Most people don’t know this, but… a couple years ago, I sorta “accidentally” helped to open a brunch restaurant here in Portland, Oregon, where I live.
How did this happen?
1) I fell in love with a sexy chef named Brandon.
2) One day, Brandon confessed that he’d always dreamed of running his own restaurant.
3) I said (with starry-eyed optimism) “Well, then let’s do it together! How hard could it be?”
4) And so we did.
5) And it was really hard. But also fun, rewarding, and amazing.
The restaurant, HunnyMilk, has been running for nearly 2 years. Like most new businesses, it all started as a teeny-tiny shoestring operation.
At first, it was just me and Brandon doing absolutely everything — shopping, food prep, shlepping food around in the back of my VW beetle, serving customers, and washing dishes by hand. In the beginning, we operated in the back of a pizza restaurant with a quasi-illegal bathroom and shaky electrical wiring that blew out repeatedly.
We built a reputation — and earned fans and repeat customers — one meal at a time.
It did not happen overnight. It happened slowly, gradually, and with a lot of butter, flour, muscle and heart, and hard work.
Eventually, we outgrew our original location and moved into a new space. As things got busier, we were able to hire 1, then 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, and then 7 part-time employees. Today, I’m proud to say, the business is profitable and thriving. HunnyMilk has gotten local and national press, it’s been nominated for local foodie awards (OK, just an Honorable Mention, but still!), and most days there’s a waiting list to get a table. Things are going great.
Aspiring entrepreneurs sometimes ask us, “How did you find customers way back in the beginning? Back when nobody knew you existed?”
If you’re curious…
This is exactly what we did to spread the word and find customers:
1) LOTS OF EMAILS
Brandon and I both emailed every single person we knew (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) to let them know about our new business. That was the first step.
2) CONTACTING JOURNALISTS
We emailed every single local journalist who covers food, restaurants, and culture to let them know about our new business. Nothing fancy. Just a quick email letting them know that we’re open, and encouraging them to pop by sometime and check things out.
3) HANDING OUT TONS OF GIFT CARDS
Using our very slow and unreliable home printer, we printed 1,000 gift cards offering a free hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows or a free chocolate monkey bread. These two items are very tasty and also very cheap to produce. Our hope was… maybe people will stop by our new restaurant if we tempt them with a small freebie. And it worked! (FYI: 1,000 people did not show up. Maybe 50 or 60 people showed up. A small percentage, but that’s what we expected… and it was a great start!)
To hand out these cards, I personally walked up and down the streets of Portland handing out these cards to anybody who was willing to stop and chat. Some people were not interested. Some people were very interested. I spent several days doing this until all the cards were gone. It was very tiring, my feet ached the entire time, and in retrospect I probably should have worn comfy sneakers instead of cowboy boots! Haha!
4) SAYING “HELLO” TO LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS
We also dropped gift cards at about 50 local businesses, like bike repair shops and vintage clothing stores.
Each time, we walked inside, marched up to the owner of the shop, smiled, and said, “Hi, we just opened a new brunch restaurant in the neighborhood and we just wanted to introduce ourselves and invite you to come by sometime! Here’s a card for a free treat.”
Most people were very nice and said “Congratulations! That’s exciting!” and some of them came by later for a meal.
5) LETTERS FOR OUR NEIGHBORS
We printed about 100 letters saying “Hi neighbor! We’re called HunnyMilk. We’re new in the ‘hood. Here’s our menu and a gift card for a treat…”
I put these letters into envelopes, decorated them with ribbons and cute little drawings, and personally dropped them off at 100 different houses in the neighborhood. Mailboxes. Doorsteps. Car dashboards. All over the place. I did this during the winter and I remember my hands were freezing so I walked quickly to stay warm!
6) GIFTS FOR THE MEDIA AND OTHER LOCAL BUSINESSES
We made tiny cakes, cookies, and biscuits, packaged them in pretty cardboard boxes with handwritten cards, and then dropped these boxes off at all the local newspapers and magazines and lots of other businesses, too. Each card said something like, “We’re HunnyMilk and we’re new in town! We hope you enjoy these treats!” with a link to our website.
We spent an entire day driving around town — in the snow — dropping off these boxes of cake. Most people were totally shocked and amazed and said, “OMG, seriously? Free cake? For us?!” This led directly to our very first newspaper review, which was a huge milestone!
7) DOING SOMETHING “WORTH TALKING ABOUT”
We made an effort to “do things differently” and “do something worth talking about” so that customers would tweet about us, talk about us, and rave about us to their friends.
For example, we put homemade coloring sheets and Crayons on every table. We did special brunch parties with a big movie projector screen and ‘80s cartoons. We made awesome music playlists and put vintage toys all around the restaurant. We hosted “Letters & Brunch” parties and gave our customers postcards, pens, and stamps, and encouraged them to write a letter while they waited for their food. We put birthday sparklers in people’s biscuits even if wasn’t their actual birthday, purely just for fun. We tried to make every single customer smile and have the best time ever.
8) ASKING FOR YELP REVIEWS
If a customer seemed especially happy, I made a point of thanking them personally and saying, “No pressure whatsoever, but if you feel inspired to write a Yelp review about us, that would be amazing. Thank you.” And often, they would!
9) INSTAGRAM AND MAILING LIST STUFF
I don’t use social media anymore, but Brandon does, so he decided to set up an Instagram account for HunnyMilk because he wanted to share photos of his food. He doesn’t post things constantly — maybe once or twice a week — but he does a great job with it!
Also, I set up a MailChimp email newsletter and we email HunnyMilk subscribers about once a month. In each newsletter, we include drool-inducing photos, announcements about new menu items, and usually a few silly just-for-fun things, like our favorite songs and TV show discoveries. Our goal with each newsletter is simply to make people smile and laugh… and remind them to stop by for brunch!
10) REALLY GOOD FOOD
We knew, at the end of the day, the quality of our food was the #1 most important thing.
If our food was underwhelming or boring, then obviously people wouldn’t come back. So making delicious food — and treating all of our customers with warmth and enthusiasm — was always the top priority. When someone eats an amazing meal, they’re probably going to talk about it to their friends… and word-of-marketing is the best kind of marketing that there is!
So, that’s how we spread the word about our new business and got customers to come check us out! We didn’t hire a publicist. We didn’t buy Facebook ads. We didn’t set up an email marketing sales funnel conversion strategy with SEO keywords blah bee bloop bloop. We didn’t do anything fancy or complicated. Mainly, we just marched all around town smiling and introducing ourselves. That’s what got things rolling.
WE ARE INTROVERTS WHO LOVE NETFLIX
I want to mention, Brandon and I are both quiet, introverted people. We’re not extroverts. We’re total homebodies. Our idea of a perfect evening is Thai takeout, Netflix, and snuggling under one million blankets. It took a huge amount of stamina for us to “put ourselves out there” like we did, be we just buckled down and DID IT, because we knew that we had to!
After all, if nobody knows that your business exists, then you’ve got to find creative ways to let them know that you exist! There’s no magic wand that will do this for you, and tweeting or emailing a few times is NOT enough. You’ve got to make a serious effort. This goes for any type of business — a coaching business, a writing business, a graphic design business — not just a restaurant business.
ARE YOU MAKING A SERIOUS EFFORT? OR BARELY TRYING?
If you’re struggling to find clients or customers, my advice is… make a list of everything you’ve done so far. How many things have you actually done? How many people have you actually contacted? Have you marched up and down the streets talking to people and handing out 1,000 gift cards — or something equivalent to that — or have you mainly been hiding at home behind a computer screen and complaining?
I don’t mean to sound bossy, but… if you’re serious about finding clients and customers, you’ve got to get out there and let people know what you’re doing, in as many ways as you possibly can. Emails. Cards. Letters. Flyers. Personal handshakes and introductions. Free samples. You gotta hustle. Yes, even if it feels a little uncomfortable. Even if your feet hurt. Even if you’d rather just watch The Great British Baking Show and stay home. Get out of your PJs, get out of the house, and do it, do it, do it.
As my friend Susan says:
“If you make a full-hearted effort, then you get full-hearted results.”
When it comes to finding customers, please don’t make a half-hearted effort. Put your whole heart into it. Then, if things still don’t work out, at least you’ll know that you truly made your best effort, and you can take comfort in that.
Full heart. All in. Yes, you can. And yes, it’s worth it.
Often, we think to ourselves:
“I love doing creative stuff! But ugh, I hate marketing. It’s so hard to find clients and customers and build a fanbase. It’s so exhausting. Marketing is the worst. I’d rather just… make art!”
But actually… It’s the same thing. It’s all creativity. It’s all self-expression. It’s all art.
When you appear on a podcast and tell an inspiring story about your latest project… you’re making art. (Podcasting = an art project.)
When you share an uplifting video on Instagram that makes someone smile or laugh… you’re making art. (Videography = an art project.)
When you share a personal story on Facebook that makes someone exhale, nod, and feel a little less alone… you’re making art. (Storytelling = an art project.)
When you teach a free class and share a couple of brilliant ideas with your students, and share some words of comfort and encouragement, or a worksheet that you’ve made… you’re making art. (Teaching = an art project.)
Every time you make an appearance in front of an audience — large or small, online or offline, pre-recorded or live, free or with payment — it’s an art project. Or at least, it can be… if you decide to think about it that way.
If the word “marketing” bothers you, then replace it with some other word or phrase. Call it “saying hi” or “connecting” or “brightening people’s days” or “extending a fun invitation” or “doing community service” or “a cool opportunity for me to teach, inspire, and motivate people” or “making a public appearance and sharing something beautiful with the world.”
You can make a public appearance, share something inspiring, and then invite people to spend even more time with you in the future — by visiting your website, by hiring you, by signing up for a class, or whatever you’d like them to do. Inspire + invite. That’s it. That’s art. And that’s marketing.
When my boyfriend Brandon opened his brunch restaurant, there was one dish that quickly became the undisputed superstar of the menu:
The open-face croissant-donut sandwich.
It’s a crispy, flaky, tender, buttery, deep-fried extravaganza topped with a sunny-side up egg, melted cheddar cheese, thick bacon, and finished off with a drizzle of spicy maple syrup.
Customers loved it. They’d scrape their plates clean, moaning “OMG…” in maple-drenched ecstasy. Pretty soon, the local media wrote about it. Photos appeared all over Instagram. Brandon’s croissant sandwich quickly became the #1 most-ordered item on the menu. People went bonkers.
Which was great. Except for one thing.
It was a real pain for Brandon to make.
See, making homemade croissant dough is a long, complicated, multi-day process. It requires specialized skills and lots of attention. It’s almost like having a pet. You have to check on your dough constantly. Is it fermenting correctly? Rising enough? Too much? Croissant dough is extremely high maintenance. It’s definitely the “diva” of the doughs.
Consequently, Brandon’s life was ruled by… the dough. Weekend getaway to the woods? Nope. Brandon can’t go because… he has to watch the dough. Flying out to LA for my brother’s wedding? Nope. Brandon can’t go because… he has to roll and fold the dough. Taking a week off for a summer vacation? Nope. Brandon can’t go because… nobody else on his staff can make the dough.
One day, I exclaimed to Brandon, “That dough is ruining our lives!” I was partially kidding, but… only partially!
Brandon agreed. But what could he do? He needed to make… the dough.
Finally, after several years of this madness, Brandon had an epiphany. He said to me, “What if I just take the croissant sandwich off the menu? What if I just… don’t make it anymore?”
LIGHT BULBS. THUNDER CLAPS. GLORY! HALLELUJAH!
He continued, “I could replace it with something else. Like biscuits ‘n gravy. That’s way easier to make. In fact, I could delegate the entire project to one of my employees.”
YES! SWEET JESUS IN A BACON MANGER!
Both of us grinned at each other, imagining our new, improved, croissant-free lifestyle. So much freedom! So much extra time! Incredible!
Why hadn’t we thought of this sooner? It’s so obvious! Just… take the croissant off the menu! Stop making the damn dough! Duh!
Here’s my question for you:
What is your “dough”?
What is the task, commitment, or chore that you force yourself to do — week after week — even if doesn’t bring you any joy? Even if it’s tedious? Even if it’s inefficient? Even if it’s clogging up your calendar and seriously cramping your style?
We’ve all got some type of “dough.”
For you, it might be a particular errand, or a project that’s going nowhere, or a habit that doesn’t serve you anymore, or an ugly couch in your living room that’s totally blocking the flow. (Why is that even there??!)
As human beings, we slip into mental ruts so easily. We convince ourselves that we “must” make the dough. That it’s mandatory. That there’s no other option.
But of course that’s not true. There’s always another option that’s just as tasty, just as good, or maybe even better. There’s always a simpler way.
Whatever your “dough” is, this week, I challenge you to stop making it, or change how you make it, or delegate the entire project to someone else.
No more dough. You dough-n’t need it in your life. (Sorry. I had to.)
“Hi Alex! I’m a fundraiser and I want to write articles to help other fundraisers. But I’m having trouble ‘starting’ and ‘structuring’ my articles. Do you have any tips?” –Laura
I sure do!
If you can’t figure out how to “start” or “structure” a piece of writing, I’ve got an exercise for you to try out. I call it…
— THE IMAGINARY EMAIL EXERCISE —
Here’s how it works:
Let’s take Laura, for example. Laura, imagine that you just got an email from a friend or colleague — a fellow fundraiser, just like you. This person needs some help. This person says to you…
“Hi Laura! I’m trying to raise $10,000 for my organization but I have no idea how to get started. I feel totally overwhelmed. I know you’ve been fundraising for many, many years. So I’m wondering… do you have any advice for me?”
Then, pretend you’re writing an email back to that person. What would you say to them? Probably, you’d say something like this…
“Raising $10,000 is a big goal! It’s understandable that you’re feeling overwhelmed. But you can do this. Here are 3 pieces of advice to get you started…”
Then you’d give your advice. Maybe you’d share a story or an anecdote from your career. Maybe you’d include a resource or two.
Then you’d probably wrap up your email by saying something encouraging, like…
“I hope those tips are helpful! Try them out, and feel free to let me know what happens!”
Done! So simple!
Just like that, you’ve got a lovely piece of writing that you could post on your blog, send out as a newsletter, submit to a magazine, or whatever you want.
However you would write an email for “just one person” to read… that’s exactly the way you can write an article for “lots of people” to read, too.
You can do this exercise with any kind of imaginary question.
Pretend someone just emailed you and said:
“I’ve got a huge job interview tomorrow and I’m panicking. Any advice for me?”
“I think my child might be transgender. I have no clue what to do. Any advice, guidance, or resources I should I know about?”
“My marriage of 23 years just ended. I’m devastated. I can’t imagine what my life is going to look like from now on. Have you ever experienced anything like this? What happened? How did you get through it? I’d love to hear someone’s story, because I feel so alone.”
(Or any type of “question” or “scenario” that you’d like to write about.)
If you got an email like that, what would you say to that person? What advice would you share? What words of comfort or encouragement would you give? What do you want that person to know?
Write your response, just like you’re writing a personal email responding to a friend, family member, colleague, or client. Don’t overthink it. Just write from the “hut” (heart + gut). Then post your response publicly. Boom! Victory! You’ve got a beautiful article, blog post, or story that lots of actual — not imaginary — people will love to read.
Was this helpful? If so… I’ve got a brand new writing class full of videos, workbooks, checklists, and fun writing prompts — just like the one in this article. You can sign up and start anytime. Check it out!
Not sure what to write about? Got absolutely nothin’ to say on your blog, on your podcast, or in your newsletter?
Feel like your life is boring? Feel like nothing interesting has ever happened to you? Well, that’s definitely not true. Plenty of interesting things happen every single day. You just have to be “awake” and “tuned in” and notice your life as it’s happening — instead of, you know, staring down at your cellphone screen.
Your everyday life = an infinite source of material to write about.
To stir up some new writing ideas, choose a STORY PROMPT from the options below.
Do all of these prompts if you feel like it. Or just choose one prompt that intrigues you today. Sit down and write something in response to that prompt. Set a timer for 15 minutes and see what comes out. You might remember some really interesting details about your life that you’d kinda forgotten.
STORY PROMPT #1. MY FAVORITE THING.
We all know that “experiences” and “memories” are more important than physical possessions. However… some possessions can represent big, important things.
What’s one of your most treasured possessions? A scarf that your grandma gave to you? A purse you bought to celebrate your first year of self-employment? A pair of running shoes? A wallet you’ve had since you were 15 years old?
Write about your most treasured possession. Describe how it came into your life. Describe what it represents for you. If this possession could “talk,” what’s the advice / lesson / reminder / message it would give to you — and to other people, too?
STORY PROMPT #2. FEELING BULLIED AND SCARED.
Can you remember a time when you felt bullied, teased, or shamed as a kid?
Maybe someone told you that you were stupid, or your science project was dumb, or the “cool kids” wouldn’t let you hang out with them, or someone made fun of your body, skin color, hair, or clothes.
What happened? What did you feel in that moment?
Imagine a kid — or a grown-up — who’s going through a similar experience right now. Feeling bullied. Feeling teased. Feeling scared. Feeling worthless.
If you were sitting down with that person over a cup of tea, what would you like to say to them? What words of advice, comfort, or encouragement would you give to them? What do you want them to know?
STORY PROMPT #3. SO DISAPPOINTED.
Can you remember a time when you felt really betrayed or disappointed by someone close to you — like a friend, client, employee, or a romantic partner?
What did they do? How did you feel? What did you learn from that experience?
If you could do things over, what would you do differently?
STORY PROMPT #4: ROCK-BOTTOM MOMENT.
Can you remember a time when you felt really depressed, lost, alone, afraid — a “rock bottom” type of moment? Maybe you got really sick. Maybe you were unemployed. Maybe someone broke up with you. Maybe your mom died.
Think back to a really challenging time in your life.
How did you get through that time in your life? What helped you to keep moving forward? What helped you to survive?
Now imagine someone who’s dealing with that exact same scenario, or something pretty similar. What words of advice, comfort, or encouragement would you give to that person? What would you urge them to do — or not do? What do you want them to know?
PROMPT #5. BACK IN THE BEGINNING.
If you’re self-employed, or if you run a business, this one’s for you…
Think back to the very early days of your business. How did you get your first 5 clients or customers?
What were the specific things you did — every day, every week — to find clients and get people to hire you? Did you cold-call people? Did you ask your friends for help? Did you march down the street and knock on doors? Did you email everyone in your network? Did you set up a whole bunch of coffee dates with potential clients? What did you do?
Write about what you did. And, imagine a newbie business owner is asking for your advice. She’s got zero clients lined up and she’s freaking out. She needs some help. Tell her your story and give her some guidance.
Was this helpful? If so… I’ve got a brand new writing class full of videos, workbooks, checklists, and fun writing prompts — just like the one in this article. You can sign up and start anytime. Check it out!