When Sonar6 first began I, like many other founders of early-stage start-ups, was still taking other odd jobs to bring in a bit of cash. A contact from my previous role offered me a gig giving breakfast marketing strategy talks to small business owners across Canada. Many lessons have been learned on the cold, wide prairies of Alberta. A few of them turn out to be relevant to start up marketing.
The small business owners would arrive at some ungodly early hour (the sure sign of a successful person is their ability to get up earlier than everybody else). They’d drink bad coffee and eat bad croissants and they’d network like demons. Then there’d be this big noisy set-up where the sponsor would be thanked and I’d get introduced with the preamble “all the way from New Zealand”, as if distance travelled somehow implied capability. He’s all the way from where? He must be good.
Then I’d go on and be… mediocre. Honestly. I’d got the work because of my marketing strategy experience, not because I was great at enthralling groups of prairie folk who owned gyms, or car yards, or spa pool shops at 7:30 in the morning. The first couple of sessions I wheeled out some slides about Richard Branson and Virgin and tried to be inspirational. It was pretty flat.
By the third session – Lethbridge, Alberta – I had to try something different. I decided I’d get someone from the audience up on stage with me. Ask them about their business. After much cajoling, one guy agreed to come up. His colleagues cheered and I started thinking this might actually work. He owned an outdoor cedar construction business. Pergolas. Gazebos. Decks. I asked him a bit about the business, what some of the challenges were, and we got to talking about ongoing customer relationships. “Do you just construct, or do you maintain as well?” I asked.
He didn’t get what I meant, so I expanded. “Well, say I had a dirty deck, could your guys come around and clean it?” He now looked confused, almost nervous. The audience had fallen quiet. Very quiet.
Let me pause here. I am a New Zealander. I don’t think of myself as having a particularly strong accent, but I talk like a New Zealander, and apparently when I say “deck” North Americans hear “dick”.
I could tell the cedar construction man didn’t understand me, but I wasn’t sure why. It was a pretty simple question. So I did what everyone talking to a foreigner does when they’re not getting through. I repeated myself. Much louder.
“WHAT IF I HAD A REALLY DIRTY DECK, COULD SOME OF YOUR GUYS COME AROUND AND WATERBLAST MY DECK?”
The Cedar man was actually going red. The polite Canadian audience were shuffling uncomfortably in their seats. I was aware that something was badly wrong, but, like everyone else in the room I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Until the production assistant walked on stage, calmly took the microphone from me, and explained to the audience that the problem was my accent. People started laughing. In fact, people started cheering. People started standing up clapping. I got a f*cking standing ovation. In Lethbridge, Alberta. For saying dick.
Here is the thing. I wasn’t professional, but I was memorable. Gym owners, car dealers, and spa pool installers in Lethbridge probably still talk about me. No set of slides about Richard Branson, no matter how slick, could have been as memorable as me, shouting in my weird accent about my dirty deck.
How many cats? Put your answer in the comments. It’s much harder than it looks.*
*Actually, I think there are about 4.