Marketing for Ultra-Small Businesses

Travel to St Lucia. Make your way to Rodney Bay on the North-West corner of the island. Plop down on the warm, caramel colored sand, and watch.

And do you know what you’ll see?

Ultra-small business at work.

How small is ultra-small?

Try one guy with a green plastic laundry basket on his shoulder, which contains nine coconuts, one sleeve of white paper cups, and one large beat-up kitchen knife; walking up and down the beach selling fresh coconut water.

And if you were this fine purveyor of coconut water, how would you market your small business?

Would you create a character diamond for your brand’s personality? Would you write an origin story? Would you create a bonding campaign of ads? Would you buy a 52-week radio schedule, billboards, and tv spots?

Probably not.

It wouldn’t make sense, to say the least, for this small business to do those things. It would cost too much and not actually solve the problem. Because, in the realm of marketing, this business doesn’t have a differentiation problem, or a customer bonding problem, or a complex product problem.

It has a customer awareness problem and that’s pretty much it.

How do you solve a customer awareness problem?

Make the customer aware of what you sell in the fewest number of and most precise words possible.

In the case of our fine coconut water vendor, his marketing message consisted of shouting two words, “Coconut Water.” (Every now and again, when feeling fancy, he’d add a third word, “fresh” to the mix.)

Based on how often I saw him set his green laundry basket down, pull out the knife, crack open a coconut and serve it, I’d say his marketing strategy was working just fine.

Because when you’re an ultra-small business (and your product category and target audience warrant it) sometimes the most effective marketing strategy is to simply make your customers aware of what you sell.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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My Secret Stash

I keep a secret stash of writing inspiration on a Pinterest board.

No, it’s not a bunch of cheesy quotes about how “Writers are awesome,” and, “You can do it one word at a time!”

Instead, any time I’m doom scrolling and I come across something that makes me laugh, cry, or get angry; I pin it. Then, when I need a little inspiration for triggering a certain emotion I can go back and look at it.

Would you like to see some examples?

I’ll share some with you, but I warn you, they smack of clickbait. (That’s why I only use them for inspiration.)

The bride’s father died and his heart was donated. The Man who received the transplant walked her down the aisle.
Brian, a retired gentleman in Dublin, spends his evenings every night making 50 tubs of curry for the homeless. Living on a pension and paying for all this himself.
92 year old man makes a card for his 93 year old wife.

I thought I was calling my mom. But I had the wrong number and…

My cousin has Leukemia and went to the arcade to get her mind off of things. A random teen won her all these stuffed animals.

Are these true? Are they real people and events? Or are they fictitious constructs?

The answers to those questions don’t really matter. What matters is the effect. Because when you need to write, pulling emotions out of thin air can be challenging.

Having a repository of ready inspiration makes it easier.

And now you know about my secret stash of feels.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Grip the Suck

Sometimes, when faced with a challenge, there’s nothing to do but to say, “Well, this is going to suck.”

And then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

We love romanticizing the idea of overcoming daunting circumstances. The glorified hero defeating all obstacles. And sure, when it’s all said and done and you come out the other side it feels great.

But there’s nothing sexy about getting there.

You bleed. You cry. (At least on the inside.) You curse. You pull tufts of your hair out. You kick small animals. (Not really.) And you curse and swear some more.

So, if you’re plowing through your own mountain of dung right now then I’m sorry. I really am.

The only thing I’ve got for you is this: Grip the suck by the ears and show that broke joker you ain’t skeered.

It’ll make for a good story someday.

 – Zac Smith, VC

P.S. Try not to throat punch anyone either while you’re working through it. You know, as much as possible.

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The New Creative

Clarity is the new creative.

What do I mean?

Well, what is creative writing?

If you ask me, it’s the ability to transfer highly visual sharp imagery from your mind to the mind of your reader. Or in other words, descriptive writing.

So, how do you do that? How do you make me see the things in your mind? What are the tenets and tools of creative writing?

Four things:

  • Shapes
  • Colors
  • Comparison to things familiar
  • Location in Three-dimensional space

Would you like an example?

In the second paragraph of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien, uses all four points in describing a Hobbit hole. He writes:

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.”

Can you see it?

Of course you can. You can’t help but see it. Tolkien masterfully transferred a sharp image from his mind to ours. And millions of people love him for it.

Here’s the breakdown.


  • Round door


  • Green
  • Shiny yellow brass

Comparison to things familiar:

  • Like a porthole

Location in Three-dimensional space:

  • In the exact middle

When done well, this kind of creative writing exudes an invisible influence. People will be inexorably drawn to your words and they won’t know why. They will be captivated and open to the suggestions and ideas you choose to plant in their hearts and minds.

Please, use this power responsibly.

Evil people have used this potent elixir to evil ends.

But I know you won’t do that. Which is why I’ve entrusted this hallowed formula to your care.

Now, go write great things with it.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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How To Build a Profitable Email List with $0.00 Ad Budget – Part 2

Last week, (you can click here for Part 1) we covered steps 1 through 3 of the 6 steps to building a profitable email list with $0.00 ad budget.

Here are steps 4 through 6.

Step 4: Make sure your email is worth opening.

Everything hinges on this step. If you’re not delivering some kind of value or entertainment in every email, then people unsubscribe and your list will shrivel and die. (Or just as bad, you’ll lose people at the same rate you bring them in.)

What reason will you give people to open your emails?

Will you teach them something? Will you inspire them? Will you entertain them?

Even a small nugget of value or entertainment is enough.

Step 5: Keep creating. Keep sending.

This kind of marketing takes a long time before you see results. (Think 12+ months) So you’ve got to stay strong to your commitment to send a quality email every week.

You’re going to reach a point where you feel tapped out of content.

Don’t stop.

You’re going to wonder if people are even reading your emails or care that you send them.

Don’t stop.

You’re going to look at months and months of time and effort and not be able to draw a direct line of connection to ROI.

Don’t stop.

If you stop at this point, all those months of time and effort really will have been for nothing.

Step 6: Harvest sustainably.

You will have put in monumental work to create your email list this way. (Remember, this is about doing it with a $0.00 ad budget. If you can afford to buy audience this process is a lot easier and faster.)

You will rightly want a return for your investment of time. Please do not let that desire rob you of the more profitable long-term harvest coming your way.

How so?

Short term sales activation (direct response) will lose you subscribers faster than you can replace them.

So, harvest sustainably.


It’s ok to, and in fact you should, let people know what you do or have available. (Inform them of your products or services.) However, don’t ask for the sale. Don’t pester them to buy something. Don’t pitch them.

The procedure for long-term content email marketing is: Give value > inform > wait.

If you’ve given enough value, then when people need what you sell, they will buy from you.

These 6 steps are not the most efficient way to market. But if you’re small or just starting out and have more time than money, then you really can build a profitable email list with a $0.00 ad budget.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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How To Build a Profitable Email List with $0.00 Ad Budget – Part 1

That was a clickbaity title.

Sorry about that. I should’ve come up with a new title but it was easier to just apologize for this one.

On to why you’re here.

How do you build an email list without spending any money on ads? Besides that, how do you make it a profitable email list that drives sales?

I will tell you how I’ve done it several times now, but first your disclaimer. This process may be free, but it costs a voluminous amount of time and effort. (Welcome to the world of content marketing.)

There are 6 steps.

Here are steps 1 through 3.

Step 1: Prepare an automated welcome series of emails. (More on why/how HERE.)

This is your first opportunity to get people hooked and interested in opening your emails. Think of this step as a free mini ad campaign. Putting time into doing this well will pay off.

Step 2: Start gathering email addresses into an organized list.

Likely you’re going to use the built-in list management of an email marketing vendor like Mailchimp.

If you don’t already have customer emails then start asking for them by trading something of value in exchange for the email address. I know this is remedial, but you’d be amazed at how many companies think they’ll get people to sign up for their email list just because they asked.

This is a slow, long-term relationship you’re building. Start it right by giving first.

Step 3: Start delivering at least one email a week.

You must commit to sending at least one email a week. Send more if you can, but at least once a week on the same day of the week.

That’s it for part 1.

Next week we’ll tackle steps 4 through 6.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Handing Out Smiles

Write cards to the people you love.

They don’t have to be good. (The card that is…though I suppose it doesn’t really matter for the people either. Maybe bad people are bad because no one ever wrote them a card?)

They don’t have to be pretty. (Again…you know what, never mind.)

The words need not be profound or poetic.

They do, however, need to be written by your own hand; in ink.

They also need to be on tangible paper, sent via snail mail with a postage stamp. (For the love of all you cherish please don’t send an e-card.)

And as your card slips irrevocably through the mail slot wiggle with giddy anticipation. In the next twenty-four to seventy-two hours, you will brighten someone’s day.

In fact, during that magic window between when you mail your card and it gets delivered, bask in the glow of imagining your recipient’s smile when they see your note in their mailbox.

It is not hubris or ego to do so.

Hand-written cards really do make people smile.

And these days, who would it hurt to hand out some smiles?

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Would You Rather…

Want to play a game?

It’s just for fun. There are no real world tactical practical tips or tricks here. Just a brief distraction.

You in?

Good. It’s a game of would-you-rather business superpowers.

Forevermore, would you rather have the superpower to solve your business problems twice as fast, or would you rather have the superpower to cut the number of your problems in half?

I’ll wait while you decide.

…Got your answer?

So, which one did you choose?

Really? That’s not the one I would have picked.

What made you decide to go with that option?

Huh. So that’s more of a pain point for you? I guess that makes sense. I’d probably pick that one too if I was in your situation.

Let’s do another. If you had the superpower to completely solve one issue for your company, would you rather solve supply chain shortages or quality staffing shortages?

Oh, good choice. That’s a toughie.

If you had the superpower to take more time off, would you rather only work four days a week or work five and get an extra month of vacation (non-accumulative) each year?

These are fun, right? There are no real-world consequences because we’re talking about fantastical scenarios. So, we get to cut loose and think about our preferences without worrying about how to actually make it happen.

While we’re still living in this realm of not having to worry about logistics, here’s another question.

Are you happy with what you’re currently doing for a living?

You know, the whole thing. Are you happy with the work, the schedule, the people, the compensation?

If not, what are your ideal work preferences?

Think about it for a minute. And remember, we’re still just having fun.

Don’t stress about how to actually make it happen, not yet. You know why?

Because the real first step to making it come about isn’t to make a plan; it’s to have fun painting a picture.

A big fantastical picture of your preferences.

So, want to play a game?


Would you rather…

 – Zac Smith, VC

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16 Nuggets from People Smarter Than Me

I have the utmost good fortune to have hung around a lot of smart business people.

Whenever I hear one of these people say something insightful, I write it down.

I’ve amassed a collection of these wise crumbs and leavings.

As a look back, here are sixteen things from my storeroom. I present them to you in no particular order and with no context whatsoever.

  • Does your category have a King? If not, then sit on the throne. 
  • A “Brand” is the sum total of all the feelings, good and bad, that are evoked when I hear your name. 
  • Letitia “Tish” Baldrige (Lady Bird Johnson’s secretary) “You should never begin a thank you note with the words, ‘thank you.’” 
  • How do you drive traffic to a website? You create a mystery that only a visit to the website will solve. And you get the customer really engaged. 
  • In art symbolism water speaks of the unconscious mind. 
  • Don’t give away what you sell. Give away what somebody else sells.
  • Advertising makes the promises that the employees have to deliver. 
  • If your marketing plan could easily be applied or implemented by other companies in your category, then it’s a weak plan. 
  • You can write a memoir by answering three questions in this order over and over again: What happened? How did it make you feel? What did you learn?
  • When you’re writing an ad about you remembering something in the past, don’t make it about you remembering something you did. Make it about you remembering something someone else did.
  • Advertising can’t fix a broken product, service, company, or process. It’s not a magic pill.
  • When a customer is upset, ask these three questions: What happened? What should have happened? What can we do to make it right? 
  • Need to release a video a week, minimum, to build an audience on YouTube. 
  • Currently, the single biggest thing that affects the open rate of email is the “From.” 
  • It takes at least 1000 clicks to test a funnel/campaign. 
  • Real persuasion is a transfer of confidence from you to your customer. 

Thanks for making this year better than it would have been without you.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Boring is the Side Effect

Successful advertising is a simple formula.

If you entertain people then they will give you their attention. If you have their attention long enough then they will eventually give you their money if they believe you and need what you sell.

Entertainment = Attention

Attention + Time + Credibility = Money

As you can intuit from this very scientific formula, the opposite of entertaining is boring. The boring formula looks like this:

Boring = No Attention = No Money

Time and credibility are not part of the boring formula because if something is boring then more time or credibility won’t change that fact.

So, boring is bad.

It can single-handedly derail the successful advertising formula.

Now, there are lots of ways to avoid being boring.

Stephen King gives us one example in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

I wrote a short synopsis applying the above quote to marketing. I’ve decided to not include it here.

Because it doesn’t really matter what I took away from it. Your lessons gleaned are what matters.

What do you take away from Stephen’s quote? And for bonus points, how do you plan on applying it to your marketing?

Hit reply.

I’m deeply interested in your take on it if you care to share it.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Nitty Gritty Application

In last week’s article, I mentioned the principle of always having a guy in a truck with not enough to do. (Which is the key to business growth.) 

That’s just a principle and isn’t necessarily meant to be applied literally.

A faithful reader emailed me back (to protect the innocent we’ll call him Tom) with the name he uses for this principal and how he applies it in his company.

It was such a beautiful nitty-gritty real-world application, I asked Tom’s permission to share it with you.

The cliff notes version is this:

A company can’t grow without SLACK built into the workload/workforce balance. As in, there’s no growth if your workflow can’t expand to say “yes” to new work coming in.

Now, here’s the detailed explanation.

“A key is to realize work isn’t linear.

Some hours of the day we do more than other hours of the day.
Some days of the week are more productive than others.
Some weeks we get more done than other weeks.

The secret is the idea of SLACK.

Basically, a 60% load is the base level for a standard work week. Which means you can crank it up and hit around 80% if it is required. But you can’t sustain 80% for extended periods of time. If you are running your crew at 80% you need another crew member.

Conversely, if you keep too many people working at 40% this will soon become the new norm.

If you hire an extra person to simply be waiting for work what will happen is the entire work team will slow down to match the work to the time.

Think of it like a car driving at 75 mph … Cruising speed … but when it comes time to pass you want to easily ramp up to 90 mph.

Run your crew at cruising speed most of the time.


The other factor in SLACK is these are people not machines.

They don’t work in a linear progression. We load WAVY.

We load them heavier MTW and heavier in the morning. PM is SLACK time.

Fridays is our SLACK day.

Fridays we have our weekly team meeting & breakfast. Each week a different person brings breakfast (we pay for it).

We kick it off by all hands, including management, doing cleanup of the shop, bathrooms, break room, take out trash (yup I get to scrub the loo too).

Friday is also when we celebrate birthdays and occasional team lunches.

But if we are behind the 8 ball, we can step it up and get to work. We can even amp up and run some on Saturday if needed.

The big idea is people are not designed to run hot for long. For the long-haul run ‘em at cruising speed most of the time. When you start consistently running at 75-80% you know you are short staffed.

There is no sin in making it fun to come to work and looking forward to Fridays leaves the team with a good taste in their mouth to finish the week. And you marketing pros know about the importance of last impressions.”

If you found Tom’s explanation and application of SLACK helpful, let me know. I’ll pass it along.

I love these kinds of real-world applications of good business principles.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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Ripcord Clause

I was talking with my good friend, Alan, this week.

A surveyor by trade, he’s contemplating taking a job as a subcontractor for a company that’s pursuing him.

He would have already said yes, but he’s concerned about the company’s tendency to overload their surveyors.

So, I told him about initiating an up-front agreement that includes a ripcord clause coupled with DEFCON levels.

In case this would be useful to you, here’s the email summary I ended up sending Alan. (Just swap the word “surveyor” for whatever industry you’re in.) ————————————————– 

Here’s in writing what I mentioned earlier about the up-front agreement and having a plan that makes everyone happy.

Define your ripcord clause and set the DEFCON levels.

Your ripcord clause is the maximum number of surveys you’re willing to process in a month. There is no amount of money or begging that can convince you to personally do any more than that.

Obviously, if you wait until you reach your ripcord level to enact a plan “b” it’ll be too late without scrambling and extra stress. Thus, the DEFCON levels.

(Real DEFCON levels count down to 1 so we’ll follow suit.)

For example:

DEFCON 5 – 50% Capacity: Note the point in the month but no action. (Are you halfway through the month when you hit 50% capacity?) 

DEFCON 4 – 60% Capacity: Start pro-rating the days of the month left against the month’s workload to that point. (Is it tracking or will you clearly hit the ripcord level? Do you need to start planning?)

DEFCON 3 – 70% Capacity: Yellow Alert. Depending on where you are in the month either start lining up help or actively shuffle/disperse workload. 

DEFCON 2 – 80% Capacity: Orange Alert. Should be handing off 60% or more of all incoming/current surveys.

DEFCON 1 – 90% Capacity: Red Alert. Should be handing off 95% or more of all incoming/current surveys.

The goal is to actually never hit your ripcord number. If you do then reevaluate the DEFCON percentages and adjust.

This is based on the principle of always having a guy in a truck with not enough to do. (Which is the key to business growth.) 

For any service based company, you cannot grow unless you always have at least one person with not enough work. This allows the company to say yes to incoming new work. As soon as the “one person” has a medium-full schedule you hire the next person.

The only companies that grow are the ones willing to counter-intuitively always pay one more person than the workload dictates.

The numbers I used and DEFCON levels are just examples. You’ll have to run your own math to make it work.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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