By Keith Kopcsak, Vice Chair, Entrepreneurship Practice

If I hadn’t made one massive mistake when I owned my own company, I’d probably still be doing it. In fact, I’d like to think I’d be doing really well at it. But I fell into the same trap that so many other startup entrepreneurs stumble into – I tried to be like everyone else.

My thought at the time was, “If it’s working for them, why shouldn’t it work for me?” If they were running ads in an industry-specific publication, then I should be too, right? If they were showing up at expos, then that’s where I would go, and if they were mailing out magnetic business cards, you better believe I was out there doing the same thing.

As a result, to the outside world there was nothing remarkable about my business. And it took a friend of mine wildly succeeded at his own small business to make me see that. It wasn’t anything particularly remarkable that he did – he just figured out a way to think outside of his market and by doing so, he boosted his sales by about 300%.


Marketing to Affiliated Interests

In my friend’s case, the challenge was selling custom paddleboards in a flooded market. When he first started his company, he was going to every water sports expo he could find and inevitably, he would be competing with at least five other paddleboard vendors. He was just about to give up when a thought struck him – paddleboarding is a sport that the outdoorsy-type enjoy, but it’s not the only sport they enjoy. People who paddleboard, he reasoned, probably also like to go mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, etc.

With that in mind, he began signing up for outdoor sports expos in the mountains, hundreds of miles from the closest body of water – and he began selling paddleboards like crazy.

Pattern interrupts are the key to standing out in crowded markets. Instead of imitating what your competitors are doing, take notes on their marketing habits and then try doing exactly the opposite.

Another example that you’re probably familiar with is that series of local accident injury attorney ads that always air during the morning news. You know what I’m talking about. Every local news station has them – that set of four or five ads with awkwardly smiling lawyers promising checks for your wrecks, or more workers’ comp, or whatever you may be suffering from due to someone else’s negligence. They all seem to blur together in one long, lo-fi, jingle heavy drone – which is why these ads can be a waste of money. I’m not saying don’t advertise on television, but If I were to get injured tomorrow, I wouldn’t know which one to call because they all seem the same. But I’ll tell you who I do remember – the attorney who gave the local car repair shop a stack of $20 Uber gift certificates for customers whose cars are out of commission for a while. I’ll not only remember her, but if I got that gift certificate after a bad wreck, she’d probably be the first person I’d call.


Marketing Works – But You Have to Work at It

One of my favorite lines about how to succeed in your marketing comes from real estate investor and author Dean Graziosi. A former airline pilot, Graziosi often compares marketing to airplanes. In an interview with author Michael Alden, he pointed out, “Somebody will say to me, ‘I tried that Facebook marketing. It doesn’t work.’ It’s like saying planes don’t fly. …Facebook works. Direct-mail works. TV still works. But if you don’t’ have the stamina to test and tweak and live the experience of what your prospect is, it doesn’t matter the delivery system…it’s your ability to have the stamina to find the message that resonates with the people that you want to get to raise their hand, and take your offer.”

So for those morning news-advertising attorneys who aren’t getting much return for their money, Graziosi might tell them to keep up with the television ads, but play them on a channel that their clientele are more likely to be watching – daytime drama, for instance, or a good movie channel. Or if they’re really keeping up with the times, put their ad on Youtube or a popular weather app (Who doesn’t check the weather every morning? And what better way to hyper-localize your advertising?).

The point is that you’ll be far more successful in your marketing if you think outside of your competitors’ approach, and once you start your campaign, you need to stick with it. Tweak it, of course, keep it fresh and maneuver it around a little until it’s looking right at your target market, but don’t give up. Good marketing doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time.


Build Up to the Punch

Self-described serial entrepreneur and author Gary Vaynerchuk is so certain about the value of patience in marketing that he titled his third book after the practice. In Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, Vaynerchuk shares the importance of offering people something of value and doing it for as long as it takes. The comparison he uses on his website is “the cartoons of the 1980s.”

“You’d watch the cartoons and not have to pay a dime,” he writes. “But when the movie or new action figure or toy came out, you went and paid for that. Cartoons were the jabs that pulled you in so you would then pay for the movie or toy.”

But just because you’ve offered the jab, he adds, “doesn’t entitle you to land the right hook. It just allows you to have the audacity to ask.”

In other words, you may put a ton of effort into creating a helpful blog, or a useful app, or a thriving online forum, and not see any return on it for months or even years. But if you’re constantly working to hit that target audience, keeping them engaged, and offering them something of real value, then chances are you’ll earn the right to land that right hook with solid results.

Soles for Souls: standing out and sticking with it

The Soles for Souls program is a perfect example of how successful the marketing tactics we just discussed can be.

Founded in 2006, Soles for Souls is a non-profit social enterprise committed to “wearing out poverty.” Focused on the desire to “serve those in need, create opportunities, and protect the environment,” S4S collects and distributes new and gently used shoes to more than 120 countries – 30 million pairs as of 2016. Some of those shoes are distributed for free to people in need in the US and around the world, including after natural disasters. Others are put into their micro-enterprise program that helps create jobs and support entrepreneurs, especially in the developing world. And all of those efforts help keep millions of pairs of shoes and millions of pieces of clothing out of landfills.

The micro-enterprise program – which allows people to purchase new and used footwear and apparel for a very low cost so that they can re-sell them affordably – actually funds the non-profit side so that 100% of the non-profit’s donations go directly to their efforts.

That’s a great example of looking well beyond the mainstream. And by sticking with it for more than a decade, Soles for Souls was able to hit that 30 million distributed mark, making more than $30 million in worldwide economic impact in the last year alone. As for offering the “jab” of real value, Soles4Souls is a valued partner to several well-known brands, including Adidas, Ardene, Brooks, Chinese Laundry, Forever 21, Macy’s, New Balance, NYDJ and The North Face, – all of which gain the respect of their customers for sponsoring such a worthwhile endeavor.


Do You Differentiate Yourself?

How do you differentiate yourself in the market? Are you constantly thinking of unique ways to get your name, brand, and product in front of your target audience, or are you still following in the footsteps of your competition? If you are still following footsteps, don’t you think it’s time to start making your own path?

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