The $100 Startup – Chapter One: Unexpected Entrepreneurs

cookie and coffee at Black Sheep Coffee

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

I’ve been a fan of Chris for years, being an avid reader of his popular blog and his earlier book, The Art of Noncomformity. He writes about escaping from cubicle nation and leading the kind of life that you want – a heady dream in this time of chronic recession.

What makes him different from a hundred other authors selling this idea?

Practical – He is one of the best writers on the practical details of being a freelancer or running a small business. In his books and blogs, he writes about the sometimes painful aspects of running a business, from getting publicity to organizing a product launch.

Realistic – Chris does not promise to make you rich. His work is filled with examples of everyday folks who have managed to improve their lives. The $100 Startup includes stories of real businesses, with dollar figures attached to them. Some are impressive, but others are quite modest.

Honest – I distrust books which only talk about success. Chris is honest about what’s worked and not worked in his entrepreneurial journey. The $100 Startup contains stories of disaster, as well as triumph.

But enough about Chris. What does his book say?

Chapter One: Renaissance

This first chapter sets the stage. It begins with a sadly typical story – a veteran sales professional gets unexpectedly laid off. What happens next is like a quirky episode of Portlandia. This salesman goes into the bedding business, and pioneers the industry’s first-ever mattress delivery by bicycle.

This story (and related case studies) introduce the idea of micro-entrepreneurship, an idea which has been around for centuries. These are one-person businesses. And they can be setup for less than $100. (The $100 figure is a bit arbitrary. Some of the businesses discussed in the book cost more, some less, but the point is that you can set up a business no matter how little money you have.)

The best part of The $100 Startup is that it is grounded in real stories. These case studies come from Guillebeau’s study of “unconventional, accidental entrepreneurs.” His subjects were interviewed and required to submit financial data. For the book, he profiles a wide range of “microbusinesses” that are successful and low-cost.

They were also created by people who decided to follow their passion. But they did more than just that – they found the sweet spot between what they were interested in and what the market will pay for. These businesses build upon skills that people already have. This is illustrated by the wonderful example of Scott Adams. He took his modest art skills, sense of humor and business experience to create Dilbert.

The basics of business are very simple, according to Guillebeau:

  1. Product or service: what you sell.
  2. People willing to pay for it: your customers.
  3. A way to get paid: how you’ll exchange a product or service for money.

This, of course, is the hard part and where most business books falter. They say “you can change the world!” but skip over the bothersome details.  The rest of The $100 Startup will closely examine these three concepts, down to the dollar figures of other microbusinesses.

The chapter ends with a touch of the quaint – James Kirk (really?) leaving his IT job and crossing the country to start Jamestown Coffee in South Carolina. His quote makes a nice coda to the chapter:

There was one moment very early when I realized, this is what I want to do, and this is what I am going to do. And that was that. Decision made. I’ll figure the rest out.

This theme of action bias is a constant one in Chris’s writing, the idea that it’s better to take action today rather than defer your dreams endlessly.


In this first chapter, Chris has explained the idea of microbusiness, teasing the case studies of ordinary people that he’ll examine in greater detail in the rest of the book. These inspiring tales of doing what you love are grounded in the reality of finding something fun that people will actually pay for. And owning a quaint coffee shop is the perfect story to close with, since it personifies the American Dream, 2012 edition.

Check out the video trailer for the book for more inspiration and to see what a yarn entrepreneur looks like.

Next Up: Chapter Two – Give Them The Fish, or the surprisingly uncommon idea that business should meet the needs of consumers.

The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media

Now, Discover Your Strengths is one of the very few personal improvement books worth the money. It’s been superseded by the awkwardly-titled StrengthsFinder 2.0 but the message is the same in the new book:

You should concentrate on what you’re best at. Don’t try to improve your weaknesses, instead sharpen the skills that you do better than anyone else. It’s a countervailing message in this age of self-improvement. It says to drop what you suck at (I’m never going to be a great basketball player) and work on what you do best (writing and photography). Continue reading “The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media”

We Are All Content Marketers Now

Content marketing is defined as:

the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases.

We’re all in the marketing biz now, defined by the content that’s available about us online. Whether it’s a post about World of Warcraft in a gaming forum, a Facebook complaint about teenagers at the mall, or a well-sourced article in a scholarly journal, our identities are a function of the web. We may be very different people in real life, but for potential employers, customers, friends or romantic partners, first impressions are formed by what pops up during a Google search.

Unless you’re living off the grid in some Nevada desert, this information, this shadow-version of your self exists in cyberspace. Details about your life are posted online (like that you finished in 122nd place in the local fun run), without you probably even being aware of it.

You could rage against this loss of identity or you could do something about it. Content marketing is doing something about it. Instead of just being a viewer of content, start actively creating it. Register a site in your own name. Create a blog. Tweet, comment on stories and contribute to online forums.

But do so consciously. Be aware that you’re shaping your personal brand online. Think about the searches that people will be doing in the future and how you want to appear in them. Don’t let other people define you – use content marketing to shape your image online.

Book Review: Purple Cow by Seth Godin

I’m a fan of Seth Godin, particularly his book, The Dip, which is about knowing when to quit and when to keep going. His thoughts on traditional publishing are also really compelling – it’s an industry that is broken. I read just about everything he writes.

purple cowPurple Cow is one of his older works, published in 2003 and updated last year. Purple Cow is a book that will push you to create something extraordinary. Godin’s basic point is that we don’t remember ordinary experiences, like the airline that got you to your destination on-time or the meal that was merely OK. Instead, we become passionate over excellent, “above and beyond” service and products. We rave about them to our friends and neighbors, which is the best marketing there is.

And about the only marketing that works.

Which is Godin’s point – in order to break through the clutter, we must create the truly extraordinary. Do work that scares you, that’s on the edge. Don’t be like other people – be unique.

A compelling idea, but one that probably doesn’t deserve a whole book (even a slim one). After a while, it’s the same story of iconoclasm again and again. Also, some of the examples are dated now, like JetBlue as a paragon of customer service and Godin’s comment about mobile phones being commodities at this point – obviously written before the iPhone.

But if you’re a fan of Seth Godin, or are currently working on a new product and need some inspiration, then it’s worth checking out.

Note: The 2010 edition includes an appendix containing stories of companies and organizations that have adopted the Purple Cow philosophy successfully.

How to Market Your Movie: Tips from Allied Integrated Marketing

The March DC Film Salon offered tips from Allied Integrated Marketing on promoting your independent movie or documentary. The salon is a free monthly networking opportunity for film and video professionals.

The meetup began at six, allowing filmmakers plenty of time to mingle before the presentation started at 7. There were about forty people at the super-hip Gibson Guitar Room, one of my favorite venues in DC. Located near the Verizon Center, it’s a beautiful space complete with a piano and scores of electric guitars.

After showing a “sizzle reel” (a flashy intro movie about their agency), Ivory Zorich and Gloria Jones from Allied Integrated Marketing shared their expertise on how to bring a film the attention it deserves. Allied Integrated Marketing is a marketing agency that specializes in the entertainment industry. They have offices around the country, including a small one in DC.

Ivory and Gloria shared examples of how they promoted the films that they represented. Their talk held some interesting tips for anyone promoting a product:

  • All marketing is local these days. Even in Washington, newspapers want to see a local angle. You can’t just have a story about a movie – you have to tie it to the local community somehow. For example, if one of the stars is from the area.
  • Secondary press partners are key. These are smaller publications like the City Paper that are easier to pitch too.
  • Use niche marketing. For example, with the film Sin Nombre, they targeted Latino audiences. Milk was aimed at the LGBT community.
  • Tastemaker screenings are another useful marketing tactic. These are preview screenings for “tastemakers” in the community, i.e., influential people who love movies.
  • Partnerships. If you have a documentary about AIDS, then you should partner with AIDS organizations to get the word out.
  • New media. They mentioned Brightest Young Things as a “hipster” site to reach out to. (I am not hip – I find BYT to be unfathomable.)

One question I had was, “How do you measure results?” That’s difficult to do, according to Ivory and Gloria. It’s hard to tell if a movie’s success comes from PR or something else. I think that’s part of the reason why the field can be so frustrating to people – if I bought Google Ads, I can track how they’re performing. But how do you measure schmoozing tastemakers?

Still, these are all excellent ideas for getting the word out about your movie, or your product. The most important thing is to think about your movie from the perspective of the audience, and tailor your efforts accordingly.


WordPress as a Platform for Journalism

My notes from the March 8, 2011 WordPress DC Meetup on WordPress as a tool for journalism.

Ben Balter at Fathom Creative
Ben Balter at Fathom Creative


March 8, 2011: Personal Branding and Lessons from Journalism, with local WordPress enthusiasts Ben Balter and Greg Linch.

Greg and Ben will be sharing best practices and how you can take the next step with WordPress as a platform. Pulling from their wide-ranging experiences in journalism, publishing, government, and development, they’ll be discussing how you can use WordPress to craft your personal brand, and what lessons that can be learned from how journalists use WordPress.

We’ve invited the DC Hacks/Hackers group, a meetup for journalists and developers, to join us this month. You can learn more about them at

Here’s their cheeky bios:

Since 2007, Greg Linch hasn’t had a journalistic job or project in which he hasn’t thought about using or — in most cases — used WordPress. His current job at The Washington Post is the only exception, but it’s only been a few months, so give him time. Most notably, Greg led The Miami Hurricane’s migration to WordPress in 2008 and co-founded CoPress to help other student news organizations do the same. (Twitter: @greglinch.)

An aspiring attorney, a coder, and an all around geek, Ben Balter is a J.D./M.B.A. candidate at the George Washington University and a member of the FCC’s New Media team. When not working or in class, he enjoys tackling otherwise-impossible challenges to sharing information using nothing more than WordPress, duct tape, and occasionally a pack of bubblegum. (Twitter: @BenBalter.)


Andy Nacin introduces and thanks sponsors for the beer and space.

April 12 next meetup. Format: lightning round. Looking for speakers.

Greg Linch

Used WP on multiple projects, including Miami Hurricane. NYT using it for blogs. Davis Enterprise using WP for content, then imported into InDesign for print. It’s web to print. (I am skeptical of all-in-one solutions, having seen balky print-to-web systems pushed by journalists who hated the web back in the 90s.)

EditFlow: assign stories, set status for newsrooms. It’s a WP plugin.

AssignmentDesk: interact with community, an open assignment desk.

NPR’s Argo Network uses child themes for local blogs.

WordPress goes well with a delicious IPA.

WP Courier is an email newsletter plugin. (I need that.)

LivingStories is an interesting experiment in online storytelling.

Good question: how to get reporters to use? Show em how simple it is.

Washington Post is getting a new commenting system. (Yea!)

Ben Balter

Using WP to craft personal brand, take back Google results. Dynamic speaker but then goes into brandspeak, i.e, “what is a brand?”

You’re the Chief Marketing Officer of your brand. Search engine management needed for professional reasons. They show pics of modems.”This is how people used to connect online.” Everyone laughs. I feel old.

No longer defined by a company, you need an online brand (like!). Your content online is your brand, including the embarassing pics. It’s like your college transcript.

73% of recruiters Google you.

WP makes it simple to tell your story.

Grab a domain (key in google searches), describe yourself on your site, setup a basic WP site, start a blog for credibility and engage others, use Google Reader to find things to blog about. It’s like an online brochure about you.

Use Google Analytics to discover your most popular posts.

Be social. Use Facebook, Twitter, etc to promote your posts.

Establish a Board of Directors for your brand.

Update: here’s Ben’s presentation.


Every journalist should have a web site. Every potential journalist should have a site. Every job-seeker should have a site, if only so that your embarrassing Facebook photos don’t show up in a Google search.

I’ve met writers and editors before who don’t have web sites. They don’t want to learn HTML and still look at the web as a lesser medium. That’s short-sighted. WordPress is not difficult. If you can use Word, then you can create a site in WordPress.

WordPress DC meets monthly. It’s a nice mix of developers, writers, bloggers and other creative and technical folk.

Adventures in Book Marketing

I wrote a short piece for FlackRabbit on my adventures in book marketing. Last year, I published a book, Murder in Ocean Hall, using the awesome CreateSpace.

Why publish it myself? Because the traditional publishing model is broken and it takes a year to get a book in print, even after it’s been accepted by a publisher. Being a web person, that struck me as a crazy and unnecessarily long time.

The downside, of course, is that you have to do your own marketing. However, that’s been a good learning experience, which I write about in the FlackRabbit article.

Elements of Publicity Workshop

Last night, I attended the Elements of Publicity Workshop put on by Amanda Miller Littlejohn and Jacqueline Lara of Mopwater PR. These two charming and knowledgeable ladies covered a lot of ground in just a two-hour session:

  • How to develop your message
  • How to create a “news hook” for your story
  • How to pitch to local, national and social media.

What I liked about the workshop was that Amanda and Jacqueline have a lot of practical experience in real-world PR. Their talk was spiced with useful examples and anecdotes from their work. They didn’t just tell you how to pitch a story to a reporter, they shared what should be in the email subject line and the best time to make a follow-up phone call.

This is a good workshop for people who don’t want theory but want to know tactics – the practical steps they can take to get media coverage for their product or cause. Want to know what should be in a press kit? Should a backgrounder be in print or electronic format? Should you do a social media release? How do you deal with a TV producer? All of this was covered in the workshop.

Workshop attendees consisted of small business owners, entrepreneurs and managers of small nonprofits – exactly the type of people who will do PR themselves, lacking the budget to hire a firm. The workshop was a really good fit for their needs and Amanda and Jacqueline tailored the class toward them. It was a very interactive session, with lots of Q&A and idea-sharing.

As someone who’s promoting his own book (Murder in Ocean Hall), I left with a lot of useful ideas to pursue, including things I had never thought of before (people still listen to radio?).

Elements of Publicity is just one of a series of low-cost workshops that Mopwater PR is teaching on blogging, social media and publicity.

Reel Lessons in Marketing

Check out my article, Reel Lessons in Marketing on FlackRabbit. It was inspired by my experience working for the DC Shorts Film Festival. I’ve been involved with this annual event for several years and have done almost everything – I’ve judged screenplays and films, taken pictures, sold t-shirts, moderated discussions and, of course, attended numerous parties. With my front row seat at this festival, I’ve learned a lot about marketing – lessons for anyone promoting an event, product or cause.

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.


Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.


The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

And I want Java. I read about that.

I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?


Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

You better have a plan.

The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

It’s also the most profitable.

I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?


A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.