1988-89 Macworld & The Fishbowl Story

The first time I took our company to exhibit in a trade show we brought along a big plastic fish bowl with a sign that said: “Free Drawing! Drop your business card in the bowl for a free copy of Business Plan Pro®.”

Three days later we had four fishbowls full of business cards. Business cards, business cards, and not a lead among them. Fortunately we typed in only a few hundred names and sampled the marketing results before we spent the resources to input thousands. The list was useless. None of the people sampled wanted our product.

The following year we took the same product to the same trade show and the same fish bowl too. That second year, however, we put a sign by the bowl that said: “For more information about Business Plan Pro, drop your business card here.”

After that trade show we ended up with a few hundred good leads. We input the data and followed up and made some sales.

I’ve used this story often in teaching and seminars and managing my own company because to me it illustrates the importance of target marketing and focus. In this example, quality of leads is much more important than quantity. Thousands of bad leads are worth nothing, while a few hundred good leads have real value.

This is about selling business plan software. Not everybody wants business planning, and those who don’t aren’t good prospects. It’s hard, or expensive, or both to sift through a lot of leads to find those who have real interest.

A few years later the fishbowl story helped our marketing team recognize that we didn’t want mysterious banner ads or free prize offers that generated lots of clicks and few prospects. We wanted to attract the few interested people, not huge numbers of people who couldn’t care less.

What distinguishes the good leads from the bad leads is their interest. People walking the aisles at a trade show drop their business cards in any fish bowl offering something free, whether they are interested or not in what that exhibitor is selling. We didn’t want a lot of cards. We wanted cards from people interested in our specific product, business planning software, and not cards from anybody (via lucica at dress head).  The marketing follow-up was expensive , whether it was inputting data from business cards or mailing information, and the marketing yield was good with well-targeted prospects and bad with generalized prospects.

Some businesses depend more on targeting than others. Think about that for your business. Do you sell to everybody? Or do you sell to a specialized group? What kind of fishbowl do you want?

For the record, since I like the idea of true stories, this actually happened in 1988 and 1989 at the MacWorld expos in San Francisco, and the product was Business Plan Toolkit®, ancestor of Business Plan Pro®.

Reprinted from timberry.bplans.com A Fish Bowl, a Free Prize, a Lesson.

Reflections on Family in Business

Does the world disrespect family business? Is there an unpleasant assumption of nepotism?

When I started Palo Alto Software, back in the middle 1980s, it was about me and business planning and a few good clients and a stubborn insistence on eventually selling boxes instead of hours. When it started as Infoplan in 1983 my oldest child was 11 years old.

They didn’t teach family business at Stanford while I was getting my MBA degree. It was all consulting and analysis and high-end buzzwords. But they didn’t teach entrepreneurship either, just a single course in “small business management,” taught by Steve Brandt.

So years pass, those children grow up, and I discover family business in the best possible way.  I’m proud. They are now educated, successful grownups, with degrees from Notre Dame, Princeton, NYU, Whitman, and one still not finished, a sophomore at Stanford.

Two weeks ago I named my daughter Sabrina Parsons CEO and her husband Noah Parsons COO.

Nepotism? Let’s see … they are both Princeton grads, they built a London company distributing our software as an independent venture, they’ve managed our marketing as share grew from 50 to 70% and sales by 30%. They were employees #1 and #2 at epinions.com, which eventually cashed in for tens of millions. Noah was employee 101 at Yahoo! and Sabrina managed online marketing for Commtouch.

So now I have what seems like an ideal situation and an excellent example of the upside of family business. I can step down from president-CEO and refocus my job as president on writing, teaching, and living business planning content, the parts of the business I’ve always loved. And at the same time I have a strong management team, experienced, dedicated, and completely trusted.

I can’t imagine a better scenario.