War Story 1: Fathers and Sons
It always helps to have a guru. When it comes to guerrilla marketing, I sat at the feet and very early in my career on the lap of a master: my old man. I grew up the oldest of eight in a 950 sq ft ranch house just outside Pittsburgh. The son of Slovak immigrants, my father was a born hustler, and when I remember my grandparents, I’m tempted to say it ran in the blood.
My Dad had the four essential ingredients every great guerrilla marketer must have: necessity, stinginess, a people orientation, and – most importantly — a true love of the game. Eight kids and the occasional dog produced a bumper crop of necessity. Exchanging favors is where people came in and my Dad “had a guy” for everything. As for stinginess, my father was almost painfully parsimonious. He seeded what became a very substantial stock portfolio by paying utility bills in person during his lunch hour in order to invest the money he saved on stamps.
Finally, my Dad just loved the game. Nothing tickled him more than pulling a caper that multiplied his investment many times over. I think he often hustled just for fun, and one of the most valuable lessons he taught me was how much is possible if we just remember to ask.
For most people life is a smooth mountain of marble without hand or footholds. If you don’t go to the right school, know the right people, or follow the right procedures, nothing is possible. For my Dad life was a Swiss cheese so full of holes that anyone with a little creativity and moxie is welcome to clamber up.
Another thing my Dad taught me was how to work the system. When I was in college I bounced my first check. He called the manager of the bank, promised I’d never do it again, and the manger refunded the fee. My father also managed to send six of his children to boarding school and all eight to college by hustling scholarships from all four corners of the universe without the benefit of the World Wide Web.
We started our own company with my father’s example, one month’s office expenses, and a business plan that one of my three partners described as “we’re smart guys we’ll figure out something to do.” With the wolf at the door we quickly became resellers of other company’s products for a percentage of the selling price. However, if armies march on their stomachs, sales reps march on their leads. Generating leads by rounding up the usual suspects costs money, which at the time was in painfully short supply. Of course, we could’ve just anted up for advertising out of our own pockets, but that would’ve been spiritual patricide and I was loath to let the old man down.
Instead we worked the system. We discovered that the Federal Government was honeycombed with newsletters, bulletins, reports, and studies on everything from NATO to Plato. Millions of business people subscribe to these free services. Quickly identifying all the government communications targeted to our customers, we sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests asking the government to send us their mailing lists. A couple weeks later we were amazed to receive almost 100,000 names and addresses free of charge.
But sending direct mail to these lists for leads would once again mean spending money so instead I called magazines and other advertising vehicles in our target market and offered to swap our list for advertising. They all eagerly agreed and when they merged our list with their own almost 90% of our names were unique. We ended up getting over $30,000 in FREE advertising from these swaps. Eventually we rented our lists through list brokers which generated thousands of dollars more.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and as Sam Johnson once said, the knowledge of one’s imminent execution wonderfully focuses the mind. Years later when cash was more plentiful we never forgot our roots or lost our focus. Nothing in our company garnered praise and a bonus faster than a creative marketing “win” that didn’t require cash. And a healthy dose of stinginess never hurts. In fact if you are the kind of person who pays someone to trim your Christmas tree you’ll probably never excel at guerilla marketing. But most of all, go crazy and have fun pushing the envelope. Always remember the old adage that every salesman learns on his first day of training: “All they can say is no.”
Finally, if this war story on guerrilla marketing or any of those to come help you in any way please remember my Dad in your prayers. Because I owe it all to him.