When it comes to starting a business, it's a jungle out there. Even if you have some start-up capital, and especially if your funds are slim, guerrilla warfare may be just the ticket to winning the spoils of the marketing wars: the quick name recognition and long-term customer loyalty that translate into profits.

Yo Mama

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Maria Carilao, founder of Yo-Bonic Yo-Yos in Seattle, makes up for a limited marketing budget with energy, vision and raw nerve. Shortly after starting her business in 1997, the 27-year-old gained the attention of premier specialty toy retailer FAO Schwarz by tying her "yo-yos with an attitude" to the doors of its New York City store along with dozens of her business cards. "I wanted the top-notch stores to sell my product, so I did whatever it took to get their attention," explains Carilao, whose yo-yos are now featured at FAO Schwarz and have also been sold at Nordstrom and other retail outlets.

Carilao has become a master of attention-getting. She drives a psych-"Yo"-delic Volvo station wagon covered with hundreds of colorful yo-yos; dresses as "Yo-Yo Girl" for store appearances; and peppers her conversation with "Yo speak," a hip play on words. (For example, she calls herself the world's first CEyO.)

"I didn't have money for a marketing campaign when I started, so I had to be really `out there' and in buyers' faces to get attention," says Carilao. Not all the attention has been positive, though. Her limited-edition Presidential Blo-Yo, sold briefly last fall, featured caricatures of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in packaging that played off of "Zippergate."

"Not everyone thought the Blo-Yo was in good taste," says Carilao, "but sometimes you have to take a chance and be in the public's face in a bold way in order to be seen."

What makes her marketing madness work is that it's more than just hype. Says Carilao, "I know I have a solid product to back up my aggressiveness."

Jay Conrad Levinson, who coined the term guerrilla marketing and has written a series of books on the subject, defines the expression as going after conventional goals by using unconventional methods. "It's a way for small businesses to achieve high profits without a major outlay of money," he explains.

Don't let the term guerrilla mislead you: "Guerrilla marketing is the diametric opposite of in-your-face obnoxious," says Levinson. "It means earning long-term relationships by using personal attention, sincere caring, attention to detail, generosity, time, energy and imagination--rather than the brute force of a huge budget. Instead of in-your-face, it encourages marketers to be in-your-mind."

Of course, sometimes in-your-face is the best way to get noticed--and many experts contend no marketing technique is too outrageous, since there's no such thing as bad publicity. "You'd have to be pretty `out there' to be obnoxious," says John Kremer, co-author of High-Impact Marketing on a Low-Impact Budget: 101 Strategies to Turbo-Charge Your Business Today! (Prima Publishing). "[Even if] something is too offbeat [and doesn't] work the way you intended, at least it puts your name out there, and the next time you do something, people will remember who you are."

Whether you take a low-key or high-energy approach to marketing, keep the three basic stages of the guerrilla method in mind:

1. Create a low-cost, high-impact game plan. Levinson says your marketing plan should be clear and concise--seven sentences max. "Plan an approach you can stay with for the next decade, if possible," says Levinson. "If you get it right the first time, you won't have to waste money developing new strategies."

Lead with a sentence explaining the purpose of your marketing plan, followed by one listing the benefits of your product or service you'll stress to attract customers. The next three sentences state your target audience, your niche in the marketplace and the specific marketing weapons you'll use in your attack. (The key to a successful guerrilla marketing plan is to stock your arsenal with as much free ammunition as possible; publicity and customer service should be at the top of the list.)

The last sentence expresses your marketing budget as a percentage of projected gross sales. Although the average U.S. business invested 4 percent of its gross sales in marketing during 1998, Levinson recommends doubling that figure.

Does even 4 percent sound too steep? Not a problem, says Kremer, who says you shouldn't even bother to budget for marketing. "Most start-ups have no money for marketing. Instead, focus on what you have time to do," says Kremer, who recommends creating a publicity plan that lists the top 50 media outlets in your area and stories you can feed to them once a month. "Offer something for free, create a contest, write press releases about great ways customers have used your product or service--there are lots of ways to get publicity for virtually no money down," he says.

Once the cash starts flowing, publicity can supplement your print and radio ads. (Except for local cable stations, TV advertising is usually too expensive for start-ups.) Local television and radio stations sometimes allow businesses to tape public service announcements in exchange for helping to sponsor a charity event.

2. Launch your attack. Prioritizing and timing are keys to successful guerrilla marketing. "You don't have to use all your weapons at once," says Levinson. "Prioritize and launch them one at a time, in order of importance, over a long period of time--as many as 18 months." Write down all the marketing tools that are available to you--such as networking with business associates and local merchants, advertising, publicity, introductory offers and special events to attract customers. Levinson says it will be easy to prioritize based on time, budget and potential effectiveness.

"Although there's really no way to judge how effective a marketing tactic is before you try it, talking with other businesses in your neighborhood or [industry] to see what worked for them can be a good sounding board," says Kremer. Many cities have entrepreneurial workshops or business associations; Kremer suggests creating your own local marketing association and meeting periodically to brainstorm and compare notes.

You need both a short-term marketing plan to gain quick name recognition and a long-term plan to continue building your business. This is where a marketing calendar or timeline comes into play, as you prioritize which tactics to use on a month-by-month basis.

Kremer suggests using a matrix, or grid, of boxes with the names of five potential audiences for your product or business in each box going across, and five ways to reach these audiences in boxes going down. "Some start-ups just place an ad in the newspaper or Yellow Pages and see what happens," says Kremer. "A better approach is to first identify who you want to reach, then figure out the best way to reach them."

Use your matrix to prioritize your marketing arsenal. Determine five affordable projects that will produce the best results now, and five for the future. Re-evaluate your marketing matrix every six months.

3. Maintain your attack by knowing your competition and customers. According to Levinson, this is the toughest step. "Unless you maintain what you've started, all that planning has been done in vain," he says.

"Small-business owners rarely understand that they have access to the same research about their customers and competitors as large corporations do," says Philip Nulman, author of Start-Up Marketing: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Launching, Advertising, Marketing & Promoting Your Business (Career Press).

According to Nulman, local media can be among your best research resources. "If the sales manager at a radio station thinks he can sell you ad space, he'll gladly put together a tape of competitors' commercial clips for you and send a media kit that details the station's listener demographics," he says. "These free tools will help give you a good profile of the local market's supply and demand for your service or product." Are you interested in other information sources? Search the Internet for other companies in your market niche, and call competitors to request information in the public domain, such as their brochure or annual report.

Maintenance also means monitoring your marketing strategy's results by surveying customers to find out what works and what doesn't. This can be done on a low budget via phone or e-mail with a few brief questions or by forming a grass-roots focus group of friends, relatives and acquaintances to brainstorm about your business.

Customer service is a powerful guerrilla marketing tool; it's low-cost and, when done right, highly effective. "Consumers are getting angry and refusing to do business with companies that don't meet their standards," says Nulman. By monitoring how customers feel about your company, you can make them allies in the guerrilla marketing game.

Smart Starts

The following associations can provide the information you need to develop an advertising campaign:

  • American Advertising Federation, 1101 Vermont Ave. N.W., #500, Washington, DC 20005-6306, (202) 898-0089, http://www.aaf.org
  • American Marketing Association, 250 S. Wacker Dr., #200, Chicago, IL 60606, (312) 648-0536, http://www.ama.org
  • Direct Marketing Association, 1120 Ave. of the Americas, 13th Fl., New York, NY 10036, (212) 768-7277, http://www.the-dma.org

For market research on competitors and consumers, check out:

  • Marketing Research Association, 1344 Silas Deane Hwy., #306, Rocky Hill, CT 06067, (860) 257-4008, http://www.mra-net.org
  • Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Research Publishers), available at most libraries, lists industry associations that frequently provide market data.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau has statistics on businesses and consumers by region. Take a trip to your local library, call (301) 457-4100 or visit http://www.census.gov

For marketing ideas, check out these titles:

  • Guerrilla Marketing: Secrets For Making Big Profits From Your Small Business, Third Edition, by Jay Conrad Levinson (Houghton Mifflin, $13, 800-225-3362)
  • High-Impact Marketing on a Low-Impact Budget, by John Kremer and J. Daniel McComas (Prima Publishing, $16, 800-632-8676)
  • Knockout Marketing: Powerful Strategies to Punch Up Sales (Entrepreneur Media, $19.95, available in June at http://www.amazon.com)
  • Start-Up Marketing: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Launching, Advertising, Marketing & Promoting Your Business, by Philip Nulman (Career Press, $16.95, 800-CAREER1)

For help writing a marketing plan:

Check out one of the many CD-ROMs available on the subject, complete with easy-to-use templates, such as Adams Streetwise Small Business Start-Up ($39.95 street, Adams Media, http://www.adamsmedia.com/software/sbs/)

Spam It Up

Perhaps the most obnoxious online guerrilla marketing technique is spamming. So why are thousands of people actually signing up to receive e-mail advertisements at the BonusMail Web site (http://www.bonusmail.com)?

"[With] BonusMail, consumers turn the tables on direct marketers, controlling the volume and type of e-mail offers they receive," says 27-year-old Steve Markowitz, CEO and co-founder of Intellipost Corp., the company behind BonusMail. In return for reading e-mail ads, BonusMail users receive points good for frequent flier miles and free products.

Strategic partnering is a big part of Markowitz's guerrilla marketing attack. Its board of advisors includes three of the world's largest direct marketing agencies. This year, he'll team with ISPs and free e-mail providers. The result? Intellipost has nearly 2 million users and has raised millions of dollars in venture capital.

Most Likely To Succeed?

Nicholas Hall, 28, is on the cover of Fortune and GQ, and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. So why haven't you heard of him? Maybe because these prominent profiles detailing his Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award (in 2008), his record as a Senior PGA player (in 2020) and his election to the United States Senate (later that year) can be found only in Hall's "future scrapbook."

"The scrapbook keeps me on track with my personal and professional goals, and it also shows prospective clients what my vision is," says the Castro Valley, California, business consultant and broker.

Hall's low-budget, unconventional tactics helped him make connections with clients last year after he moved from Cincinnati, where he had founded a successful consulting/brokerage company, to California, where he knew no one. "When we meet someone, we tend to tell them about our past accomplishments, which are often rather limited when you're a young entrepreneur," explains Hall, whose company, Venture Awareness, introduces promising young high-tech companies in the Midwest to investors in Silicon Valley. "I want to let people know what I'm capable of and what I plan to accomplish in the future. Many times, customers and businesspeople want to help me reach those goals because they see how motivated I am."

That's not to say Hall doesn't have past accomplishments. He explains, "I come off as ambitious and visionary instead of an obnoxious braggart because I can show potential business partners I really do have something to offer them--it's not just wishful thinking."

Chair Tactics

When Kimberley Barreda was refused an audition for a beer commercial because she was in a wheelchair, she decided becoming a guerrilla marketer for the disabled was the best revenge. "The casting director told me, `I don't have to audition you people,' but if the beer company knew how many of `us people' drink beer, that director would probably be out of a job," says Barreda, 33.

That experience was the genesis of CRIPmedia, which provides marketing and advertising services to companies that target disabled consumers. Founded in early 1997, the Whitefish, Montana, business provides information about what products disabled consumers use and serves as a talent agency for actors with disabilities.

Cripworld.com, the primary source of income for Barreda's fledgling empire, is an online resource and information network for disabled consumers and advertisers. "Cripworld.com gave us quick name recognition, partly because the name is somewhat controversial," says Barreda. " `Crip' has a negative connotation for some people, but to most well-adjusted disabled people, it's a blunt, honest term that describes who they are much better than `disabled.' "

Equally controversial is "The Adventures of Beverlee" (http://www.cripworld.com/beverlee/beverlee.htm), a comic strip with a disabled heroine (below) that gets more than 250 hits per day.

By the end of 1999, Barreda's second full year in operation, she expects sales to hit nearly $150,000.

Contact Sources

CRIPmedia, http://www.cripworld.com

Intellipost Corp., http://www.intellipost.com

Venture Awareness, info@ventureawareness.net, http://www.ventureawareness.net

Yo-Bonic Yo-Yos, (888) YO-BONIC, http://www.yobonic.com

Jennifer Haupt (jenhaupt@aol.com) has written for such publications as Nation's Business, Bloomberg Business News and Washington CEO.