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Entrepreneurial Marketing Person to Person

Mary Ellen Sheets, Founder and CEO, TWO MEN AND A TRUCK/International, Inc.

Although shy, I am a people person. That has been good for our company, TWO MEN AND A TRUCK®, a local moving business and nationwide franchiser. Prior to launching the business in 1984, I did a lot of volunteer work: answering the phone in a crisis intervention center; working in the emergency room at a local hospital (not brain surgery—just passing out magazines and coffee); gathering items for a home for abused women.

At the end of my first year in business, I made $1,000. I wrote 10 checks to local charities and gave the money away. I have never felt so empowered as I was at that moment. I wasn’t wealthy. I was a single parent with three teenagers—you guessed it, I was supporting us via a day job as a data processor for the State of Michigan that I hadn’t yet given up—but I could still help others. Helping others has become the cornerstone of our business. Our federally protected motto is “Movers Who Care.” One of our core values is “Always Give Back to the Community.”

Marketing Live to Real People

Unbeknown to me at the time, our philosophy of helping others was also becoming our signature marketing, which back then had to be done on a limited budget. Did I say budget? I didn’t have one. I figure I spent $5,000 to $6,000 a year on marketing in those early years, but I spent it when I had it and didn’t spend when I didn’t have it. I’ve never kept a tally.

Take that $1,000 charitable giveaway. I was helping others, sure, but I was also helping our company. For $1,000, we were getting known–and liked—in our community. We were reaching people, and they, in turn, were responding to us, availing themselves of our services and spreading the word. We were engaging in what I call people-to-people marketing. It was essential at the beginning when we were on a budget. Even now, though, as a privately held, family-owned franchiser in 26 states with 150 locations and plans to go international, and with gross revenue of about $120 million in 2003, we maintain the personal touch.

It will work for your company, too. What follows is a look at how we market our business personally–to real people—with tips for how you can do the same.

Start at the Grassroots

Since I was working full time when I started the business, I didn’t have much time to market, and I sure didn’t have much money. However, I did have the time and money to get some brochures printed. I bought cardboard brochure holders and distributed them to apartment buildings and storage units. I had our name and logo printed on the holders, so that hopefully, when the brochures were gone, the manager would call and let me know. If the manager didn’t call, I’d pick up the phone and call that person.

The media started contacting me to see if I wanted to advertise with them. Being a woman in a macho moving business, I was getting a lot of press. I did spend money on radio, print, and yellow pages advertising, some of which was costly—about $15,000 for the radio ads, for example. More importantly, however, I went out of my way to become friends with these folks. Sometimes I would stick my head in the door at their office and drop off a logo-ed mug full of jellybeans. Through these contacts, I met more and more people in the business world. More opportunities developed.

Then Be a Joiner

I joined the National Association of Women Business Owners and, later, the local Chamber of Commerce. (That was a big step because I had never considered myself “in business.”) Yes, I had to pay dues, so if you join—and you should—make sure you get your money’s worth. Go to every event. Talk to people you just met. Tell them about your business, and make sure they leave with your business card in their hand. Don’t you dare go and stand in the corner or just talk with people you already know! Work the room like you were running for president. If it’s not too expensive, sponsor an event so you can give a presentation about your company. At our sponsored breakfast at the Chamber, I was able to talk about our company for 15 minutes and pass out brochures, all for the price of coffee and rolls for 100 people!

Next stop: trade shows. Many organizations have them. You can, as I did in the early days, put a booth together for very little money. At one of our popular local shows, a booth cost a mere $100. Take some pictures of your business. Have some handouts. Never, ever sit down in your booth! No chairs. Don’t eat in your booth. Don’t spend your time running around to other booths collecting a big bag of giveaways that you will never use. Don’t spend your time talking to people in the adjacent booths.

Get right out in the aisle, and make eye contact with your prospective customers. Shake hands. Don’t let anyone past your booth until they know all about your services. Take three pairs of shoes and breath mints! Bring your gold fish bowl, gather business cards, and have a drawing for your services! Schedule the drawing for the next day--you may want to see to it that someone who can help your business gets the door prize. (Not to say it’s rigged, but that can happen!) Drop a postcard to all of the folks who left business cards, thanking them for stopping by your booth, so they will remember you.

Always Be Generous

Ever since that $1,000 giveaway, considering our company’s motto, we’ve always donated to the community—to the point that my accountant once bemoaned, “Mary Ellen, you’re not a social services agency!” Indeed, we aren’t. The $6,000 we spent for pro bono work annually in the early years and the 20 jobs, totaling about 200 hours, we handled in 2004, exemplify person-to-person marketing.

So donate your services to fund-raising events: auctions, church and school festivals, and the like. If you attend an auction, keep your eye open for good marketing deals. We bought our first billboards at a silent auction—they were a steal at $1,500 for two placements!

I took every phone call. I never turned down any request, even those that weren’t paid. You never know where the opportunity to speak or serve on a board may lead you. If I speak and am offered payment, I have the money sent to a charity. I feel good. The people who asked me to speak are impressed. The nonprofit that gets the money is very happy.

If you see an opportunity in the local news to help someone, call and offer your services on behalf of your company. People don’t forget those kind acts. We’ve sent our trucks to an old folks home that had to relocate everyone after a fire. Anytime Habitat for Humanity puts someone into a new house in our community, we do the moving. During the holiday season, our trucks are all over town collecting for Toys for Tots.

Are there more ways to reach out? If you move into a new office, or your first office (as we did, respectively, in 2002 and 1994), host an Open House. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Do the best you can. Invite everyone you’ve had contact with. Invite the media, for sure!

Putting It Together

Speaking of the media, get a book on how to write press releases. There are little tricks to writing them so they look professional. Send them out for every little thing you do. Sooner or later, the local paper will have a slow day, and Bingo! You’ll see an article about your business. People remember these articles longer than they do an ad. I don’t know why, but they do.

Then think customer service, image, and consistency. Provide every customer with a stamped reply card. Ask them to complete and return it. Were they happy with your services? How did they learn about you? Would they refer you to others? We started doing this when we had two trucks, and we still do it with more than 1,000 trucks and 2,500 employees. We know exactly what works for us, marketing-wise. We know our referral rate is 95 percent. Leave a spot for customers to write their comments. My two favorites are, “I want my daughter to marry someone as nice as your movers!” and “Your movers have nice butts!” See—it’s not only educational, but also very entertaining!

If you have company vehicles, keep them absolutely spotless, inside and out. They are your mobile billboards. If you have more than one vehicle, make sure they all look the same. Consistency matters. Park your vehicle in a busy mall in a place where it will be seen. At 5:00 P.M., when commuters are heading out of the city, drive your vehicle in the opposite direction so they can read your moving billboard.

If you have employees, put them in uniform. It doesn’t have to be fancy—a nice clean T-shirt with your company name and logo will do. Make sure they have business cards, too. Teach them how to greet customers, introduce themselves, and shake hands. Your front-line workers are the face and image of your company. You want them to make a good impression. Keep your office spotless. No papers or trash in the parking lot. Plant flowers. Play soft music. No smoking. A bucket of paint is not expensive and can make a big difference. Make your office easily accessible and a pleasant place for customers to visit.

Keep your eyes open for every opportunity to get your company’s name out in the public and recognized. Most of all, keep your marketing person to person. It’s inexpensive, fun, and after a while, it will all add up for your business.

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