Focus, Focus, Focus: What Teaching Entrepreneurs Has Taught Me about Marketing

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Greg Bier



Entrepreneurship students are among the most unique people I’ve taught. Most of them have a particular venture in mind when they set foot in my classroom. They want to immediately understand and apply what they’ve learned to their venture. In order to better help them, I have to offer them something of value in achieving their goals. In a classroom where each student has a different business in mind, that can be complicated.

What Sets Them Apart

Entrepreneurship classes invest a lot of time in development that goes beyond any standardized textbook. The demographic most entrepreneurship students’ businesses seek to target is the golden 18 to 35 segment; most materials are not focused on the same demographic, rendering many of them useless. Furthermore, the work of becoming an entrepreneur is not necessarily knowledge-based, but practice-based. My entrepreneurial students may not be “A” students. Students who regularly earn A’s understand classroom material and can repeat it well for an exam or a paper, but this doesn’t mean they can apply it to real-life situations.

In the Entrepreneurship Alliance at the University of Missouri, we don’t focus on exams – in fact, we don’t have any. We focus on nurturing entrepreneurial traits, pitch skills, self-confidence and strategy. You can’t build those by sitting through a PowerPoint presentation describing how to give a pitch; you have to get up and do it.

As each semester dawns, I invest a lot of time in getting to know my students and their interests. If I simply repeat the material I presented the previous semester, I’ll lose them. Entrepreneurship students are very current and want to focus on what’s new – not what passed for “new” five years ago. This is a big lesson for any entrepreneur or marketer: Get to know your customer. In academia, your student is your customer. You have to show as much interest and understanding toward your students as you want them to direct toward their customers. Entrepreneurs need to know how important customers are to the process.

Focus on Customers’ Needs

Understanding customers’ needs sets the groundwork for everything else a great entrepreneur and marketer must do. Why do you think entrepreneurial students target the 18 to 35 demographic? The marketing mix, part of which is “product,” revolves around your customers. What need does your product fulfill for your customer? The “product” refers to the entire package presented to customers. This includes product packaging, branding, logo, reputation and even company culture. Products can be defined by their operation, durability, reliability and aesthetics.

Services are a bit different, but they still involve an exchange of something for money. Services are generally intangible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t define them for your customers. Show them what your competitive advantage is. Services can be defined by courtesy, communication, access and reliability. The entire “product package” is just as important for services. You wouldn’t drive a rusty, smoking van up to a house to provide cleaning services. It would bring into question your reliability and expertise as a business owner.

Focus on a key benefit that your product offers your customer, and hammer that point home. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Ford’s failure with the Edsel, versus its success with the Mustang, is a classic example of specialization. The Edsel was a composite of every technology and design attribute on the market at the time. In its effort to capture every audience, it didn’t target one. The Mustang was specifically focused on younger adults looking for a small, powerful car. The Mustang has been branded that way for more than 40 years. The Edsel lasted just three.

Focus on Selling to Your Customers

Besides product, the most important elements of your mix are pricing, placement and promotion. Price says a lot about your product. Selling at a lower price than your competition may not improve your sales, since many of your customers relate price directly to quality (rightly or wrongly). Setting a price must start with an understanding of what your competition is doing. What’s their strategy? How will they respond to yours? You must also understand the psychological impact of your price on your customer. How closely do their purchasing decisions correlate to price? Sales and promotions should also be part of your pricing strategy.

Location really is everything – as long as the location is where your particular customers shop. The Internet has made it easy to corner your market virtually, but brick-and-mortar stores must be carefully selected. Walmart surely set the standard in this category. Originally, Walmart located its stores in underserved communities, like rural towns and suburbs. They earned loyalty simply by virtue of knowing where their customers were, and knowing what their customers were getting from the competition (in this case, nothing).

Once you’ve selected the right location for your product, you must promote it in order to get anyone to take notice. Entrepreneurs have to get the message out to customers through publicity and advertising. This can be done via mailers, newspaper ads, billboards, flyers or TV commercials. Too often, people take a shotgun approach to promoting, and blast a message to a large population. You’ll get very little return on your investment, and it’s a huge waste of limited entrepreneur resources. Not everyone is your customer – determine who is, and sell where they are. When you watch Super Bowl ads, you’ll notice most of them focus on cars, chips and beer, and probably involve dogs and young women. Who’s watching? Dudes are, and that’s who they’re targeting.

Define your market as clearly as you can, and focus on reaching it exclusively. This will allow you to spend less while converting more. Like any entrepreneurial student, you have to get the right information and figure out how to apply it your audience. The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is the most important part of your marketing mix. Find him, and you’ll find success.

Here’s two things you can do to focus your marketing efforts today:

  1. Take a second look at your marketing material with only the audience in mind. Are you trying to push something old instead of reinventing for the right audience?
  2. Interview customers. Even if you only get to talk to one customer a day, it will start to give you a good customer description and it will constantly be changing.

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