. Anfield_of_dreamsd then I thought about marketing. Yes, marketing.

The approach we took to marketing my first business was lifted right from the pages of Field of Dreams. We built an amazing product and then…. And then we waited for people to discover it. For the vast majority of the life of the business, we didn’t attend trade shows, do online advertising or pitch stories to the press. There were but one or two thought leadership pieces and our website didn’t even have a contact form. What the hell were we thinking?

“If you build it, they will come.”

When Kevin Costner’s character heard those words, which seemed to be whispered from some ethereal place, he thought he was going crazy. For me and my partners, this was the strategic vision for our marketing plan. In the immortal words of Scooby Doo, “Ruh roh!”

A New Approach

The beauty of Internet-based businesses is that they have never been easier to set up and scale. However, the problem with Internet-based businesses is that they have never been easier to set up and scale. With the playing field more level than it has ever been, new entrants file into contested categories each day. And as they do, it’s harder to get your prospective customers to find you. To maximize your chances of engaging the people and/or organizations that could benefit from your product or service, you need to market to them.

It would be a lie to say that I understand the mechanics of marketing, but I certainly understand its importance. So I’m getting myself educated — combing through papers, watching videos and reaching out to experts. We’ve purchased software, engaged a marketing consulting firm and have even set aside money for additional marketing expenses. I’m prepared to make a ton of mistakes and shake my head at my own ignorance every few months. Really, I’m okay with it. We’re building something that we think could be hugely helpful to organizations of all stripes and we’re not going to rely on chance to engage them.

I’m sorry, Kevin Costner, but you’re out of here. The Field of Dreams marketing plan is not in the cards for us. We’re pivoting to another inspirational story, but one driven by a solid marketing message — Crazy People.

Topics: Marketing, Startup Life