Getting a new small business off the ground can be a daunting task, with thousands of dollars owed to lenders and landlords, and quite often little or no revenue to finance investments, hire staff, or even write your own pay cheque.

With long “to-do” and “to-pay” lists, the idea of providing additional free services may initially seem crazy.

However, offering free advice, articles, or insights can be a very cost-effective way to draw attention to your new company and bring potential customers closer to your brand.

And the payback may exceed your wildest expectations.

That’s what Joy Gendusa discovered.

See related story: How and where to find help when launching your own small business

Gendusa is founder and CEO of PostCard Mania — a Clearwater, Fla.-based firm that offers post-card direct mail marketing services, including graphic design, printing, mailing-list acquisition and mailing.  

Gendusa went from being a one-woman business, in 1998, with computer and phone as her only assets to becoming one of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S.

Today PostCard Mania employs more than 150 people and generates annual revenue of $18.5 million.

Since her firm’s inception, Gendusa has helped other small businesses optimize their direct mail marketing techniques, offering a great deal of free marketing advice along the way.

“We were innovative and not afraid to market,” she said. “Instead of paying myself well, I put money into marketing.”

Gendusa recalled how, around the time she started PostCard Mania, small companies running print ad campaigns had few options, apart from paying an advertising agency for the service, or going to a costly independent printer, who wouldn’t provide any marketing help.

Gendusa turned this gap in the market to an opportunity to distinguish her new firm.

By selling low-cost postcards and providing marketing advice for free, she offered entrepreneurs a cost-effective advertising alternative. This attracted thousands of budding small business owners to her company. 

“We were the very first company to offer free marketing advice online.”  

As the Internet grew, so did PostCard Mania’s brand and its portfolio of services. In addition to selling post cards, Gendusa’s firm also began helping business owners design Web pages, videos, and landing pages.

When customer campaigns that used post cards didn’t receive expected levels of success, Gendusa and her team carefully studied what went wrong.

They discovered that while the post cards themselves looked beautiful, they either didn’t provide a link to a Web site, or had a link to a very unprofessional looking site.

Eighty per cent of people who receive a post card in the mail will look at the Web site before calling, she said, so if the site is crappy the customer won’t call.

The company completed 300 Web critiques for free, and now offers landing page redesigns for $4.95.

“It’s been a great way to see why some post cards aren’t working, and where the marking strategy breaks down.”

To ensure successful marketing campaigns with her post cards, she said clients are offered one-on-one time with a customer service representative.

The company has an online brochure and mock order form, but users can’t check out until they have spoken to a sales person trained in marketing on the phone, who takes their payment.

A results manager also follows up with the customer to find out if the post cards are generating expected sales and provides additional free advice.  

The practice of building and sustaining relationships with customers before, during, and after the sale is crucial to success, experts say.

Small businesses need to use both push and pull marketing, said Cristina Favreau, a Montreal-based small business coach.  

“Marketing,” she said, “isn’t just about hard sell. Instead, sending promo newsletters or offering advice builds trust. Giving just for the sake of giving isn’t a bad thing.”

But she noted that it’s a long-term strategy that requires time and patience to produce results.     

The most expensive forms of marketing — such as paid advertisements, events, publicity or trade shows — cost a lot and the ROI isn’t always great, she said.

Favreau recommends blogging as a great way for entrepreneurs to get personal with their audience — offering information, sharing resources, posting client success stories and “bragging without really bragging.”

A newsletter, she said, is another way of letting the community know what you’re doing without blatant self-promotion. “Find people who send out newsletters to your target market and ask if they would publish an article by you — it’s easy and won’t cost you anything.”

Blogs and social media tools have helped her build good relationships with people she’s never met.  She said she even uses these to respond to folk who have bought her products, and continues the conversation that way.

Despite the proven advantages of social media, many small firms shy away from using these tools.

One big reason is fear of negative feedback or comments that unfavourably compare your products with the competition’s.

And yet this fear of feedback from customers and colleagues only hurts the business in the long run, said Sarah Prevette, CEO and founder of RedWire – a Toronto-based outfit that fosters networking between entrepreneurs and members of the global business community.

“Isolation can kill early stage start ups,” she warned.

On the other hand, using social media helps clients participate in creating the product and can improve services, she said.

“It’s an exciting time to get started with social media for marketing as there are an abundance of free tools to promote businesses. Start a WordPress blog, join Twitter, find your target audience and engage in discussion.”   

LinkedIn, the Red Wire CEO said, is also a useful social networking tool for small business owners to keep up with customers and friends, who could assist in providing referrals.   

It can also help a startup — that’s ready to expand and grow its employee base — find great new people.   

And for a small but growing firm that’s arguably the biggest pre-requisite for success.

Gendusa attributes PostCard Mania’s dramatic success in a relatively short time period largely to excellent staff, who have remained loyal to the company.

Employee retention is high at her company, she said.   “I have 20 vice-presidents who I hired and they are so loyal.”

Gendusa said she’s sometimes hired people she liked even when she didn’t have a position immediately open for them.

Key qualities she looks for in hires are a strong belief in the company’s goals and a passion for the brand.

Hiring people excited about the brand is absolutely key, according to Prevette. Such hires become brand ambassadors, she said.  

Gendusa said her firm also observes a strict “no office politics” rule, which eliminates contagious negative chatter that can lower productivity and optimism.   

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