Have you ever tasted a martini made by Wayne Gretzky? I have. I don't remember what he put in it, but who cares. When The Great One mixes your drink, it goes down smooth, no matter what.
It was the mid-80s in Manhattan. I had just started managing a restaurant called The Sporting Club. It was one of the first real "sports bars" in New York City at the time.
The only problem was, we didn't have many customers. The place was in Tribeca. While that's a happening neighborhood now, back then, it was very desolate.
I did everything I could to drum up business. I installed more TVs. I reinvented the menu. I brought in some great memorabilia. Nothing worked.
Before The Sporting Club, I managed the Hard Rock Café, an experience that taught me the power of networking and human capital. It was packed every night, but that wasn't due to the food, décor or staff. It was because whenever you dined there, you had a reasonable chance of seeing the likes of Elton John and Jackson Browne a few tables over, or Willie Nelson at the bar. It wasn't Studio 54, but it was closer than you'd think.
Another person who always stopped by the Hard Rock Café when he was in town was Gretzky. So I had a line to him and a few other athlete "regulars."
During one slow night at The Sporting Club, it occurred to me to use the human capital that drove customers to the Hard Rock to scare up traffic for this sports bar. But how?
I dreamed up "Celebrity Bartender Nights." I invited Gretzky and some of his peers to tend bar at The Sporting Club, with the understanding that a chunk of the night's proceeds would go to their favorite charities. Then I got some liquor companies to come on as co-sponsors. They were thrilled to be linked to the athletes.
The labels helped me with promotion, and the Celebrity Bartender Nights were a huge success. Suddenly, the formerly barren Sporting Club was bouncing.
The best part: I didn't have to pay anyone a cent. All I had to do was creatively leverage some assets -- my bar, the athletes' charities, the athletes themselves and the liquor companies. Everyone won. It all centered around the greatest resource there will ever be in business: human capital.
While most companies tap the power of bartering, not enough firms mine this transcendent resource. If used correctly, human capital can be a true differentiator for your company. It's abundant, and there are myriad ways to mine it.
Many entrepreneurs fall into a trap I call "Michael Jordan Syndrome." They think an endorsement from anyone short of a superstar is not effective. This is not true and I have another story to prove it.
Years ago, my company Steiner Sports was hired by the electronics chain PC Richard & Son to promote the opening of a store in New Jersey. The store was opening on Flag Day, June 14. Its budget was limited, but at that time, we didn't yet work with the Derek Jeters and Eli Mannings of the world. We booked less famous athletes.
One of the first Steiner employees, Margaret Adams, suggested we hire former New York Giants running back Lee Rouson for the job. He wasn’t a big name, per se, but Margaret had her own reasons.
"Lee is a phenomenal singer," she informed me.
Boy did she nail it. We set Lee up in front of the store with some bunting, a microphone and a couple of speakers. After the ribbon cutting, he stood there and belted "God Bless America." Not only did people flood to the store, grown men teared up -- myself included. It was the best opening PC Richard & Son had up to that point. We paid Lee a fee, but it wasn't much. I think he got some electronics out of the deal.
Just like my Celebrity Bartender Nights, the key was leveraging the right combination of assets: proximity -- Lee lived nearby so it didn't take much to make it worth his while, the holiday and his singing voice. Both events required little more than some creative thinking on how to mine some human capital. Both events were transactional, but not of the traditional "Give me A, and I'll give you B" model. They were more "Give him A, he'll give her B, she'll give them C, they'll give us D."
In all likelihood, your differentiator won't be an athlete or star. But smaller celebrities abound. The CEO of a local company might well do the trick. For every business, just around the corner, there's a Lee Rouson waiting to belt out "God Bless America" and make a grown man cry.
What assets can you leverage? Who forms the human capital you'd do well to mine?
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.