Weird Companies That Work
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Starting and running a typical small venture is challenging under the best of circumstances. If you're starting a mainstream company, there are plenty of support mechanisms and resources you can rely on for help. But what do entrepreneurs do when they are in unusual or niche businesses? We decided to query the owners of several avant-garde businesses -- from a startup to a fledgling global firm -- to find out how they go about marketing their unique products and services, the challenges they faced and the lessons learned from their diverse journeys.
A Good Goodbye
Description: A funeral event planning firm
Founder: Gail Rubin
Founded: March 2010
Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
Think of Gail Rubin as a modern-day Maude (from the cult film Harold & Maude). A breast-cancer survivor and former PR professional/event planner (as well as a part-time Pilates instructor), Rubin decided to give a light touch to a dark subject -- death. Her startup venture, A Good Goodbye, is billed as a funeral planning business for those who don't plan to die. Her target markets are "baby boomers and their parents, people who are recognizing their mortality, people in hospice, people who do HR for retirees, geriatric care managers and geriatric doctors."
While her approach may be light-hearted, her message is timely. Advance funeral planning can save families hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars; reduce stress and possible family discord during a time of grief; and allow for a memorable and meaningful celebration of life service.
Because of her PR background, Rubin knows the value of working online, as well as using print, radio and TV to spread the word about her unusual services. To that end she already has a book in the works (she's self-publishing via her Light Tree Press publishing company in several weeks) and she gives talks, doing joint and solo presentations to various groups, including Oasis and the New Mexico Conference on Aging. Rubin also blogs, and has made numerous new connections (funeral directors, etc.) through interviewing people for her blog posts and Matchings, Hatchings and Dispatchings a column she wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune.
For more exposure (and to see what families are doing about funerals), Rubin is mounting the "30 Funerals in 30 Days Challenge," where she'll be attending funerals of people she doesn't know (just like Harold and Maude did in the movie, but unlike Maude, she won't be stealing any hearses ). She'll kick off the challenge Oct. 30, which is Create a Great Funeral Day. Her goal is to assess, sensitively, how people are remembered and presented at their own funerals, without divulging any specific details (in respect to the families.) She also regularly cold calls new contacts, to seek new speaking opportunities.
Per Rubin, death is a hard topic to broach, let alone sell. "The biggest challenge is getting people to open up." Another issue -- it takes time, persistence and patience to build a customer base, as well as create the right mix of services and price points.
While this "final party planner" deals with a dark subject, she plans on making this a six-figure business through a variety of sales channels: new funeral consulting and planning services, book sales, speaking engagements and new products (a Family Plot File is in the works.) Per Rubin, publicity is your friend -- get in front of as many people as possible through traditional media (newspapers, magazines and radio) as well as via online platforms.
Description: A test franchise for a geese management company
Owner and operator: Mike Cardella
Founded: March 2009
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Mike Cardella's family and friends have been in the dog business for more than 30 years, doing shows, training and selling border collies, as well as teaching other people how to work their dogs and getting them ready to participate in shows and trials.
In 2006, Cardella started working for Goose Masters, where he learned everything about training border collies for geese control from Kent Kuykendall, the founder. Their services (using specially-trained border collies who frighten away the pesky birds without hurting them) help reduce or eliminate the multiple negative byproducts (i.e., poop pollution, traffic annoyances/dangers, environmental issues) of too many geese in any high-use space.The firm's positive performance record in Greensboro led to new business opportunities in the Raleigh area, so Cardella jumped at the chance to run his own Goose Masters operation. Since he has little competition, one would think his new geese management venture would be a slam dunk, because his target market is pretty much anyone who has a goose control problem. Realistically, his best clients are bigger enterprises including office parks, corporate headquarters, golf courses, hospitals, colleges and schools. So, like any other business owner, Cardella's niche business requires work to feed the sales channel.
As a newer business entity in the Raleigh area, Cardella relies on tried-and-true marketing mechanisms: positive word of mouth advertising via existing clients and referrals. He also does cold calling, and hands out business cards "to just about everybody I see." He tried going to networking events, but hasn't had any luck with that. His location also benefited from a couple of articles in the local Greensboro newspapers.
"We had the website put up because we saw that business was coming from the internet and that people expected us to be there," says Cardella, who is working on getting a page up on the main site, featuring his location.
Cardella says his biggest challenges involve learning how to speak with people, getting to the right person on the phone to talk with and working the phones on a regular basis. His other issues center on educating his prospects. "People don't understand how the dogs work, or what the geese can do; besides the obvious poop issues, they contribute to erosion, they can have aggressive behavior at certain times of the year, they contribute to traffic issues." Unlike deer and other animals that have seen a population explosion, geese hunting is not an option – "you can't harm them, as they are protected by the government." Cardella says border collies are recognized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as a humane way to deal with a range of geese-related problems.
Cardella says you really have to put 100 percent effort in all the time and. if there's a problem, deal with it immediately. "You've got to know your business as well as you can. In our case, we spend a lot of time studying the behavior of the geese, as well as knowing what the dogs want to do and how to get them to do what we want them to do." Moving forward, Cardella plans to try new marketing/sales vehicles, such as social media (Facebook and Twitter) and direct mail, as well as updating the website with a client list and testimonials.
DNA Products, LLC
Description: A disposable travel underwear firm
Owner and president: Danita Harris
Location: New York City
While disposable travel underwear may seem funny or even odd in America, Danita Harris did her homework and discovered that European and Asian markets have been using this product for more than 20 years. Not to be confused with "edible underwear," the men's and ladies disposable travel underwear that Harris hawks through her firm, DNA Products, is available in three-, five- or seven-piece lightweight packages. They are intended to be worn once and discarded, so they're easy to transport, and they eliminate the need to haul dirty underwear in your luggage. Harris decided to target leisure and business travelers in the U.S., ages 25 to 55, "based on the product's proven appeal to women travelers overseas."
Says Harris, "While our disposables have multiple product uses, we decided it would be easier to bring to market if we introduced them as travel accessories. With that in my mind, we established online ad campaigns with travel-related keywords, and paid for ad placement on travel booking sites and information sites, travel blogs, etc. We pitched to reporters and journalists who write the travel sections for online and print publications. And we used direct mail, press releases, giveaways and product donations to help market (our unusual product)."
Harris says one of her biggest challenges was increasing online advertising conversion rates. "We continue to address this challenge by regularly reviewing and tweaking current ads." She subscribes to the mailing lists and blogs created by DNA Products' ad vendors, which present new (advertising) tool announcements and easy-to-follow tips for ad optimization.
Tips to Profit From
According to Harris, you don't have to compete on price to be competitive. In one case, she says, a prospective resale client approached to company and asked her to beat a competitor's price. "Instead of lowering our product price, we offered to consolidate the product shipping cartons and drop off the cartons at a UPS location (instead of arranging for UPS pickup from our warehouse). These actions not only resulted in lower shipping costs for them, but our guarantee to also process and ship their orders quicker than our competitor. By showing our commitment to service, we won their business."
Description: A toilet training system for cats
Inventor and director: Jo Lapidge
It took a lot of time for people to take Jo Lapidge and her husband and business partner Terence seriously. But this former business development maven and her in-house marketing expert (who had worked for blue chip companies in Australia and the U.K.) knew that her kitty toilet training system, dubbed Litter Kwitter, had legs. Lapidge had her eureka moment after seeing the movie Meet the Parents while dealing with the "litter box misery" of a new kitten. The couple started to do research. Terence looked into possible target markets in the United Kingdom, Japan and America and Jo focused on sales, looking into government grants that would help them commercialize the idea. She won an opportunity to be a part of a Fresh Innovators program, during which she wrote her own press release.
In a Cinderella scenario, Reuters picked it up and her Litter Kwitter story was soon going global, which led to a feature piece on CNN. That media exposure led to a California manufacturing connection, with operations based in China. Forty-five test cats, 15 protypes and nine months later, Lapidge was fulfilling orders in the U.K., the first market the couple decided to focus on. Five years later the Lapidges have sold more than 500,000 units. Litter Kwitter is now carried in Petco, Petsmart and other major online and brick- and-mortar pet retailers across the U.S.
Lapidge leveraged the press coverage as much as she could, but this intrepid entrepreneur also worked the phones, sent letters, product samples, e-mail messages and finally independent sales reps to get in front of her prime prospects -- the large pet distributors. Her husband made sure their unique product had a strong brand message with very visual, different-colored elements (that matched the three-step toilet training system based on a traffic light's red, amber and green).
Their biggest challenges were the initial pricing (Litter Kwitter originally retailed at close to $90; now it sells for less than $50) and establishing a distribution network. While they debuted the product in England (where they had lived and had connections), from the start the Lapidges were committed to establishing themselves in America, which meant they had to convince the major pet distributors of their product's benefits and value.
Tips to Profit From
According to Lapidge, you don't know what you don't know, so do as much homework as you possibly can, and "make damn well sure you don't make the same mistake again!"
"It's your product, your baby, so you gotta make sure you are doing your best -- because no one is looking out for you." She also advises: Make sure you protect yourself and your idea, in terms of patents and intellectual property. "We registered the trademark and the copyright (for the product)," she says. Lapidge says if you want to do business with large specialty chains, you have to be able to comply with their trading terms, which can include insurance and co-op funds. That means you need enough margin in your product to create a war chest, so you can cover items such as samples, advertising, returns and discounting.
So whether you want to launch a cookie company or something more off the beaten path, you can achieve success by producing a quality product or service, defining your target markets, creating a strong brand, creatively fueling multiple sales channels and preparing for the inevitable bumps and detours.