I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

With an ad deadline looming and no real time or resources to put together any of my more ambitious ideas, I turned to the power of collective creativity. A bunch of our friends met in Golden Gate Park this past Saturday for croquet and lemonade in the incredibly balmy weather. When people had drunk and played their fill, I brought out my box of Sweet Meats and a camera and let people go to town. My peeps did not disappoint. Here are just some of the fabulous shots they created:

My fiancé later helped me out by laying out an ad, which I tweaked and edited into this:

Our next project will be to create some kick-ass video commercials. My crew has already got a number of fantastic plans for this. This Saturday I’m having everyone over for a big seder dinner to say thanks for their help and support — always.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Tip for y’all: if you’re considering taking out an ad in a print publication, find out when their ad deadline is, and wait until the week before to contact them.  This is the week when they are scrambling to meet their ad quotas, and they might be willing to let you run an ad at significant savings, especially if they have empty space on a page that needs filling.

I did this by accident last week.  A couple of months ago I contacted a publication with a press release, thinking they might want to run a blurb about me.  Instead (surprise), they said I should advertise with them.  Print ads are expensive, though, and they don’t give you such great bang for your buck.  The ad prices at this particular publication were way out of my league.

When they followed up about the ad, I explained my financial situation. Good news, they said, we offer 15% off to all new advertisers.  Still too expensive, I told them.  I just can’t afford something like that.  Then they came down to 20% off.  Sorry, I said.  I appreciate the special rate, but I just paid off all my inventory and literally don’t have the funds in the bank.  40% off?  Wow, I said.  You guys are really being nice about trying to meet me halfway on this, but here’s the bottom line.  The absolute most I can pay is 65% off and I can send you a set of my new products.

Done.

Holy crap.  I probably could have quoted even less.  After all, 65% off the ad price is still better than no money at all, especially if you have to pay for that page to be printed anyway.   They had nothing to lose by accepting my offer, no matter how low.  I had nothing to lose by presenting my offer.  It’s these win-win situations (which only happen right before the ad deadline) that can net you a STOOPID bargain in advertising.  My only advice?  Make your bottom line lower than mine, because there was clearly still some room before the floor.

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 4)

And finally….

Swag bags: (Cost: ~25 cents per bag) Swag (a.k.a. schwag, freebies, giveaways, promos) are small promotional items you donate to attendees of an event. They range from the cheesy pens given away at auto sales to the luxury swag bags containing diamond watches and designer perfume given to presenters at the Oscars. Most trade or craft shows will solicit swag from their exhibitors to give to the earliest or biggest buyers, but there are other places to give away swag, too. Some businesses include a piece of swag with every order. Some set up giveaway or raffle tables at block parties or other neighborhood events, and some others just pass them out on well-trafficked street corners. There are even swag subscription companies like The Sampler, who will send your stuff out to folks who love free stuff so much, they’ll pay for it!

I’m personally a fan of swag that is cheap and does double-duty as advertisements, like stickers and buttons. You can produce a gagillion of either for relatively little money, and if your sticker or button has an awesome image on it (in addition to your company’s name or web site), you can get lots of people to do your marketing for you, giving you real bang for your buck. You can certainly go with less conventional media, like barrettes or zipper pulls, but the key is to get the most number of people to notice your brand for the least money possible.

When it comes to freebies, I like to stick to giving them away to friends and paying customers. These are the people who are the most likely to put your swag to good use, because they either already love you, or love your stuff. Also, in my experience, I have found that the best way to get people to not buy any of your merchandise is to put free stuff out on the table.

Coupons and Discounts: (Cost: possible printing costs, discounts people actually use) Coupons and discounts are tricky things. On the one hand, they can often be that extra little push between considering an item and actually buying it. On the other hand, you don’t want to overuse them or people will think you are having a hard time getting people to buy your stuff.

I sell very specific and unusual gift items, so the rules that apply to my business may not apply to yours, but here’s what works for me: I find that coupons work best for limited times, such as a semi-annual sale when you are discontinuing old merchandise and releasing new designs, or to get people from your mailing list to come to a show or event. Other good coupons are the ones you give to customers with their completed order, which encourages them to become repeat buyers.

As far as discounts go, I find that quantity discounts are the best kind there are. I used to sell (and will probably sell again soon) a “meat medley,” which was a collection of my three most popular plush designs, discounted to $80 from $84. It was a savings of less than 5% but I sold more of those collections than of any individual toy.

And that’s all she wrote.  Of course, there are other inexpensive ways to promote yourself, like having a web site, leaving postcards in neighborhood haunts, and going to networking events but this list is already four posts long, so perhaps I’ll save those for another time. If you have any other ideas that you’d like me to add or expand upon, please let me know in an e-mail or comment.  Happy hawking!

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 3)

And even more…

Craft fairs: (Cost: 1-2 days of your time, ~$free-250, depending on fair) Craft fairs are great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, they average about 5% of what it costs to do a trade show. Secondly, you can sell your stuff directly to the public, allowing you to make you some cash while conducting first-hand market research in the process. Thirdly (I didn’t know this until recently), your wares often don’t have to be hand-crafted to be eligible. And fourthly, the press comes to you! Not only do writers for various publications visit craft fairs, they are often sponsored by a magazine like Craft, BUST, or Adorn, and are therefore guaranteed to get coverage.I would never apply for a craft fair that charges a non-refundable application fee because it indicates to me that they are either:

  1. Shady or greedy people who are okay with taking money from people who might not get anything out of the deal whatsoever.
  2. Such terrible businessmen/businesswomen that they need to charge application fees in addition to booth fees just to keep the venture profitable.

Here are some excellent fairs to look into that don’t charge non-refundable fees to apply:

If you do handcraft your wares, you should definitely also have a storefront on Etsy, the biggest online craft marketplace out there.

Check back tomorrow for Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion Part 3!

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 2)

Two more cheap and easy ideas, continued from yesterday’s post:

Be your own model: (Cost: nada) One of the best ways to get attention for your stuff is to wear it. Whether you make bags, hand lotion or cross-stitch patterns, wear what you make (put your design on a t-shirt or button if is isn’t already something wearable) and take it out of the house. When I wear my “Meat is Sweet” t-shirt and a pair of t-bone steak earrings, I am guaranteed to have at least two or three people ask me where I got those things. Then I simply say, “I made them, and I’d be happy to make one for you, too,” while handing them my business card.

Start an e-mail list: (Cost: 1 hour of your time) There is absolutely no reason for a business not to have an e-mail newsletter. It’s free, easy and reaches an audience that already loves your style and wants to know when and how they can get more of it.

Some rules about e-mail lists:

  1. E-mail lists should be kept explicitly optional. That does not mean having some sneaky little opt-out checkbox somewhere in your online order form. It means telling people, right out front, where and how they can sign up if they want to. Create a sign-up page on your web site, or put out a clipboard at shows and fairs but don’t automatically put every new customer on it. The best way to piss off a new customer is to send them unsolicited marketing messages, so don’t do it.
  2. Don’t tell your subscribers about every time you sneeze. If you have the insatiable urge to broadcast your daily epiphanies, fears and bowel movements, start a blog. E-mail newsletters should only go out when you have a few interesting pieces of news to report, such as new designs, a sale, a tv appearance or new stores where you can find your merchandise.
  3. Make your newsletter professional. You don’t need to pay for some service or software specifically for making e-mail newsletters, but your newsletter should always have a table of contents, headings, links and images where applicable.
  4. For God’s sake, PROOFREAD! Don’t just run the spell check, actually go over what you have written. Nothing says “I don’t care” like a whole mess of typos.

Stay tuned…even more ideas tomorrow!

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 1)

Fifteen years ago, it was nearly impossible to reach potential customers outside of your immediate geographical area without spending thousands of dollars, which gave big corporations a huge advantage over small businesses. These days, however, thanks to the Worldwide Web, the scales are tipping. A small business can reach millions of people around the world overnight, and those millions can buy your product without even standing up. Furthermore, the long tail of the Internet tends to favor small, nimble ventures that can take creative risks without some mammoth bureaucracy slowing down their decision-making process. Just look at the success of port2port press or a self-released band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who sold 20,000 copies of their self-made debut album.

Yesterday I wrote about trade shows, which are perhaps the most expensive marketing tools a small business can use, but they are just one type of weapon in an arsenal of less expensive marketing options. In this post (and three more to follow) I’ve described a few alternative and inexpensive ways to get attention for your awesome new ideas:

Go door-to-door: (Cost: two or three days of your time, plus printed materials) It’s how those Uglydolls got started. They walked right up to the owner of Giant Robot, one of their favorite local stores, and asked if they could sell their wares there. Then they approached a second local store, Plastica, and later, a few others. Giant Robot also has a magazine, which gave them some press, but all in all, it was the word-of-mouth by excited customers that got them where they are today.

When going door-to-door, it is important to check out all of the stores in a particular neighborhood you are thinking of approaching, and then rank them by preference. Approach those stores in order, and stop when you have gotten orders from two or three of them. You do not want to create competition for the stores you are trying to buddy up to and you don’t want to saturate your local market too quickly. It is also important to only approach stores that you really think are appropriate environments for your products. If there is only one store in your neighborhood that fits your style, don’t approach a second store that seems like a long shot. It is a big waste of your time and theirs to try to pursue a connection that isn’t there and you might get a reputation for not knowing your audience.

Get yourself some press: (Cost: two or three days of your time, possibly postage, envelopes/boxes, printed materials) You need to put an appropriate amount of time into this for it to work (and have good photos of your stuff), but it can work really well. Grace Bonney of design*sponge has already done us the amazing service of putting together an excellent (and short!) step-by-step public relations guide, so I’m not going to include any separate instructions here. One note, though: give popular blogs equal attention to popular magazines. Not only do they often have just as many devoted readers, they link right to your shop!

Check back tomorrow for more inexpensive marketing and promotion ideas!

Sources: Crowndozen.com Interview: Uglydolls
(port2port interview) Mateo Ilasco, Meg. Craft, Inc.: Turn Your Creative Hobby Into a Business. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.

“To Show or not to Show?”–that was the Question

To show…

A few days ago I was faced with a dilemma: whether or not to participate in the New York International Gift Fair. The NYIGF is the best-known trade show in the biz, and the show of choice for hip, high-end designers. To show in one of the juried divisions, you need to submit a lengthy application. If accepted to the show, you can typically expect to wait anywhere from three to eighteen months for a spot.

A little recent history: when I first visited my local SCORE center, Barry, my counselor, emphasized how important it is to do the trade show circuit, exhibiting at least once per season. “There are only two ways to get new orders,” he said, “From trade shows or by going door-to-door, and you get very little return on your investment going door-to-door.” Okay, so Barry retired from business years ago, before the “long-tail” of the Internet had any effect on things, and he was in the garment industry. But what did I have to lose by applying?

The California Gift Show in Los Angeles contacted me three hours after filling out my contact info online. The show manager said that they had visited my web site and loved my products so much that they wanted to offer me a booth in their juried “L.A. Contemporary” division, without needing an application. I was thrilled. Firstly, the CGS is run by George Little Management, which also runs the NYIGF. I had read of artists showing at small GLM shows and then being recruited for the NYIGF by division managers. Secondly, the L.A. Contemporary division seemed analogous to the “Accent on Design” division of the NYIGF, which typically has the longest waiting list for spots. Then all of a sudden, I got what I thought I wanted most — a spot in this February’s NYIGF in the new “Handmade” juried division.

At first I was really excited. I had poured a full eight-hour day into my application and it had paid off! This was going to be easy money. Surely, if George Little Management thought my products were so good that I got booths at their shows so shortly after applying, then my products would fly off the shelves. They would know, right? They’ve got more of a global view of what sells in the gift industry than anyone. Also, the NYIGF is only two weeks after the CGS, so I’d be fresh off my first “practice” show, ready to dazzle store buyers and press alike with my finely-honed elevator pitch. I’d already have designed and built my booth and would have all of my materials together.

…or not to show

BUT, they needed an answer by 9am the next day or I would lose my spot, and it costs roughly $4,000 to use the booth. I did some math in my head: $4,000 for the booth, $800 for plane tickets for me and Andy, another $200 for meals and incidentals, $500 for booth construction materials, another $500 for shipping and lading of those materials, $200 to print more line sheets, order forms, etc. and God knows what else I wasn’t even considering. I haven’t finished the budgeting I learned in my accounting class this week, but I know I can’t afford to spend $10,000 on marketing my first year in business.

So I did a little more math: the average profit I make off of one of my meats is $6. If I got orders for 1,000 meats during the NYIGF, I could just about pay for the venture. Well, shit. Could I really expect sales to be that good? Even if they were that good, does it make sense to put that much money towards promotion? On the other hand, if I turn down the holy grail of gift shows, how am I ever going to get new orders?

Clearly, I needed reinforcements, so I contacted a few friends and relatives. I started with my mother, who knows nothing about trade shows, but was the only person answering the phone the moment I started freaking out. She made a few good points, like if I couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford it. End of story. And even if I had to reapply for the NYIGF the following year, wasn’t it better to have wasted one eight-hour day than $7,000?

Next, I called my uncle, who has a fancy tea company and a successful construction business. He is very familiar with the trade show circuit, albeit in different industries. His advice was very helpful, too. He said, “Take baby steps your first year in business. You don’t want to make big leaps when you don’t know what’s in front of you.” This sentiment was later echoed by my accounting instructor, who said, “Growing too fast can kill a business.” My uncle also emphasized that a trade show should be treated like an advertisement. Many companies don’t typically get enough orders from a show to cover its cost, but do it anyway in the hopes of getting press and exposure to national stores, and out of fear of “not being seen” when their competitors are.

Finally, I e-mailed my friend Scott, of the Woollyhoodwinks. The Woollyhoodwinks had shown at the NYIGF this summer, in the Handmade division, so Scott had the most timely and relevant advice at all. He wrote:

“It is important to understand a few things: ALL of the risk is on you. The NYIGF (and all gift fairs for that matter) are structured for the benefit of the gift fair company. They will hint at all sorts of amazing results that you can expect without promising anything. It is entirely up to you to make it successful, and that means getting a booth designed and built and shipped to NY and promoting your participation in the show by getting together a mailing list of potential customers and letting them know that you are going to be there. Also, you need a smooth order taking process because the buyers are there to buy and they don’t like to waste any time.

“Having said all that, we have done well at both the SFIGF and the NYIGF, making about 3 times our investment in new orders. However we did do the SFIGF first which allowed us to make a lot of mistakes much less expensively. Since it was in town, the financial risk was considerably less and we were able to refine our process for the NYIGF. My advice would be to skip the February NYIGF unless you already have very clear ideas about a booth and how to get it there. That is a huge deal and your presentation needs to be slick.”

In the end, I took their advice and didn’t do the show. I don’t have an extensive mailing list. I don’t have a smooth order-taking process. I only have a design for a booth half the size of the ones in the Handmade division. I don’t have a slick presentation and I don’t have the budget for it. I suddenly realized I was making my decisions based more on emotional factors than on purely financial ones. I had a feeling about how well I could do because of the prestige of the show and the enthusiastic comments I was receiving from stores and customers. But making big financial investments based on vague, optimistic feelings is how you go out of business.

I will make my mistakes at the considerably less expensive CGS (it costs about a third of what it does to do the NYIGF), and if it goes well, perhaps move up slightly higher on the ladder to the San Francisco International Gift Fair in July. Then I’ll be in a better position to decide whether the NYIGF is a good investment in 2009. In the meantime, contrary to Barry’s insistence, there are in fact LOTS of ways to get new orders that don’t involve trade shows, but more on that in the next post.