Silver Bullet Blues

I’m not sure what words I’d most like to hear coming out of my twenty-three-year old son’s mouth, but I’m pretty sure these are not them:

“That may be the most ‘old guy hobby’ on Earth.”

And yet that’s exactly what my son Evan said to me when I told him how I’ve been spending my time.

Let me explain…

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Last month, while rummaging through some old boxes in the basement, I came upon a combination padlock. It had four dials on it, each numbered 0-9, and it was locked.

I asked around, but nobody in my family could claim ownership, let alone suggest what the combination might be.

Toss it in the trash? I considered it. With 10,000 possible combinations, unlocking it could take a while.

But it might also be kind of interesting. So I set the lock to 0-0-0-0 and began my journey, counting up, one number at a time. I told Evan about it, prompting his snide, but I suppose accurate, reply.

As of this writing, I am at 4,060, with the lock still unopened. But I keep fooling with it: at breakfast; while watching TV; waiting for the NPR fundraiser to end.

lockWhy? First, because I am an old guy, as Evan rightly points out.

But second, because I find it satisfying to know that there is in fact one correct combination and that sooner or later, I’m going to pull on that lock and it will open.

You know what isn’t at all like this?

If you said “marketing,” you are correct! (If you said, “a turkey and cheese sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries,” you should probably break for lunch.)

There is no silver bullet in marketing

A recent Inc. Magazine column posed a question to five founders of companies that appeared on the 2016 Inc. 5000 list: “You have $10,000 to spend on marketing. How do you use it?”

The five answers given were as follows: co-op marketing, branding, social media, direct mail, and some incomprehensible gobbledygook about customer identities.

Well, thanks for nothing, Inc. Magazine.

That’s like asking five doctors what the key to long life is and being told: exercise, kale, weight training, finger-painting, and purple.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. That’s what makes it frustrating.

That said, I do have a few recommendations:

  • Only do things that make sense to you. Can you explain why you use Twitter? Or Facebook? Or Instagram? Or any other marketing tool?
    Either find an answer to that question or stop doing it. The fact that everyone else is doing it is not a marketing strategy; it’s a third grade birthday party.
  • Only do things that you enjoy (or, at the very least, don’t hate). Solo and small business marketing requires time, effort and consistency. It might be free-ish (thank you Internet), but for the most part, you have to get personally involved.
    But if you hate it – regardless of how effective a given tactic may be – you’ll never do it. Like exercise, showing up regularly matters way more than which activity you choose.
  • Think relationship first. People like us live in a word of mouth world. The best clients always come through referrals. Your job, therefore, is to figure out how to get your words coming out of someone else’s mouth.
    To that end, I live by a simple marketing mantra: “Stay in front of the people you know, over and over again, in a way that positions you as a Likeable Expert.”
    The more you can make that happen, and regardless of which specific tactics you choose, the more effective your marketing will be.

Here’s the bottom line. It would be nice if marketing had one simple answer – one combination you could use to unlock all the clients you want. But hey, as long as we’re dreaming, it would also be nice if ambidextrous, middle-aged bald men were revered as gods.

Neither is going to happen. The best you can do is develop a simple, understandable, easily repeated set of tactics that work for you.

And maybe eat more kale.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do your children make fun of you too? Give examples.
  1. What’s your go to marketing tactic (please don’t say, “finger-painting”)
  1. The answer to my combination lock riddle lies somewhere between 4,060 and 9,999. Post your guess below. Whomever comes closest will win an authentic, Blue Penguin Development baseball hat (or maybe a slightly used combination lock).

Share your comments below!

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50 thoughts on “Silver Bullet Blues

  1. jana

    That Inc magazine article is the most unhelpful advice ever. But to be fair, the question is lame too. How could you possibly come up with a sensible answer to that?

  2. Michael Katz Post author

    I would have suggested spending the $10,000 on some really nice shoes. Nothing screams success like high quality shoes.

    And don’t you want to wager a guess on my lock combination? At the moment, you’d be in the lead no matter what you guess!

  3. Evelyn

    1. Yes, for the frequency with which I write thank you notes.
    2. Writing thank you notes, and sending greeting cards. Not only do I LOVE to do it, but they stand out in memory and are often displayed. They make people happy.
    3. 7264. Jana, don’t even think of taking that number. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Virginia Hughes

    All in favor of disqualifying Evan from the contest for making fun of the “old guy hobby,” say “aye.”

    My guess is 8000.

    PS. Loved the new newsletter “Tax Bites.” Yes, I did subscribe.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Aye, Aye, Aye! And I’m glad you enjoyed the newsletter. I’m getting more tax savvy by the day as a result too!

  5. Pete

    My go to marketing tactic is to send a personal email from Outlook. This can cut through and be read in a way that several HTML promo emails aren’t.

  6. Dianna Huff

    1. Yes, my son’s favorite thing to say is, “Mom, that is soooo 1980s. It’s not like that now.”

    2. Go-to marketing tactic: Posting comments here on your blog in order to drive the hordes of visitors back to my website.

    3. 9876

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      2. You are always working those angles, Dianna!
      3. I hope you are wrong. It occurred to me after I wrote this that I better open that lock soon so I can declare a winner!

  7. Warwick

    Go to Tim Ferriis’s archives. There are several posts on unlocking combination locks and regular locks.
    Good luck.

  8. cindi

    1) Apparently saying “deets” as a shortcut for “details” is no longer in fashion. I used that word in a text to my 20-year old son, and he said, “You’re so retro!”
    2) Writing personal notes. With a pen and paper, sent in an envelope with a stamp. (So retro.)
    3) Lock combo guess: 9999

  9. Bruce Horwitz

    1) They do, but I raised them to be polite so they only do it behind my back.
    2) go to market tactic – grab my canvas bag and walk to Whole Foods…Oh, go-to marketing tactic, never mind.
    3) if the last 4 digits of your (home) phone haven’t passed by, that’s my guess.

  10. Helen Rose

    1. As mentioned on the phone yesterday, my daughter likes to quote one of her favorite TV shows, “It’s cute how you think privacy is still a thing…” whenever I remark on changing times.
    2. I am loving the process of planning and creating my Send Out Cards for 2017. I also like to send people books I think they will enjoy; they receive something unexpected in the mail and it’s personal to them.
    3. My guess is 6691.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Love that, Helen. When my son was younger, and we’d be watching a movie in which there was some bad language – and we’d be concerned he heard it – his favorite line was, “Have you been to middle school?”
      2. Excellent.
      3. Perhaps you shall win!

  11. L Malek


    With 10K, I would sign our company up for 2 more conferences. This is where we meet and interact with clients and potential clients. As you said, it’s all about relationships.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Sounds like you know from experience where your business comes from. I get zero from conferences – so I don’t bother. It’s all about understanding your market and what works.

      And your guess has a certain rhythm to it that I like!

  12. Charles Alexander

    1. Relentlessly. My hair is usually fair game. I sport a “Michael Katz.”
    Oh, and my signing…and my dancing…and my….hmm, I may have to get new kids.
    2. Video and email marketing
    3. 7,500. Or you accidentally passed the combination, so when you get to the end, you will feel the same way I did after the last episode of “Lost”.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Damn kids. Want to trade? (Like they’d even notice.)
      2. You and video are synonymous to me.
      3. That’s my biggest fear. I actually tug on the lock twice each time, but I’m well aware that if any of the four numbers aren’t lined up properly, it will all be for nothing!

  13. Brandon Rigney

    The combination to your lock is either (depending upon the digits
    in your birthday month, day and year):

    1. Zero-X-zero-Y (example: July 4= 0704)
    2. Month-day (example: Dec. 25= 1225)
    3. Birth year: (example: 1960)

    Good luck! I’ll give you my address later for the prize!

  14. Harold Waisel

    1. When I post something in Facebook. I threaten to unfriend them. I’m not sure they care.
    2. Steady trickle of latest blog announcement, newsletter, post on LinkedIn/FB/Twitter, repeat.
    3. 8912 (I’m guessing year and month of your son’s birthday in reverse order).

    BTW – I had a traditional combo lock that I recently cracked via a video someone posted due to a defect in Master locks. Only took me 4 tries to find the combo. I’ve added safecracker to my resume.

  15. Jessica Hoelzel

    Love this! Simple, practical advice that could also apply to life and many types of decision-making. As for the padlock, either you do need to get a new hobby, or consider that you’re just being stubborn and need to let it go! ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Kady Hommel

    I am LOVING all the vignettes about adolescent disdain for us ancient types! They really do know all the answers, don’t they?

    As for marketing, I am working the “warm email” approach … relevant to them, short, personal. Soon they will convince themselves they know me ๐Ÿ™‚

    My guess: 5311

  17. Ramona

    I’ve been wondering if you found the combination yet… Yes, this newsletter in particular has stuck in my mind… must be the sense of mystery?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Ramona! I’m embarrassed to say that I have not yet. We are about to put our house on the market so we did some extensive cleanup. I just retrieved the lock from a drawer and see that it is just over 6,000. Your post has inspired me to take up the cause again! Hopefully we will have answer soon.


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