Delivering the wrong business message is an elementary mistake

Richard Farleigh
THE TWO charming young people sitting opposite me beamed with enthusiasm about their new business. “We’re graphic design artists and web designers,” they said as they handed me a brochure. Then it got confusing.

The brochure had lots of pictures of little squares, each filled with a capital letter in a fancy font. “We designed those ourselves”. “So as web designers, the idea is to use these on websites?” “No, you can make up words and use them in posters.” It clearly wasn’t a web business but, like Sherlock Holmes, I pushed on. “Oh, you can hang big words on the wall?” “Yes, they look great. People love them.” “What words would people put up? Slogans? Commandments? Their children’s names?” “Yes, mostly their kids’ names.” So I eventually realised they were selling a form of art. I asked how many they’d sold. “A few. We’ve sold some at Tupperware-type parties” “How much do they cost?” “It depends how many letters are in the poster.” This wasn’t getting easier, but I established they charged about £15 a letter, so typically £75 to £105 a poster.

The little start-up, Alphabet Designs, was the winner of 15 minutes of my advice at a B2B event in Kent. “I think the good news is that the lettering and colours are imaginative and pretty. I can see how people would like them. What you need to do is clarify your business in your own mind. You are too vague about what your product is. If you don’t know, how can a customer? The letters are just the nuts and bolts; it’s the end product you need to push. Your posters could look pretty cool on a child’s bedroom wall. Other ‘word-art’, I’d say ‘forget it’ for the moment. The family market is your low-hanging fruit, the easiest and fastest market. So your strategy is: fill your brochure with pictures of bedroom walls with posters of children’s names.” The lack of direction caused more problems than just a confusing brochure. “Your business strategy then also revolves around the family market. Try approaching toy stores, children’s furniture sellers, photo print shops, and do deals. Get them to display and sell your product. Split the profit. Let them be your sales force.” They were clever, but were too close to their business and had lost the big picture.

At the same event I was approached by a furniture seller, the owner of Oak Fresco, and I asked what was special about his furniture. “We make the best oak outdoor furniture in the UK. It’s thicker and better finished than anything out there.” That sounded like a good business so I looked at his pamphlet. On the front it just said they made oak furniture. You can imagine my advice. If you’ve got a special product, don’t be shy. Know why it’s special and make sure potential buyers know too - in seconds.

Since the mid-1990s Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the United Kingdom.