Marketing today is about urgency. Urgency is more valuable when it comes to closing a deal or getting someone to buy something than the value of the product. What rounds us out as entrepreneurs is when we’re able to ask the right questions and get into relationships because ultimately, it’s not what’s right for the deal but what’s right for the customer. Ken talks about his interesting start, from the time he started selling signs knocking from door to door to getting into strategic partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions, realizing along the way that value of finding out what people need and selling it to them.
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I’m going to do something drastically different. Normally, I live life with my wife. We run all over the place and bump into people, whether it’s people that work with us and for us or people we’re coaching or consulting or sharing the stage with. We take part in the conversation in which we can see somebody resonates strongly with something we’re saying or hearing. We jot it down and podcast about it.
Our platform is growth consulting currently managing over a thousand money-making websites for website partners. Five times in Inc. 5,000 Company. Our portfolio of websites has seen over 5 billion times a year. We have a decent platform and a lot of experience. I sketched out a couple of points that I wanted to cover. They were very specific. They’re coming quite frankly from a branch. I got interviewed on a show by a gentleman named Matt Kretzmann. I realized some of the questions he was asking me were very embryonic, “How did you do this? What did you do without money?”
Getting off that call, I shifted a little bit but I was able to stay on point with the teaching nuggets that I had bumped into in the past. I’m going to share a little bit of the very genesis of what we’re doing now and I’m going to back up even further into the short job I had which laid the foundation for everything. I’m going to jump in and I want you guys to see if you can find three to four points that resonate with your current business.
See if you can come up with why I think it’s relevant to share this story. In 1992, I was a senior at what was then the College of St. Francis, now it’s University of St. Francis. I was somewhat aggressive. I was definitely a dreamer. I was a little bit aloof, not a big homework guy going for my degree in graphic design. I really did enjoy school but came from an entrepreneurial family and could not wait. I didn’t know what I want to do, but I knew I was going to own a business.
Being restless in my senior year, I only had school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and so I decided to answer an ad for a job. It said, “Make $500 to $1,000 next week.” It was for a graphic designer. I’m like, “This is odd. What graphic designer in 1992 is going to come out of college and make $1,000 next week?” It seemed odd to me, but it was a captivating ad, it’s called a blind ad.
I showed it to my dad and he said, “I can’t tell you much about this company but I can tell you that I know the address of the office in Hinsdale, Illinois. That’s a very ritzy part of town. Why don’t you at least go check it out?” I drove out there. I walked in the door, a marble staircase and I’m taken aback and blown away of the quality of the entryway and the office and it was really nice. I get in there and I think they interviewed 30, 40 people and they chose me.
I thought I was going in for some form of a design position. It turned out that they were able to ethically list the ad under design because I was going to be a salesman for a sign company out of California, one of 700 salespeople. We had to knock on doors and with no business cards in a one call close atmosphere, I had to sell signs and small towns that didn’t have a sign company and I was not allowed to do a callback.You become what you think you are. Click To Tweet
I had to either sell it right there, meaning I would have to interview them, talk to the business owner, find out their needs, design a sign, sell it to them and get a deposit that day. It was quite interesting. To give a little background, I did not date anybody in high school. I didn’t drink a beer in high school, very shy, a chubby fella in my junior high and freshman and sophomore year. I definitely thinned out, hit the weights, got aggressive in athletics and found myself junior, senior year in high school.
I left high school with some records in athletics, wrestling and football. I went to college on a scholarship for football, broke some records there, so I definitely was driven, but I certainly wasn’t a go-getter and a good communicator. My first presentation on my own was awful. I lifted the cover off of our sample. I had to plug in an electric sign and do a 20-minute presentation around this sign, a dog and pony show. I plugged it in, I lifted the cover, had a complete anxiety attack and got totally soaked with sweat.
I could not even say goodbye. I put the cover on, wrapped the cord, and did not say a word to these two people. I walked out the door, sat in my car almost crying. It took me about twenty minutes to get to the office. I remember getting out of the car, looking backwards and my seat was soaking wet from sweat. I walked in the office and quit. They wouldn’t let me quit. They told me to work my way home. They said, “We interviewed so many people. We chose you. We believed in you. You’ve got to trust yourself. Could you just work your way home?” Meaning would you just make one more call? “We think you’re gifted.” I was 22, definitely impressionable at the time and I really did respect my managers.
I gave it one more chance. I drove home down Ogden Avenue. I knocked on one more door. A Korean gentleman answered the door at a copy print place and I accidentally sold him a sign. I sold him the wrong sign. I designed the wrong sign. I overcharged him the wrong price. He even wrote the check to my name. It was a disaster. However, I did sell something, I drove home that day. My girlfriend at the time was blown away. She was trying to calculate the commission. I went back to the office the next day and I handed them a contract.
They were praying to God that I just didn’t quit. I was hook, line, and sinker from there. It was not the commission. It was when I saw the guy’s eyes light up when he saw that sign. It was everything his business has been looking for to attract attention from the street. I did not realize the power signs had. I did some massive homework in small business administration. I spent so much time at the library and started teaching my managers things they didn’t know about signs.
I outworked everybody in the office and in the 80th day of my job I was number seven out of 700. I was written up in the company newsletter. I made it to the top 10 behind people like Buddy Swisshelm and things like that. I was very proud of myself. I was definitely a little bit torn because I kept looking at the physical product and my brain kept saying, this is just plastic, aluminum and light bulbs. I can make this sign. I can find a way to manufacture it. I could probably make 50% instead of 15% and I couldn’t sleep.
What did I do? I took that sign sample and I shopped at around Chicago. I didn’t have a dollar. I went to plastic manufacturers. I remember going to Landis Plastic and KELCOM Plastic and then I went to a Sterling Reflector. I went to all these metal companies. Believe it or not, I talked two massive companies. Each company had 50 to 500 employees. I talked them into making molds and samples for me on the if-come, meaning I told them the size of the company I was currently working for and that I plan on building a company as big as this one with a better product.
Would you take a chance on me? I don’t have any money to give you for molds. I don’t have anything. I said, “But I can tell you this, if you take a chance on me, I’ll start out as a one-man machine and I’ll sell a ton of these and then I’ll build a team of people over time and we’ll sell a lot more than a ton. The current company I was working for did not allow business cards. It was a one-call close situation.
It was the best and brightest sign according to the sign expo in Las Vegas. It was a fantastic product. You had to work in towns that had no sign company. I had to walk in the door, no appointment, cold-call, find a business owner in. They’ve got to be in. I can’t do a one-legger so partner has got to be there and commission only. We did have a lot of testimonials. We could bring in a lot of testimonials from previous people in town. It was a very specific sale to a very specific customer.
That niche we were in of towns with no sign company and having the ability to evaluate the size of letter height on a wooden sign. One inch can be readable from 35 feet away, an electric sign is readable from 55 feet away. We had so much data. I talk two companies with no money into manufacturing signs for me on and I sit down and I write myself a three-page plan. It talks about how I’ve got to be the sales rep. I’ve got to be the manufacturer. I’ve got to be the delivery person. I’ve got to be the installer. I’m everybody.
I said to myself at 22 years old, “I could probably in one year do $72,000 of business. Bottom line, I had the same market, everything was the same, but my sign was brighter. I think it was 40%brighter, I never did take it to Vegas, but we would have crushed that other company. I found a company that had a mirror design team. They could make something super bright. It was amazing. I went out, started working in my Joliet area. It was an instant failure. It didn’t matter what I said or did, I could not close a piece of business to save my life. I realized quickly I’m selling in my hometown, the one-call close approach didn’t work when they knew you lived in Joliet for X amount of years.
After getting my nose bloody for a period of time, I realized I’ve got to pay my bills. I went to the Southeast side of Indianapolis and it was an instant success. My sign was better and brighter. I did incredible well there. I worked Indiana, I worked Southern Illinois. I’ve got some cash in the bank. Here’s what I realized. When it was my own company, I have something called empathy. It was gutturally painful for me when I walked into a business owner and I realized, every business owner needs to grow, but every business owner does not need an electric window sign.
When I finally came to grips with my ethics that I cannot sell an electric sign to someone that doesn’t need it, meaning somebody that’s on a side street with only six cars a day and business cul-de-sac with twenty cars a day. Even if you put the biggest electric sign in the world, it isn’t going to make a difference. They have no traffic. I could not sell that product to that person and there were twenty other variations of that.
I realized in a short period of months that they don’t necessarily need a sign, but if they had a radio campaign or if they had a newspaper campaign properly designed, properly titled, they’ll triple their business. I knew in my first twelve months that after my first year, I’m going to shift this thing. I began helping people with radio banners, neon. We contracted out to a neon plant. We started custom fabricating neon.
The key was this, I still had a very specific customer, but I no longer had a very specific item to sell to them. At our peak we had nine proprietary products that were signs like cloth banners. We were able to do balloons on the rooftop. We were able to commission only radio broadcasts from people’s rooftops. We even got into the internet. Definite strategic partnerships. If you’ve ever heard my old podcast, Find Your Louis.
I even did some mergers and acquisitions, help people get into Walgreens with their products. We found out what do they need and we began to sell them what they need. I think this goes back to some of the best books ever written, Think and Grow Rich, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Hung by the Tongue, The Power of the Spoken Word and You Become What You Think You Are. I wrote a business plan that my dad laughed at because I said, “I think I can do $72,000 in my first year.” He goes, “How can you live on that?” He didn’t recognize I was a 22-year-old single person and I can only sell for so long because then I’ve got to build something, then I’ve got to install something.
He didn’t really grab that. All he grabbed was the gross volume of $72,000 in my first twelve months. The irony is it angered me so much. When I got back in my car and drove home, I threw that business plan on the floor. I remember finding it a few years later when I moved my office into the basement of my first home. I remember opening the Manila envelope, there was no title on it.
I’m like, “This is my first business plan.” It must have been 1996. I remember running to look at my tax returns and I wrote a plan that said probably I could do $72,000. I looked at my tax return and it was $72,360. I remember going, “Wow, the power of a written business plan.” Brian Tracy says, “If it isn’t written down, it’s not real because you’re afraid of it.” Something not written can’t be real.There's some power in affirmation what you state over and over to yourself. Click To Tweet
There’s some power writing something down. There’s also some power in an affirmation where you state over and over to yourself, out your one mouth and in your two ears what you’re going to do. I think there are a lot of powerful nuggets in this podcast. The fact that I started one out of 700 reps, doing a job I never wanted to do, meaning sales.
I think the power of knocking on a door and with no appointment, talking someone into looking at something first, then building rapport and building a friend and explaining that, “I’m commission-only. I am only going to eat if you buy something but I’m here to tell you clear as day, I’ve got twenty testimonials from this town over five years of how well our signs do. My Cheerios will be just as healthy tomorrow if you don’t buy something now. I just need to set this up properly so you understand why I can’t come back tomorrow, of why you can’t think this over. No offense. I’ll leave here as a friend. This is a numbers game for me, catching the right people at the right time. I love what I do.” There was some power because what I learned many years later, urgency is more valuable in selling something than value.
Some people say the value of a product is passé. Marketing now is about urgency, which with all the noise out there, I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I’m not going to buy it completely, but I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Where this all boils down to and hinges on, is that crux. Those first few years. Our company pivoted from shooting signs into a business to walking into a business with a quiver of other people’s signs.
We still did signs but we still did so many other things and that’s what rounded us out as entrepreneurs is we were able to ask the right questions, get into relationships. If somebody needed to come back five times to put the right package together, I don’t care. If it’s the right thing to do. I’ll talk to somebody. I’ve closed people after four years of communicating them and meeting them to close a piece of business. I don’t care. It’s what’s right for the customer. It’s not what’s right for the deal. I hope there’s some good nuggets in there. Take care.
- Think and Grow Rich
- How to Win Friends & Influence People
- Hung by the Tongue
- The Power of the Spoken Word
- You Become What You Think You Are