nate van close upThere’s no greater marketing challenge for a startup than a budget that is almost non-existent. Whenever I work with entrepreneurs who are in a low to no-budget situation, one of the first things I ask them is: How much skin are you willing to put in the game? Because in the entrepreneurial world, passion and scrappiness are going to be your keys to success across the board, even if that means possibly embarrassing yourself in the name of moving your company forward. 

As an advisor to a lot of startups, I am always looking for great examples of marketing ideas that cost under $1K to share with them as thought-starters for their own marketing hacks. These are four of my favorites + one that is significantly over $1K but is a such a fantastic workaround in the face of a highly entrenched, highly resourced competitor that I just have to share it. 

  1. Leverage Your Vehicle – If you’re truly passionate about your business and its success, why wouldn’t you wrap your car? That’s one of the challenges I throw out to the B2C entrepreneurs I work with. For ZipFit, a Chicago-based startup, the Chicago Loop is brimming with men in their target age range, especially at rush hour and lunch time. One of our ideas was wrapping the founder’s car and having an intern drive it around the Loop at key times as well as parking it in key parking spaces on the street when they became available. While the founder has yet to implement this, I’m still advocating for it! 
  2. Leverage Your Vehicle Part 2 – One of my favorite examples of all time is an idea my electrician, Nate, came up with.  We’ve all seen service provider vans with their name and contact information on them. It’s ubiquitous because it’s smart, easy and inexpensive. Not only is your vehicle a moving billboard for your services but when it’s parked in front of a customer’s home or office you essentially receive their implicit endorsement.

But Nate has taken this common practice a brilliant step farther. Here’s a picture of the back of Nate’s van:

nate van full

Nate buys magnet business cards in bulk and keeps several on his van at all times under a Please Take One sign. People don’t need to write his info down or try to remember his name. Instead they can just grab one of his free magnets off the back of the van. And even if someone steals all of them, it’s a tiny cost and Nate can quickly replenish them from his full box in the back!

3. The Un-Tradeshow – My colleague Mark has worked in the real estate space for a long time. Several years ago, he was working for a startup that did not have the budget for him to attend a key industry trade show. While the show was going to be full of target customers it was also very very expensive to attend. But that didn’t slow Mark down for a minute! He went to the convention center anyway and spent the entire day standing at the top of the escalator intercepting key contacts and targets *before* they went into the show. (He was so successful, in fact, that the show banned people from doing that the following year. Apparently there’s also a name for it – it’s called “suitcasing”.)

4. Go Where Your Peeps AreStylisted is a company that provides vetted stylists who come to your home to do hair and/or makeup. The co-founders wanted to hand out scaled up versions of their business cards with information about the company on the back. They were absolutely game to be a street team of two and give the cards to any woman who looked like she was in their target. It was fantastic that they were willing to do this, but I challenged them to think of how they could make this time as productive and efficient as possible.

One idea we came up with was to acquire a copy of the Chicago Junior League’s calendar, since Junior League women are very similar to the women in the center of the company’s target bull’s eye. And better still, Junior League holds multiple formal cocktail/dance events throughout the year, which also create a need for their services. Once The Stylisted ladies had the calendar, they could see both the dates for the events and the dates of the meetings immediately preceding the events. So the street team of two went and stood outside of the meeting venue prior to the events and handed out the cards there. They put the same effort in as originally planned, only now it’s much more focused and productive.

5. BONUS: Use a Film Permit To Exhibit Outside an Event Venue –  A few months ago, I read an article in Inc. magazine about Rebel Athletic, an upstart custom cheerleading uniform company. Their major competitor controls most of the cheerleading competition events in the US, and has therefore  locked Rebel out of exhibiting at the events, a key place for uniform sales.

Most cities’ rules prohibit companies from parking buses/trucks outside of convention venues in order to circumvent paying attendance fees. One way that Rebel Athletic has found to sidestep this is to acquire a film permit. Rebel has done so and is now using their tour bus to interview cheerleaders for a documentary on bullying. The bus just happens to also be fitted out as a dressing room where attendees can try on different uniforms. Read all about it here.

Hopefully these hacks can be thought starters for your own scrappy marketing ideas. We’d love to hear about them!