Lisa Woodard
recent CMO

The first time I went to prison, I was blown away. Okay, maybe blown away isn’t the most appropriate choice of words, but it’s the only phrase that comes to mind when I think about how much I learned from my time there. Prison is life distilled. Niceties are stripped away and only the bare essentials are left.

At this point, I probably should reassure you I’ve never actually been to prison in the way you might be thinking. But I have visited many times as an executive volunteer with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, an organization I’ve worked with since 2009.

Why adult male prisoners, you ask? A fair question. Certainly, it’s not your average animal shelter, mentoring or environmental volunteership. But the entrepreneurial aspect of this program grabbed me, so I eschewed dogs, kids and trees for reformed felons.

The entrepreneurial spirit is a driving force within me. It compels me to analyze return on investment at all times, even when I’m relaxing at home. (I devour “Shark Tank” episodes at an alarming rate.) I saw a huge return on investing my time in prisoners. And the success statistics were compelling (1):

  • Number of graduates: More than 1,100
  • Number of businesses launched by inmates: 185
  • Number of businesses grossing more than $1 million: at least two
  • Recidivism rate: Less than 7 percent, compared with a rate of 25 percent overall for Texas male prisoners

I had to be a part of it.

At first I thought that I was providing a service, using my skills to rehabilitate folks who had taken the wrong path. What I didn’t plan on was how much I’d learn about my profession of marketing (and myself) in the process.

The quality of the presentations and sales ideas in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program was often better than what I have encountered in my career as a Chief Marketing officer working with highly paid marketing executives. Moreover, I learned about how positive transformation can occur in even the direst circumstances.

The program participants do not have access to a computer for their research. They are not trained marketers with access to the latest trendy thinking on engaging with the customer along his journey. I have found that can be good. Because at the end of the day, when you boil down marketing to its essence, it is about really knowing and helping your customer.

I heard business ideas from folks who had run very successful (albeit illegal) businesses on the outside. I also heard from men who might have been skilled craftsman or even unskilled laborers. But the common thread was a passion for starting and owning a successful business and caring for their families.

No matter the concept, in mentoring them about marketing, I realized that all of my experience could be captured by asking 5 simple questions.

  1. Who is your customer? Is it the Soccer Mom or the small business owner? Is it the affluent homeowner or the foreman on the construction site? The key is identifying who currently buys the type of service you are offering, and who doesn’t currently buy but could benefit? In other words, who is the best potential fit for what you uniquely offer?
  2. How do you reach this person? Once you really understand your customer persona, think about where they are and how they spend their time. Is it engaging with their child’s school or athletic league? Is it in their small business or as a member of a professional association? Knowing about them is key to finding ways to reach them. Networking, advertising, direct and partnership marketing opportunities are better revealed.
  3. Why should the customer choose you? Face it, we are all consumers and are inundated with offers left and right. The key is to truly have aspects of your product or service that are unique and differentiated. The entrepreneur program encourages participants to think creatively and not go to the lowest price denominator. I encourage them to explore convenience, service, and guarantees as a way to truly stand out.
  4. How can you truly meet your customer’s needs and wants, even when he or she doesn’t know what they are? This requires an in-depth knowledge of your audience. It also means that your service needs to not only meet your customer’s expectations, but to exceed them. When I worked in the bridal industry, we weren’t marketing fabric wedding dresses, we sold “the most important day of her life.” The aspiring entrepreneurs are inspired to tell an immersive, compelling story of benefit enjoyment. For example, a landscaper is not selling a mowed lawn or pretty plants. A landscaper is offering a backyard oasis where a customer can relax and appreciate time with the family.
  5. How do you surprise and delight your customer so that he or she spreads the word to friends? This is all about making sure that your customer is so delighted that he or she proactively talks about your company. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising– 84% of consumers say they either completely or somewhat trust recommendations from family and friends about products (2) – making these recommendations the information source ranked highest for trustworthiness. And customer loyalty is the most valuable asset.

As you saw from the earlier statistics, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program has spurred the launching of 165 successful new businesses started by inmates, at least two of which gross more than $1 million annually.

What these inmates have learned and are continuing to learn applies to any business, including yours. Seth Godin gave an excellent TED Talk on “tribes,” how we need to find that special group of people who needs the products or services we have to offer and reach out to them with marketing that engages them and makes them want to do business with us.

As I realized by participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, successful marketing of any business starts with five key questions. Once you have the answers, you are well on your way to success. And, if convicted felons can do it with so much working against them, think how far you can go.



This article originally appeared on LinkedIn