Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

The Fish Bowl, the Free Prize, a Lesson 2

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.  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®.

–Tim

  • Christina Pelletier

    Thank you for this post. I’m starting a fitness and health business and want info from people who are truly interesting in getting personal training, not just wanting something for free. I think I’ll try a information fish bowl first and then a free fish bowl if that doesn’t work. I’m only looking for a handful of clients and this may better suit my needs. Thanks again :) Christina Pelletier, Cater to YOU Fitness

  • Ash

    The decision makers – the ones who buy products or dole out contracts or tenders are not to be found near fish bowls in expos, but on golf courses….

    I believe that no matter what you are selling, that's the turf you should be making your pitch…

    Skewed thought, eh ? I don't think so…