THE BLOG
10/22/2013 03:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2013

It All Began With Balls

Most companies begin on a shoe-string -- under-funded, under the gun, and under the radar. The company I co-founded in 1986, Idea Champions, was no exception.

When my business partner and I began, we had almost nothing -- just an idea, some chutzpah, and a deep desire to succeed.

While we both were likable, smart, and skillful schmoozers, we had zippo in the way of a marketing plan.

Racking what was left of our over-caffeinated brains, it soon became abundantly clear that we needed some kind of showcase, some kind of "window to the world" -- a place to strut our entrepreneurial stuff and get in front of the people who were the likely buyers of our service...

Back in those days, this meant one thing -- renting a booth at the ASTD convention -- the annual meet market in the training and development field.

The thought of this made the two of us slightly nauseous, since we had "cased the joint" a year before and come away with three impressions:

1. We didn't have enough money to get in the door
2. We didn't have the right marketing materials
3. We probably should have gone into our father's business.

Clearly, we'd have to do something different if we were going to distinguish ourselves from the 600 other companies vying for the same customers.

Giving out slick brochures was out of the question. (We didn't have any). Giving out our client list was also out of the question. (You could count the number of our clients on one hand -- the hand of Vinny "Three Finger" Scalucci).

In a flash of entrepreneurial mania, it became obvious that we would need a lot of balls to pull this off. Yes, the kind you're thinking of, but also another kind -- juggling balls.

The AHA? We'd create an "anti-booth" and teach people how to juggle. Our booth would be a rest stop, a haven, a place for thousands of convention-weary people to recuperate from all the other booths with their endless supply of Hershey's kisses, business jargon, and fishbowls full of business cards.

OK. So we didn't have a marketing plan, but we did have inspiration. And even more than that, a very specific idea of how to get the attention of the marketplace.

Our plan was simple.

We'd bring a posse of our juggling-savvy friends and teach thousands of convention-goers how to do something they'd secretly wanted to learn for years -- juggle. No hard sell. No corporate speak. No used-car salesman smiles -- just the experience of having a breakthrough.

And our message would be delivered in 30 seconds or less.

Here's how it worked: As aspiring jugglers dropped their balls, we'd drop in a few well-timed comments to help them make the link between what it took to learn to juggle and what it took to innovate.

Our booth was wildly popular. People loved it. People loved us. And we always had a crowd.

But "having a crowd" doesn't necessarily translate into sales -- and sales is what we were after. Were we pumped? Yes. Were we optimistic? That, too. But still we had nothing to show for our efforts.

That is, until the afternoon of the third day.

That's when we spied the proverbial big fish walking in our direction. DIRECTOR OF TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT, AT&T his name tag screamed.

This was the moment -- the moment of truth.

The impeccably dressed Mr. Big approached. He stopped, tried to look through me, and spoke:

"What's this?" he asked.

"Um... what does it look like?" I replied.

"Juggling?" he responded.

"That's right!" I said. "Would you like to learn?"

Ah... the existential moment of truth! Dare he lay down his plastic bags of information to try something new? Dare he stop being in charge and become a student for a change? Dare he run the risk of failing.

He looked at me. I looked at him. Then he cleared his throat.

"I've been trying to learn to juggle for 25 years," he confessed, looking at his watch. "OK. Teach me... but... all I have is five minutes."

By the grace of the juggling Gods, we taught the man. In five minutes. His mind was blown. Borderline ecstatic, he reached into his wallet and pulled out a business card.

"I don't know what you guys do," he laughed, "but I know you're not a juggling company. Call me on Monday and let's talk."

We did. He took our call -- and spent the next 20 minutes telling us about his weekend juggling adventures. How he couldn't stop. How he taught his son. How he had a ton of fun.

Then he started grilling us about our work. Apparently, he liked what he heard, because the next thing we know he's inviting us to pilot our creative thinking training at AT&T.

Which we did.

The training was a big hit -- so much so, that our now juggling-savvy client invited us back two more times the next month to do it again, (just to make sure the glowing feedback wasn't a "false positive.")

It wasn't.

Those sessions were also a success. So much so, that Mr. New-Juggler-After-25-Years-of-Frustration pulled the corporate trigger and licensed our training.

During the next three months we taught nine AT&T trainers how to facilitate it. Then, when Lucent split off from AT&T, we taught their trainers and enjoyed five years of great results and even greater passive income.

How did it all begin?

By doing something different. By going with our strengths. By differentiating ourselves from the competition. By translating theory into practice. By giving people an experience, not just words. By skillfully responding to a moment of truth. By having fun. And...by translating all of the above into a service that delivered on it's promise.

Balls got us started, but it was execution that sealed the deal.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
1. What risk are you willing to take to grow your business?
2. What strengths of yours do you need to leverage?
3. What moment of truth is fast approaching for you?

The above story is excerpted from my forthcoming book, still in search of a publisher, WISDOM AT WORK: 40 Stories of Love, Learning and Letting Go from the Front Lines of Business.

Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, a consulting and training company dedicated to helping organizations get out of the box and accomplish extraordinary results. He has one wife that loves him, two teenage kids that are slightly embarrassed by him, and one speakers bureau that represents him.