“Bootstrapping your idea” is a series of 6 articles by serial entrepreneur and LifeCheq client Nic Haralambous. Nic has to date started 8 separate businesses, including a social network, a campus newspaper, a retail fashion company and, at one point, a rock band. In this amusing and insightful series, written exclusively for LifeCheq, he shares the most important lessons he has taken away from both his successes and failures. A must-read for the aspirant entrepreneur, or anyone who wants to take their passion project to the next level.
The days of pushing product in an advert are dead. There, I said it.
Back in the day you could stick a pack of cigarettes on a poster and call it an advert. Shockingly, that kind of marketing worked. Unbelievably, the product marketing industry hasn’t really died as much as one would have hoped. There are still businesses and brands that believe this works (and sometimes it can work). Overall there is a shift in the world of marketing and advertising towards the telling of a story.
When I was a young entrepreneur I struggled to grasp my value in the process of building a business. I studied journalism at university and enjoyed writing and constructing a narrative, but how did this make me a better business person? After many years of building business, I have come to understand that the ability to tell a story is an invaluable trait for an entrepreneur to possess.
Some of the greatest leaders that I respect understand that to lead is to be able to tell a story that resonates with people. Telling people to do something because they have to is vastly different to telling your team a story that guides them through an experience of understanding and galvanizes them together towards a common goal. Storytelling has been the mark of amazing marketing for decades but very few ever get it right consistently and, to be honest, very few have had to because consumers were less discerning in the past.
Today, consumers are becoming more conscious about how businesses create product, the impact on the environment, the vision, the mission and how employees are treated. Is the product local? Is there a story behind the team or did they just want to make themselves very rich at any expense? Consumers actually have started to give a damn.
Don’t Tell a Story
Here’s the most important piece of advice that you will probably ever hear about marketing your business: Do Not Tell A Story.
Tell the truth. But make a story that people want to listen to. Here I am using the word story very specifically: I am not telling you to make something up like a fable. I am telling you very clearly that you have a path that you have followed to build the business you are building. Tell people about how you came to this path and why you chose it. Be authentic and never, ever lie about your process because you will be found out and that kind of damage cannot be recovered from.
At NicHarry.com we started the business with R5000. I set myself a goal to see if I could build a business in South Africa in 6 weeks with a small budget and turn a profit in 30 days after launching to the public. I chose socks because I had an itch to scratch; I was sick and tired of wearing dull and boring clothing available to men at the time and I wanted to try to revive the struggling textile manufacturing industry in South Africa. I decided to create the loudest, most colourful and comfortable socks that I could manufacture in SA.
So I did it. I met with a factory, I knitted some samples and built a website. I partnered with a company online who could help me sell more socks and 30 days after launching the product our initial R5000 investment had become R30 000 in sales and we had a business!
That is the Nic Harry brand story.
It’s clear, concise and has a goal. There is a mountain to climb, a short path up that mountain and a relatable crescendo that people can understand and get behind. That brand story helped me launch Nic Harry and is the story I still tell today when people ask me about how and why I started a sock company.
The story above is also the truth.
When you are starting a business you definitely cannot afford the best advertising agency in the world to help you carve out a story, create an incredible TV campaign and roll out the most insane digital marketing blast the world has ever seen. Most businesses will actually never be able to afford this service.
It’s important to understand this about advertising agencies: the truly great advertising agencies are few and far between and are extremely expensive. They cost so much because they are incredibly good at what they do and will often increase your sales with a stunning advertising campaign.
On the flip side, average or even just good advertising agencies will cost you money and do OK work but not tell your story in an authentic way. They will do what little work they can and charge the most they can reasonably charge to get the work done to a standard you are happy with. This advertising is where most businesses live. Let’s call it Averageville. In Averageville the people all look the same. The houses all look the same. The catchphrases are all the same. The neighbourhoods, the colours, the music, the trees, the dogs and cats and everything else all looks the same. We’ve all seen these ads. They. All. Look. The. Same.
That’s because there is some junior copywriter scribbling down ideas for a business they just discovered yesterday and now believe they can authentically understand and talk about in an advertising campaign. I beg to differ.
The best person to tell your story is you. As an entrepreneur your passion about your business should be unmatched and that makes you the most enthusiastic person in the room when you are talking about what you do and how you do it. This level of passion and understanding is precisely what makes your first customers try you out. Very often people taking a risk on a new product will back the founder, not necessarily the product. You are the shining light in their dark corridor. You are the person convincing them that you can do it better. Your story helps them understand the “why” behind your business and gives them a reason to believe.
If you are not the person constructing this narrative then there is probably a lot of dilution happening.
At Nic Harry we took a decision to stop using models in our photoshoots of our products because I absolutely hate seeing six pack abs and chiseled bodies when I’m shopping online. I believed in this decision so much that I embedded myself in the story. I modeled our underwear myself. That’s me on the left.
It’s authentic to see the founder of a business modeling his own underwear (which I wear every single day). It’s believable and makes the customers really trust that you back your own product.
Don’t Be Shy
I have met entrepreneurs from all over the world and there is one very definitive difference between South African entrepreneurs and ones from places like Israel, the USA, France and the UK – South African entrepreneurs are shy.
For some strange reason we don’t like to talk about how incredible we are.
Back in 2011 I went out to raise another round of funding for my mobile company. I traveled to the UK, met with investors from Germany, went to the USA and pitched at funding competitions all over the show.
At one event in New York I was on stage and had exactly 10 minutes to pitch my company to a room full of investors before the next entrepreneur would be ushered onto the stage. I spent my time softly stating the pros of our business. I stepped off stage feeling quite proud of myself for doing a good job telling my story. What I didn’t realise is that I had told a very, very soft story. One of the investors in the room clearly felt sorry for me and approached me with some questions and advice.
He asked me if my business was a world leader in our industry and I replied that we were. He then asked me if we were doing well and I again replied that we were doing well, earning revenue and growing nicely. He then asked me why the hell I didn’t tell the investors that when I was on stage.
I had not realised it, but I was being shy. I was too shy to pitch our success. Culturally, for whatever strange reason, South African entrepreneurs do not like to talk about themselves in a positive light too often or too loudly. This has to stop. You need to begin telling your story proudly and loudly as long as it’s honest and authentic. If you are genuinely proud of what you are doing and want people to know about it, then you have to be the first person tell your story.
When I walk down a street and someone stops me to compliment my socks, I don’t shyly say thank you, I boldly tell them who I am, where they can buy the socks and how I make the socks in South Africa. I am proud of my story and you should be proud to tell yours too.