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How Blowing a Whistle at 3 a.m. Meant Big Business for One Referee

How Blowing a Whistle at 3 a.m. Meant Big Business for One Referee
Image credit: Ron Foxcroft

We’re not in a manufacturing economy, a service economy or even an information economy anymore. We’ve shifted to what I call an attention economy.

Technology and information overload has changed the human brain which in turn is changing the way we must sell. The average child’s attention span is 10 seconds. If you think that’s alarming, adults aren’t much better at eight seconds. Information overload is causing us to pay careful attention to what we pay attention to. As a result, you’d better get creative about how you connect and relate to your prospects.

Regardless of whatever industry you think you work in, as sales professionals, you’re in the real-estate industry first before you’re in the business of selling your product or service. The property I’m referring to is the most valuable real estate in the attention economy -- the six inches of real estate between your prospect’s ears.

The best way to get attention in a crowded market place is to solve a problem for your prospects. If your product solves a problem but no one knows you exist, it’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods when no one is there -- did it make a sound? You need to make some noise to get massive amounts of attention for your business.

Related: 5 Steps to Skyrocket That Great Idea Into Market Launch

This is what entrepreneur Ron Foxcroft did, and in the process, he transformed an industry. I share his story with you, because you need attention, and your business needs attention to stay relevant and to stay afloat today. You need to re-invent yourself.  If you’re not in transition and evolving, you will become extinct in the attention economy. The game of selling is constantly evolving, and every single day we must evolve to stay relevant.

The back story

In 1984 Foxcroft, an entrepreneur and basketball referee, was officiating a pre-Olympic basketball game in Brazil. He blew his whistle when a Brazilian player was fouled, but the whistle jammed, and no sound came out. As a result of the no-call seconds later, a riot broke out, and he was lying on the floor fearing for his life.

Foxcroft survived the riot, and when he went home to Canada, he invented a fail-proof pea-less whistle. Until his invention, all whistles contained a cork pea which often got jammed and made the device fail. He definitely solved a problem -- but everyone still doubted him.

The shift

Fast-forward to 1987, when he had two prototypes but was $150,000 in debt. Foxcroft was running out of money, and with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $6 (12 times the cost of the standard pea whistle), retailers wouldn’t buy his product. He found himself in Indianapolis refereeing the Pan Am games, and on a sleepless night at 3 a.m. in a dorm full of 400 other basketball officials, Foxcroft got an idea.

He took his prototypes, went up to the fourth floor of the dorm, and blew his whistle as loud as he could. A building full of referees awoke and came running out of their rooms up to find out what whistle could have possibly made a noise that loud. The next morning, he took orders for 20,000 whistles, making back his investment and then some. When I asked Foxcroft about this game-changing shift, he said “I had $65 in the bank -- there’s a lot to be said for having nothing to lose.”

By February of 1988 the Fox 40 whistle was sold in 33 countries, the NBA and NCAA began using it, and Sports Illustrated featured it. Today, his company continues to evolve and remain the industry leader.

Related: Be Like Eric Church. Focus on Your First Few Fanatics for a Big-Time Payoff.

The transformation

How did he manage to dominate a category he couldn’t even initially penetrate? Initially, by solving a problem and getting attention. But ultimately you need to do more than simply solve a problem. Problem solving products are transactions, and you might be able to survive in the transaction business, but you’ll never thrive. To thrive, you need to be in the transformation business.

How does your product or service transform lives?

Why is this an important question? Because when you sell or create something transformational, people are willing to pay a premium for it. The Fox 40 is a transformational product.  Because it can be heard through concrete, search and rescue workers have used it to save lives at disaster zones such as Ground Zero and the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Additionally, since it can be heard from over a mile away, Coast Guards world-wide use it.

The final analysis

Understand this: Ron Foxcroft the person did not blow the whistle that night in the dormitory. Ron Foxcroft the business did. He treated the event (his late-night whistle blowing performance) like it was a business. He found a targeted audience, and essentially ran a self-produced live commercial for his product with a production cost of zero. Intellectual capital trumps financial capital. If he had financial resources, he probably wouldn’t have done what he did that night.

This was a massive transition for Fox 40. They were suddenly a company in transition. In the attention economy, you too need to be in constant transition -- if you’re not, then you’re in trouble.

When it comes to getting attention, timing is everything. Often you only get one shot, knowing when to take it is everything. The reality is that most moments in life don't matter much. That being said, there are a select few moments -- windows of opportunity -- in every entrepreneur’s life that really matter. What separates the winners from the losers is the ability to recognize, take action and capitalize on those moments that really matter.

Related: 6 Steps to a Successful Product Launch