Insane Business Strategies – the Roundup


A while back I wrote about “insane business strategies,” or things you can do to pump up a lagging small business.

I decided to ask for additional contributions to the article using Peter Shankman’s awesome Help a Reporter Out service. If you’re a journalist or “expert source” on something, HARO helps connect these two groups together through several daily lists of queries.

I got back a lot of good responses, the best of which I’m including here. Also, I got a few responses that were surprisingly not insane at all – I won’t quote them directly, but be sure and read to the end of the article to hear more about that.

All stories below are told directly by the contributor. Here’s what I liked:

The Non-Profit Speakers’ Bureau (Ginny Richardson)

“I have a successful public relations business in a suburb of Chicago. About 13 years ago, I started a second business that financially brings in nothing, nada, zilch. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who say to me, ‘Yeah, but how do you make money?’ I reply that I don’t! Now that’s insane.

After launching my business full-time in 1994, I received a call asking if I knew anyone who would speak for free at a luncheon meeting. I thought about it, and indeed I was able to provide four names and topics. One was a good friend from high school who taught exercise. She was thrilled to go out and talk. She named her presentation, ’50 Ways to Lose Your Blubber.’

Later that week, I had lunch with a Chicago Tribune writer and told her about what I jokingly referred to as Free Speech. The following week, my she wrote a four paragraph item that appeared on the front page of a Metro section with the headline, ‘Cheap talk for area organizations.’

The phone rang and rang and rang. Oddly, most of the calls were not from groups. They were from people who wanted to speak. I thought about how to set up a system to make money, but in the end, I threw up my hands and realized I enjoyed matchmaking empty podiums and speakers. I would not charge a dime, nor would the speakers, not even mileage. I would look at the entire initiative as community service.

Here’s what happened. At a morning Rotary, I was the speaker on how to garner free media attention. Afterwards an audience member asked for my business card. A year later, this man who, unbeknownst to me, who was a vice president at McDonald’s, Inc., asked for a meeting and I ended up doing media relations for a small project called McStore. A nice client on the old resume, right?

Free Speech is, first and foremost, community service. But the by-product I never expected is that it is the greatest marketing tool I could have dreamed up. Today Free Speech is completely online, and there are 170 speakers and nearly 500 groups, clubs and organizations in the database. It is still free and it is still bringing rich rewards on all sorts of levels. But to someone with the bottom line as all-important, it is totally insane.”

Check out Ginny’s site on Public Relations.

The Grammar Book (Jane Straus)

“I am the author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. In 1997, I decided to spend $10,000 to put the entire contents of the book online. Remember, in 1997, Google was not a verb, i.e., no one could find the site; there were no shopping carts or methods to pay for anything online; advertisers saw no potential nor had any graphic capabilities.

Why did I do it? First, I believed that the information I provided would be useful someday (if ever home computers became affordable) to people in third-world countries who might never have an opportunity to learn English because they couldn’t afford books or didn’t have a school nearby. Secondly, I trusted the laws of karma: if one does something nice with an open heart, good will come of it.

As of this month, The Blue Book has become a perennial #1 bestseller in its category on (which also didn’t exist was just getting started back in the stone age of 1997), has sold over 115,000 copies, and was purchased by Wiley/Jossey-Bass last year.

One of the publisher’s initial conditions of purchase was that I had to remove 80% of the content. My refusal garnered the attention of the publisher’s marketing gurus. They gave me an opportunity to help them understand such an insane business strategy — one that gives everything away for free and still is profitable — beyond every other popular book in its category.

My argument was this: English usage rules are already in the public domain. So how will people know that my book is better ? Also, I want teachers and schools to find it easy to peruse the book for purchasing in bulk. Why make teachers wait for their complimentary desk copy? If we make it convenient for teachers to see the value of what they will get, they will have no reason not to trust the product.

Well, the publishing team did the previously unthinkable: they allowed me to keep the entire contents of The Blue Book online. And guess what… the book is selling faster than ever!”

Check out Jane’s site on life coaching.

The Apple Copyeditor (Linda Jay Geldens)

“Decades ago, I attended a computer conference. On the back table were copies of the Apple Computer internal newsletter. I picked one up, and noticed that the pages were riddled with errors — I am one of those copyeditor/proofreader types, and really do have eagle eyes!

I decided that I wanted to be the freelance copyeditor for that newsletter. I knew that the Apple company culture was, shall we say, “brash” — quite the opposite of my natural temperament. So I decided that I would have to match that brashness if Apple was going to consider me for the job.

I circled the errors with red pen and made an appointment with the newsletter editor. When I went to his office to meet him, I casually tossed the newsletter on his desk, smiled, and said, “You need me!”

To my surprise, he hired me that day. And, my name was even on the masthead, for the year in which I was the newsletter’s copyeditor. That was unheard-of, since I was a freelancer, and everyone else on the staff were full-time employees. The odd thing was, I was never called in to meet the other staff members.

The feeling was probably that my freelance ways might rub off on the 9-to-5 group. At the end of a year, the job was taken back in-house. But I was pleased that I had been able to convince the editor to hire me, by means of a somewhat unconventional strategy.”

Check out Linda’s site on copywriting.

DIY Manufacturing (Jennie Roberts)

“Last year I started my manufacturing business in an insane way. I didn’t know it was insane at the time; I was just naive.

My husband and I invented a game called No Limit Texas Dreidel, which is a cross between the traditional Hanukkah dreidel game and Texas Hold’em poker. Our friends loved the game and I was ready to do something work-wise after staying home with my daughter for two years.

The game requires lots of different parts: wood, plastic, a fabric bag, paper printing, and more. Because we didn’t want to pay to develop our own molds I sourced the game parts from all over the world. The dreidels came from China, one plastic part came from Malaysia (tracked down through the manufacture of one of my daughter’s toys), another plastic part came from a different manufacturer in China, the bags were made in New Jersey, and the printing was done locally in Atlanta.

All these pieces were then shipped to our house: 20,000 dreidels, 12,000 plastic shaker cups, and other pieces to make 1500 games. We assembled the games ourselves, with our friends and family. Insane.

Even more insane was that I thought we could sell 1500 of a new product… on the internet… by ourselves. We launched our retail website September 11, 2007. We ended up selling 1000 of the games through the holiday season. But — nothing else we sold had even came close to that quantity — maybe we sold a few hundred of our second-best selling items. I was naive and lucky. And at the end of the season I truly knew we had a winning product!

This year we are manufacturing 10,000 games. We contracted with a manufacturer to produce the games to arrive fully assembled, packed and shrink wrapped, so no more home assembly. We have two national distributors who are selling the games wholesale to other retailers. Bloomingdale’s is selling the game this Hanukkah. Just like in poker: we got lucky.”

Check out Jennie’s site on Judaica-themed games and gifts.

The Work Your Ass Off Guy (Anonymous)

(Note: this is from a regular AONC reader. He sent me this story with permission to use, but requested anonymity.)

“The secret for freedom is to work your ass off right away and show profoundly eccentric tendencies to create a reputation. I work for [edited] and have essentially been working with the same people for twenty years.

Wayyy back when I was an intern, from the second day on, I made sure to be in my office when my boss got to work and was there when he left. I would work frequently very late at night and be sure to send an email as late as possible, say 3am, about something (i.e., status, an epiphany, interesting website I found) to demonstrate my dedication. Quickly I got labeled ‘insane, but in a good way’ and I was off to the races.

Then I could come and go as I pleased. Getting good stuff done and quickly, I suddenly got the latitude to work on what I wanted because people knew that I was doing something useful, but some of them did not know what it was. My current product is something that I started as an unconventional project, but it quickly became valuable and is now shown on much of our marketing literature.

I go to my office (75 miles away) probably twice a month and that works out nicely. I have plenty of time to pursue my passions, like the sport of lacrosse, whenever I feel like it. During the spring I have days when I coach 5 hours in the middle of the day, but I make up for that by getting stuff done in the morning or evening.”


Non-Insane Business Strategies

For those who have read this far, I thought I’d share the summaries of a few responses I got that didn’t make the cut. First, I heard from two respondents who thought it was insane that they chose to work for free during the start-up phase of their business. “Times were tough,” they both said in different ways, “but we did it anyway.”

I was polite and thanked them for sending the stories – but this is pretty much what every entrepreneur does. Being an entrepreneur, by nature, involves risk. I suppose if you compare yourself to venture capital-funded companies whose founders are paid, then that’s a bit different.

But most small business owners I know have never pitched anything to Silicon Valley multi-millionaires. They are just giving their all trying to make something work, and sometimes that involves working for free. If you’re not comfortable with risk, well, a “real job” might be better for you.

Another person said they “worked really hard” to get their business started. Again, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Being insane means going above and beyond, kind of like what some of the stories presented above have done — Ginny’s non-profit speakers’ bureau, for example, and the submission from the anonymous reader.

If you have any more stories of your own to contribute, feel free to do so in the comments. And if you have a business of your own, check out the original article for ideas.

Check out previous roundups here:

Follow Your Passion? The Blogger Roundup
10 More Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling



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  • robin says:

    These are fantastic, inspirational stories — thanks!

    I must correct one fact, though, in Jane Straus’ story. Amazon *was* around in 1997. I remember when I first looked at it that year, when I was still working at my old print job, and wondering what this crazy World Wide Web was all about.

    FWIW, Wikipedia says first launched in 1995.

  • Success Professor says:

    What a great selection of stories. Very inspiring and challenging. For me, my business change when I made a firm decision that I was going to reach my goals, no matter what.

  • Chris says:

    @ Robin,

    Thanks – I will correct that info. I seem to remember using Amazon back then as well, although of course it was still in its early days at that time.

  • Tara says:

    Excellent ideas! I’m still forming my own insane business plan!

  • Jenny says:

    This is cool. Good responses too. It’s a bit tiring but when you have to do it, you gotta. Plus loads of post-its and coffee.

  • Licer says:

    Loved this story, Chris. It’s amazing what you can do when you step out of your comfort zone. Very motivating. =)

  • HIB says:

    Great article and great stories. I see a reoccuring theme of “what goes around, comes around”.
    Good stuff!

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