Businesses in New or Obscure Fields

It's one thing to market an established business by convincing customers that you do a better job or offer extra service, and quite another to let people know about a business in a field they have never heard of. For example, if you are a businessperson who sells wholesale lapidary supplies or structural mylar members, very few people will know what you do from a quick perusal of a business card. Even if your business isn't quite this obscure—say you are a freelance video technician, a computer-aided drafting firm or the operator of a papermaking studio—ex-actly what you do may not be clearly understood.

Don't assume that your business is immune from the need to educate existing and potential customers because it has been in operation for some time. For instance, even today there are many people who don't take advantage of the services of specialized travel agents, services that buy airline seats in bulk and negotiate low rates at no charge to the customer. Specialized agents can get flights to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Amsterdam at rates that are half of published fares.

Many owners of new types of businesses do realize they must educate people about their field in order to create customers. Take the tofu business as an example. For the uninitiated, tofu is a Japanese soybean extract: the cottage cheese of soybean milk. It was introduced in the United States in the early 1970s as part of the health food movement.

Bill Schurtleif and his wife, Akiko Aoyagi, were among the pioneers in creating the first small market for the product with their Book of Tofu (Ballentine), which they promoted with a nationwide media tour. On their tour, they gave order forms to interested people to buy "do-it-yourself" tofu-making kits. Schurtleif and Aoyagi understood that if they were to sell many books, people needed more and better information about tofu, the most important of which was what it tastes like.

Now, several decades later, many people in the food business take it for granted that everyone knows what tofu is. This, of course, is nonsense; probably a majority of Americans have yet to taste tofu. In other words, people in the tofu business, even after years of educating potential customers, have barely scratched the surface. To further expand their market, they still have a major teaching job to do.

Redwood Hill Farm, an award-winning goat dairy that has the greatest variety of goat milk products of any dairy in the United States, has been in business in Sonoma County, California, for over 20 years. Not only is it in a rather obscure field, it also has the added challenge of overcoming buyer resistance to its product. Even though the dairy is successful, it never lets up on efforts to educate both existing and potential customers. The most effective way that owners Jennifer Bice and the late Steven Schack found was to give out samples of their yogurt, milk and a wide variety of cheeses so customers can taste for themselves. Jennifer brings some of her 400 goats to fairs and invites the public to "Open Farm" days during the summer to milk the dairy goats and play with the babies and enjoy goat milk yogurt and cheese. The animals are extremely friendly, and the public can see that the operation is immaculate. Along with the samples, they hand out recipes and literature at fairs informing customers that the farm uses organic feed whenever available, does not use hormones such as BST to increase milk production and is committed to producing the best-tasting, least-processed goat milk products possible.

Steve Halpern is a composer and performer of a very specialized type of soothing and meditative electronic music. In the early 1970s, he was a pioneer in a field that later attracted many musicians (of course, Ravel and others had done it earlier with traditional instruments). Halpern chose to put his music on cassettes, a medium which had almost no retail market at the time. After questioning a number of people who responded favorably to his music, he found that many patronized natural food stores. One by one he called on these stores and played his tapes for the owners. Sure enough, they liked it, stocked them and even played the tapes as background music for their own enjoyment. Not surprisingly, the tapes slowly began to sell. Each tape had an address and price for additional ordering. Several years later, when FM radio stations began playing his music, Halpern's audience grew even more rapidly.

Ambica, a potter, was among the first Americans to work successfully with low-fired raku, a process of firing pottery that was relatively unknown and unappreciated among art, craft and pottery buyers. To help people understand it, she scheduled regular evening events where she served tea and snacks in her studio. Generally, she was able to attract ten to 15 guests a month. At each event, she encouraged people to make an object of clay which she would glaze and fire. For those who were shy, she had ready-made pieces that they could engrave or personalize. Nearly everyone came back to pick up their pieces after the firing and looked around the studio at Ambica's work as well. The market developed, and her work sold.

Charmoon Richardson, the owner of Wild About Mushrooms, has developed an excellent marketing plan based on educat ing potential clients. Many people are leery about eating mushrooms other than the ordinary kind found in supermarkets, and the more adventurous often have no idea how to prepare the exotic mushroom varieties. Charmoon has figured out how to educate both kinds of clients.

Salli first met Charmoon at an environmental gathering where he was cooking exotic mushrooms with a delicious marinade, giving out samples and answering questions. She loved his samples and attended his Feast of Forest Mushrooms held at Mistrail, a popular eatery. The event included an introductory talk and slide show and displays of fresh wild and exotic mushrooms, followed by a five-course dinner featuring a variety of forest mushrooms. Some of Charmoon's other events include mushroom identification walks, the Wine and Mushroom Festival, weekend forays for mushroom gathering, and mushroom dying and paper making.

Some businesses, if not exactly obscure, are traditionally very low-profile. Good Vibrations, a San Francisco and Berkeley store that sells sex toys, video and audio tapes, guides to safer sex and books, has broken out of the sleazy sex-shop mold and now, after two decades of operation, is recognized world-wide. Education is central to putting potential customers at ease. The business does public outreach at human sexuality courses and clinics, sponsors workshops, hosts book signings and acts as a resource in the community. It publishes informative and humorous catalogues and newsletters that discuss the products. The Good Vibrations motto is, "If you want something done right, do it yourself," so it is fitting that it is the sponsor of Masturbation Month, which has been picked up by national magazines. Within the catalogue they make sure customers know just what they will be getting by clearly marking each category. In the book section, for example, under Family Sexuality are titles such as Talking With Your Child About Sex and Period; in the smut series there are titles like Modern Lust and Lusty Lesbians.

The business also makes potential customers, who would never patronize the typical store that sells sex toys, comfortable by assuring them of confidentiality. It never sells, rents or gives customers' names to anyone else, and all items and literature are shipped in plain brown packaging with their corporate name (Open Enterprises) on the return label. To encourage customers to tell their friends, they offer to send them a brochure. The mature approach taken by founder Joanie Blank and adopted by the current worker/owner cooperative sets Good Vibrations apart from others in the field.

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