Sometimes Ideas Fail, and You May Never Know Why, Exactly

Years ago, when I was serving as a marketing and business development director for a CPA firm, I used to read the local business journal religiously. I’m speaking about the weekly newspaper published in 40+ larger U.S. markets, owned by American City Business Journals.

My favorite part of the paper was always the local lists —e.g., “The Top 25 Largest [fill in the blank]” in the city, complete with CEO names, addresses, etc. For marketing and business development professionals, this was key information to review and, even better, follow up on.

I decided that it would be a good idea each week to send a packet of information about our firm, along with my business card, to all of the executives on this list. Fortunately, I’d already written up industry-specific information applicable to many of the lists, and I certainly had enough general information to send out to everyone else.

I still think this is / was “good marketing,” to be honest. After all, you’re getting your marketing material in front of the CEOs of the top 25 players in basically every industry in your local market. Granted, much of that will hit the circular file right away, and/or may not make it past the gatekeeper. But, it’s also safe to assume that some will get through.

As I recall, it didn’t make the phone ring too much, but I also learned that, over time, people knew who we were. Marketing is often a long game like that — tough to quantify ROI in such circumstances, to be sure. But, then again, when we’re looking at a project like this one, the time and cost required were fairly low (just make up 25 packets and send them out each week).

The “Aha” Moment

As easy as it was to perpetuate the campaign, after a while, I thought to myself: “Why hasn’t anyone ever approached ME about managing this marketing initiative?” Surely other marketers and business developers are doing this same thing each week.

If such a company doesn’t exist, why not build out a company to do just that? Each week, we could send out flyers, brochures, and other materials to everyone on that list, on behalf of all of our clients.

It seemed like a giant brainstorm moment. I thought that we could warehouse clients’ letterhead, marketing collateral, and business cards. We could craft generic “congrats” letters that we’d mail merge each week for them, and even provide a means for determining which lists get sent to and which do not. (For example, if the client is a CPA firm, they probably do not want to send their information out to other CPA firms.)

So, I had all of the service offerings setup, pricing details, and even a web site. In short, “Top 25 Agency” was born.

And then… we started cold calling. We started with law firms and CPA firms, since professional services was what I knew best. I was pretty excited because these lists come out in 40+ markets, so the potential was really 40x whatever I could get going in my own home city (where I was starting as a test market).

What Happened

Out of the many hundreds we called, many hundreds we mailed to, and countless emails sent, no one liked the idea. Occasionally, we’d get an “interesting … but that’s something we’d rather do ourselves” response.

What can I say: It completely fizzled!

Lessons Learned

  1. The level of excitement and/or vision you have about something does not necessarily translate into market adoption or acceptance. I had this whole thing so clearly envisioned that I believed it would be successful.
  2. Until you try something, you just don’t know for sure whether the market will respond to it as you envision. In this case, they did not respond, at all.
  3. You could still have a good idea if you failed, but maybe you just didn’t sell it properly, or try hard / long enough. I’ll concede that point from the start in this case. But, I actually thought it was going to be a ridiculously easy sell, based on my own experiences sitting in the same seat that all of the people we called were sitting in.
  4. Don’t go “all in” on an idea alone. You need to back such decisions with hard data. Again, just because you think something is a super-great idea, that doesn’t mean it’s true! Work it up as a side-hustle first, and once you actually have data to predict success, then consider such a dedicated focus.
  5. As the title of this piece says, you may actually never know why something fails — at least not 100%. Sure, you’ll have ideas about it, but sometimes you just can’t make a final determination. And, that’s okay.
  6. It’s better to have tried than not to have. In the end, at least we tried! You always have to take action if you’re ever going to know for sure, which is where the wisdom behind some sayings stems from — e.g., “better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all.” I think I prefer the following quote, though:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” ~Michael Jordan

👨‍🚀 Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Vision” by Mélanie Plante (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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