Have you ever had one of those days? 

Perhaps the title of this post gives you a sense of what I mean.  Actually, for me last week it was more like one of those weeks.

Let me tell you about it.  There is some joy in the telling, and it certainly helps diffuse the panic of dealing with a challenging situation.  I know that we’ve all had rough weeks before.  And we will again.  It certainly helps to have a group of individuals who can relate to you around to listen and share their own follies.  So, thanks for listening – and please feel free to share your own stories with me anytime!


To bring you up to speed, you should know that I am currently promoting a free online class called Digital Marketing for Skeptics.  It’s basically an overview of what works (and doesn’t work) for small B2B business owners.  The information is based on my research on the outcomes of different online marketing options.  The course is a drip course where you register and then every day for a week you get a five-minute lesson (to listen or read) and you spend five minutes answering questions specific to your business.

In any case, I have been working to promote the course to solopreneurs and small business owners who either feel uninformed or generally, well, skeptical about the potential for successfully reaching prospective customers with social media posts and Google ads.  I chose one marketing path that has been less used recently – direct mail.

My ingenious idea, which I have been mighty proud of, was to work on a play of words.  If you are familiar with a “styptic pencil” then I’m sure you can see the amazing wordplay I was using when I designed a landing page called “skeptic pencil”.  Just like a styptic pencil slows the bleeding, a skeptic pencil links you to a free class that “stops the bleeding” online of spending time and money uselessly.

I’ll wait a moment while you bow in amazement at my genius.


styptic pencil

skeptic pencil

My Genius 

So… as I said, I created a landing page SkepticPencil.com AND I had one hundred pencils printed up that say “I’m a skeptic.  SkepticPencil.com”

My genius idea was to mail these pencils to people in my target audience – namely small B2B industrial manufacturing business owners.  I did my research to track down a nice mailing list, validate addresses and business owner names, and confirm based on the business’ online presence that they were not a fan of being super active online.

Bear with me now, I’m getting to the main point.

Here’s the plan – I started with business owners in my home state of Wisconsin.  I printed out letters to each of them thanking them for taking on the challenges of being a small business owner and asking if they are skeptical about digital marketing.  If they were – or if they were just curious about why some strange woman mailed them a pencil out of nowhere, then they could go to the website on the pencil and watch a short video of me promoting my free class.

Of course, the pencil in the mail would attract their attention and drive them to the landing page where they could learn about the free course and sign up.  The free course will ultimately lead to a more intensive paid workshop that can help small business owners draft a marketing plan that is realistic for their financial and time budgets.

The First Step

I was thrilled with this somewhat offbeat marketing plan.  While my mind was the source of the ingenious Skeptic Pencil concept, the offbeat-ness of the plan came from the author Mike Michalowicz and his recent book Get Different, which recommends unusual ways to stand out from your competitors.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to mail a pencil via USPS, so I did a little online research and discovered that the postal service likes all envelopes to be the same thickness for the whole envelope.  Others mailing pens and pencils recommended corrugated cardboard as a way to ensure consistent thickness.

I did a little more “Googling” and found a source with a good price for the necessary cardboard.  Good news: it was cheap.  Bad news: it only came in packs of 3 250-yard rolls.  If you’re going to be different, then what’s a little cardboard, right?

Finally, I had my pencils, my excessive amounts of cardboard and a carefully curated list of 100 business owners that met my specifications.  I tested out the mailing by sending a pencil to my husband’s business.  I took it to the post office center at the grocery store, had them determine how to mail it (only needed one stamp!) and waited.  He received the pencil in pristine condition a few days later.  Proof that the mailing worked.

Back to Tuesday 

Based on this successful trial, I put together 20 more pencil mailers to go out and sent them out by dropping them in a handy blue mailbox.  A few days later, I put together 10 more to mail out and put them in my mailbox at home.

Fast forward to last Tuesday.  I was missing an email someone sent me, so I looked in my Junk Folder.  Not only did I find the missing email, but I also found an email from someone named Tom who had been to my website and filled out the “Contact Me” form.  This person did not provide their last name or email address as asked, but did leave me a comment.  It said, and I quote:

“Gee thanks for the pencil. YOU COST ME $4.02 POSTAGE DUE. NICE PROMO – not!”

As I read that message, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.  All my planning and testing and here I ended up alienating the very audience I was targeting.  How could that be?  Were other people forced to pay postage due for the pencil?  Why did my test pencil go through with no problem?

That same Tuesday, I received a package of 10 of my pencil envelopes back to me in the mail, with a teeny tiny, pre-printed note from the post office.  My mailing had aroused suspicion and had been rejected.  I was to speak with a post office clerk to learn more.

My whole ingenious direct mail campaign was a huge fail.

On to Wednesday 

Wednesday morning, I took my pile of pencil and cardboard filled envelopes to the local post office.  The postal worker there was incredibly helpful.  However, what she shared was not.  She said that how the mail gets processed can be somewhat arbitrary.  Yes, that’s right.  Depending on the person doing the processing, they might consider what I’m mailing to be a fully acceptable letter that weighs in under an ounce and can be processed and delivered with one first class stamp.

OR – the same envelope might be treated as a Flat which is different from a letter and needs two stamps.

OR – it might be considered a first-class package which apparently needs $4.60 in postage.

That solved my mystery complaint.  Apparently, that particular postal processer considered the envelope to be a package, and the person receiving the mail agreed to pay the postage due rather than return the package.

The mail clerk said that everyone interprets this differently, and suggested we try treating my returned envelopes as flats this time around, since the letters were returned to me.  I paid the extra postage, and she stamped each envelope and stuck them in the pile to mail.

“Come back if these get returned to you and I’ll see what I can do differently to save you the cost of mailing them all as packages.”

I thanked her and headed home, thinking it was perhaps time to abandon my ingenious idea and be far less creative in my outreach.

But what about the dog and the water leak?

Sure, this is an interesting story, you’re thinking.  But what about the dog vomit and the water leak?  I’m getting there.

By Friday, I was feeling pretty down about my new business venture and my method of outreach.  I wasn’t sure what I would do with all the pencils, and the 750’ of corrugated cardboard.

Then, something happened that changed my outlook.  One of our dogs threw up while we were eating dinner.

I know – if anything sparks an epiphany, it’s dog vomit, right?

But wait, there’s more.  When my husband got up to clean up the vomit, he went under the kitchen sink to get the spray cleaner for the floor.

And that’s when we discovered that everything under the sink was sitting in an inch of water.  Yikes!  We had no idea how or when this happened.  At least we caught it before the water was flowing out of the cabinet onto the floor.

So, in a way, the dog throwing up helped us avoid an even bigger problem.  Yup – it was good the dog threw up or we wouldn’t have discovered the water leak.

At this point, what choice do we have as able-bodied adults?  After we cleaned up the dog vomit, we pulled all of the dishwashing detergents and the cleaners and the sponges completely full of water out of the cabinet to figure out what was going on.

Is this a fun thing to do? No, of course not.  But what’s the alternative? We can’t just ignore it.

Lesson Learned 

When things go wrong at home, like a dog getting sick or a faucet leaking into the cabinet below, we put on our big girl pants, clean things up, fix what we can and keep going.

And I realized at that point, that this was a lesson for my business.  Sure, one angry person paid extra postage for my promotional pencil. (Perhaps he was really curious? Or maybe his assistant paid it?).  And alright, apparently the post office treats mail a bit more arbitrarily than I expected.  Lesson learned.

Is that a reason to give up on the marketing campaign?  I sent out 30 letters – none came back, and only one person complained.  In addition, 11 people went to my landing page and 2 signed up for my free class.  That’s progress, right?

This wasn’t time to give up.  It was just a hiccup.  A little dog vomit easily cleaned up.  It was time for me to move on.  After all, none of us can be successful entrepreneurs if we give up as soon as some minor thing slows us down.  As a matter of fact, as Dorie Clark shares in her latest book The Long Game, “lasting success takes persistence and effort.”

By the time I was sharing the whole sad sordid story with my Accountability Group on Monday morning, I was able to feel a small (tiny) sense of hope and optimism that perhaps I shouldn’t give up on my new venture altogether.

Sure, it hasn’t quite gone the way I planned.  But I learned a valuable lesson.  As the postal clerk told me “Next time mail magnets.  Pencils don’t do so well in the mail.”

life of an entrepreneur


Follow me!

So much change is underway, it can be a challenge to keep up with it all.  How will automation, blockchain, climate change, demographic shifts and other external forces impact your business and your customers?  Join me to keep an eye on these topics and more, to prepare your business for a successful future.  Start by subscribing to my free biweekly blog posts by email so you don’t miss anything!  Or subscribe to my free weekly Five for Friday videos for news on signals of change.