A Dollar is a Lightsaber: Marketing from Scratch

I think I'm crushing it

WTF Marketing just turned 5.

At the start, I was broke, tired, and having the time of my life.

When I first started WTF Marketing in 2009, I was fashioning websites for $350.

I knew that $350 wasn’t gonna cut it for long – I was barely making ends meet only two years after I landed and lost a way-too-posh-for-a-recent-grad job at HP (followed up by another 11 jobs shortly thereafter). There’s something oddly thrilling about taking ownership over your own professional life and knowing that if you fail, there’s a cardboard box waiting for you that looks a lot like home.

You learn how to scrape and hustle. You learn how to sell like your life depends on it (because it pretty much does). You try new and different things, keep what works and toss the rest. You do your best not to sell your soul in the process.

I taught exactly ONE “Facebook for The Golden Girls” class (not what it was actually called – but that’s who showed up) for $90/head and felt so slimy afterward I immediately swore I’d never do it again. I felt like I was exploiting my grandma – if she didn’t know how to read or type or chew… you know, something basic that she should already know how to do.

For the record, my Grandma was one of the first among my family on Facebook after me. You go girl.

I mulled it over and realized in order to not sell my soul, I had to make social media common knowledge in my community. I had to teach the tools so folks would trust me to handle the technique (and strategy) of marketing. You can’t sell something people know nothing about, so you have to teach ’em.

I needed a wicked hook, so I taught social media for $1 and gave the proceeds to The Larimer County Food Bank – apt because I was one bad month away from needing their services.

The “Golden Girls” class relied on an existing network of business professionals to help me get in. I burnt that bridge when I told them I didn’t want to teach again on account of feeling like a slimeball. I needed a platform to reach people – MeetUp.com.

Problem was, it costs. And as I previously mentioned, I was fucking broke. My friend and mentor Ron Zasadzinski lent me the $72 I needed to start up The Digital Gunslingers.

You know that scene in Star Wars where Obi Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsaber? “An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age…”

It’s sort of hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but it’s an odd feeling dropping $72 on 6 months of a web service when you have $137.63 in your bank account and rent ($650 back then) is due in 2 weeks. Oh, yeah – and you gotta eat sometime, too.

You don’t really learn the “value” of money until you don’t have any.

There I was, risking most of what I had (which was gifted to me) on something I – at best – had a good hunch about. I felt green when I pushed the button to pay MeetUp.

Take a dollar out of your pocket and set it in front of you. Take a good look at it and think about what it could buy you.

On its own, this dollar might not represent a lot to you, right? It won’t buy a loaf of bread, a full gallon of gas, or even a gallon of milk for you.

$1 is 4 meals at the foodbank. FOUR.

Money gives you leverage. But even a single dollar can be leveraged well in the right place and time.

Ron taught me that when I look at a dollar, I should see a lightsaber.

I set up my group and started teaching the Digital Gunslingers for $1 per person – social media for everyday Joes, taught in a coffee shop called Everyday Joe’s in a cramped, hot meeting room with very slow WiFi. I sardined 20+ people weekly into that place and dropped knowledge like it was an open bar at a frat social. The class was supposed to run from 6PM to 7PM. I rarely got home before 9PM.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. I know more than one Gunslinger launched a consulting businesses as a result of what they learned from my $1 classes. We were able to donate 4,684 meals to the Larimer County Food Bank and $150 to End Sex Trafficking to help get the book published.

And I was eventually able to repay Ron by sponsoring Ignite Fort Collins and sending him website work that I didn’t want to or couldn’t tackle. I got quite a few lucky breaks and worked my butt off to do presentations and land new work, snagging both Northern Colorado Budweiser (American Eagle Distributing) and The Fort Collins Brewery as clients.

A dollar, in the right place and time, has the power to change the course of a community.

My passion for teaching social media 101 eventually ran out and getting married also made staying out until 9PM every week more of a chore. Fast forward 3 years and you’d find me in a much nicer, air-conditioned Cohere conference room with blazing-fast WiFi sitting across from the two people of five who’d bothered to show up and pay their $5. The community’s passion for it ran out, too.

With every blogger and their mom teaching social media, the 101’s didn’t have as much appeal. But the impact of teaching, the value of knowledge given freely, secured my place in the community and gave me the leg up I needed to become a legitimate business owner.

I still drop knowledge on a regular basis like Ke$ha uses glitter, usually to people who subscribe to my newsletter and actually say Hi like I ask ’em to. Even so, I have to really like you and what you do – like Brianna Reed of Nerdette Designs. Just got started on her own about a year ago, she does sweet web design work. Oh, and she’s the Executive Director of Nashville Geek Life – Nashville’s biggest Geek news blog.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the downhill slide of the Digital Gunslingers in-person classes, I ran across Tea Silvestre and she invited me to play in The Word Carnival.

Cool, I can write a post a month, I thought.

Turns out, it was a lot more than just writing a post – a whole gaggle of freelancers from mompreneurs like Melanie Kissel and Annie Sisk, authors like Sandy McDonald, eminent writers like Sharon Hurley Hall, and even finance experts like Nicole Fende were there to greet me. The group has since grown and now includes even more awesomeness like Miniskirt Ninja Ash Welton, Evolve & Succeed’s Halley Gray, marketing experts Carol Lynn Rivera and Alisa Meredith, and editor Molly McCowan of Inkbot Editing.

Behind the scenes, there is a Facebook group (and now a Google+ community) where we all hang out and talk about business, listen, and share advice. It’s amazing and fun and exactly the kind of support a growing small business owner needs.

From both Ron and Tea, I learned you cannot fucking do this alone.

There are so many reasons why, but the crux of it is this: entrepreneurship, freelancing, whatever – it’s lonely. It’s hard. It’s the goddamn wild west and there’s a storm on the horizon that’s spooking your herd.

Ron showed up and gave me a hand. Tea showed up and gave me a hand.

Marketing at the start? It’s all about getting people to believe enough in you to offer you a hand.

Note: This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival. Every month, a whole slew of experts in their respective fields get together and blog around a common theme (cool, right!?) This month’s topic: Marketing without Marketing (link goes live Wednesday). Click the link to check out the rest!