11 business lessons learned from my Sark initiative

11 business lessons learned from my Sark initiative
30 December 2020

In mid-August 2020, I set out to find 500 new residents for the island of Sark and thus double its population. I aimed to sign up these people over two to three years.

Fast-forward just four months, and I have already brought over 100 new residents to the island. The level of demand and speed of developments have been breathtaking.

I ran my repopulation initiative as a digital business that started with nothing but an idea and a website. Many of my readers are interested in creating a similar kind of business, so I felt it useful to share the lessons that I’ve learned.

In no particular order of priority, here is what launching “Sark Society” has taught me.

#1: Being talked about in the media is the most valuable fuel for marketing

Creating a good product is nothing. The real crux of the matter is to find customers for it. Most start-ups fail because their marketing is either ineffective altogether, or too expensive to ever generate profitable sales.

The marketing budget for Sark Society: ZERO.

I didn’t even have an existing list of prospects. I’ve always kept it a secret, but this website only has a tiny number of registered readers – less than 400 when I launched Sark Society.

Still, I’ve gained 100 clients, and my campaign has generated a net income of over GBP 100,000 (USD 134,000 / EUR 109,000).

The marketing budget for Sark Society: ZERO.

How did I pull it off?

If you generate an original idea or storyline, you can usually get the media interested.

My plan to repopulate Sark was so unusual, ambitious and outright crazy that the BBC rang me within days of launching my campaign. Once the BBC reported, the Daily Mail, Country Living, Time Out and Insider.com followed suit. In total, Sark Society got featured in over 30 publications around the world. A few YouTubers also decided that my work was of interest to their subscribers and interviewed me.

I generated over 95% of my sales from people who had never been to my website before but read about it elsewhere. Put another way, my website was at least 20 times as powerful as my tiny readership would have made you expect.

The costs I had to pay in advance for all of this were zero. It was all down to coming up with a product that no one had previously thought of, and creating an exciting storyline around it.

Had I tried to arrange for advertising of the same calibre, I would have had to spend a six-digit amount. I could have done it, but my venture would have been loss-making instead of highly profitable.

If you are good at generating media attention, you can literally create income out of thin air.

The next time someone tells you that a blog needs to have X number of subscribers before you can squeeze any significant income out of it, refer to my story. There are endless variations to operating an online business or blog profitably, and it often pays to rip up the conventional rulebook and do it your way.

Daily Mail feature Sark Society

Invaluable editorials about my work.

#2: Asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission

Technically speaking, I really ought to have asked Sark’s government apparatus if I was allowed to launch such a campaign. Sark is independently governed and has its own parliament. In an ideal world, I should have asked for the support of “Chief Pleas” (the parliament), since they are in charge of setting immigration policies.

However, my chance of receiving official or even unofficial support from Chief Pleas would have been zero. Not because there’d be anything wrong with Chief Pleas, but because governments don’t work like that.

Equally, I knew that good things eventually get support. Sometimes, you need to show results before others will even agree to take a look.

I chose to go ahead and deal with problems as they arose.

I’ve made a few small mistakes in my campaign, and I did ruffle a few feathers. By listening to complaints and meeting up with those who had concerns, I reigned in these problems.

While I did push the envelope a bit, I also made sure my initiative didn’t stray too far off the path of accepted opinion. Most importantly, I ensured that it complied with existing local laws.

That enabled me to simply go ahead and press things forward. Had I asked for permission, nothing would ever have come to pass. Given the additional taxes that the island’s treasury now gets from the new Sarkees, I am sure most of those members of parliament who had reservations will have forgiven me by now.

#3: Personalised service helps you capture the long tail

Of those who purchased a Sark Society membership, an incredible 55% actually did move to Sark. In other words, I didn’t just have a lot of clients signing up. I also had an extremely high conversion rate of people who then took the plunge.

How was that possible?

I’ve pulled out all the stops and personally looked after every single request. No matter how complicated, insignificant or unusual a request, I’ve dealt with it.

Anyone who signed up to my service received a 274-page ring binder with information about moving to Sark as the first step.

I thought this ring binder would provide the answers to 99% of all possible questions.

In the end, it was closer to 90%.

In addition to those questions that I had already thought of, there were INNUMERABLE individual questions, each catering to very specific circumstances of my clients and many requiring significant work on my side to find the answers to.

Dealing with all these requests was an absolute killer in terms of workload.

However, it also made the crucial difference for many clients.

I’ve pulled out all the stops and personally looked after every single request.

That’s why I got such a high percentage of clients who actually moved.

It also led to clients referring other clients to me, and giving good feedback to various YouTubers, which helped my message spread further.

Had I not made my time available to deal with any and all requests, my sales probably would have been a third of what they were in the end. I do believe that this part of my work increased my sales by 100% to 200%.

The Internet gives you access to billions of potential customers.

Out of four billion users, you only need to get 0.0000000001% interested in your product to start earning good money off the Internet.

Providing a personalised service is a significant part of capturing this so-called long tail of the market. Your first customers will recognise you to go to great lengths, and this energy will then spread to other parts of the Internet (because so few other people do).

If you want to create something out of thin air, working hard to overdeliver to your customers is crucial.

#4: Being 10 times cheaper than competitors helps enormously

My service package was most recently priced at GBP 1,400 (USD 1,650 / EUR 1,600). It consisted of the aforementioned ring binder, as well as unlimited access to my time for personal help.

The following is not a claim that I can provide hard evidence for. However, I feel strongly that my work was about 10 times cheaper than anything a conventional “Relocate to Sark” agency could have come up with. Government-funded relocation agencies usually have tremendous operating costs. Think marketing costs, expensive consultants, exhibition stands at tradeshows on the other side of the world, and flashy brochures.

I know reliably from another “national relocation agency” in an English-speaking island jurisdiction that a single warm lead to a potential new resident is worth GBP 5,000 to GBP 10,000 in marketing costs. That’s for a warm LEAD, not for a client who has signed up.

Everyone has a different feeling about pricing. However, the price that I charged was low enough to make a large number of people take the plunge.

I feel strongly that my work was about 10 times cheaper than anything a conventional “Relocate to Sark” agency could have come up with.

Having a very accessible price point, aided by the Internet’s enormous reach, is a potent component in any new Internet business. Don’t ask yourself how expensive you can make a product, but ask how cheap you can make it for your clients to get in.

#5: Timing is (almost) everything

I have had the idea for my relocation initiative since 2004.

In 2018, I drew up plans for the project but didn’t act on them.

In mid-2020, I pulled out these plans and launched my campaign without delay. Why? I had come to realise that for the first time in 16 years of thinking about it, all the stars were aligned.

  • The coronavirus pandemic had created the need for a safe place to get away from it all.
  • “Working from home” had become accepted enough to make people believe they could pursue their work from anywhere – including from Sark.
  • A looming deadline for EU/EEA/Swiss residents meant they could only move to Sark easily until 31 December 2020.

Nothing is as powerful as an idea for which the time has come. In mid-2020, Sark was such an idea.

That’s why the BBC immediately latched onto it – see point #1.

Many new businesses fail not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because their timing is off. If you launch when the public is not just ready, but hungry for your product, then your chance of succeeding and the scale of your commercial success will be all the greater.

Carefully consider if the timing for your plans is right. It could make all the difference, and sometimes it pays to wait.

#6: You do need a bit of luck

Entrepreneurial success stories are often spun in such a way that they appear like the founder’s ingenious work.

The truth is that luck is more often than not a significant portion of it.

E.g., the BBC reporter who called me after the launch of my campaign was noticeably critical of my idea – and even quite understandably so: my campaign wasn’t backed by the island’s parliament, I hadn’t done this before, and the campaign focussed on an island that had seen much controversy in the past.

I had a technical problem with my laptop at the time, which is why I had gone to the neighbouring island of Guernsey on the day the BBC rang. When I received the call from the journalist, I was sitting in a downtown café, waiting for my laptop to be fixed in a nearby shop. That’s why I was able to say: “Why don’t you come around the corner for a coffee and you can interview me in person?

Meeting me in person led to a noticeable change in how the journalist viewed my work. I didn’t look like a criminal, explained my initiative with great passion, and showed him some material that I happened to have in my bag.

Had I not gone to Guernsey that day because of a pesky laptop problem, the BBC report could have turned out very differently, and the entire subsequent media avalanche might not have happened.

It reminded me of the little-known story of Google’s founders. In 1999, they tried to sell the business for USD 1m. It didn’t happen, because the buyer only offered USD 750k. They had a lucky escape!

Having a bit of luck goes a long way.

Then again, unless you go out there and start something, the lucky fairy won’t come to your help.

Or as Woody Allen once said: “80 percent of success is showing up.

Wall Street movie 1987

As Bud Fox said in Wall Street: “Life comes down to a few moments.”

#7: Don’t ever hesitate to filter out (and refund) the wrong customers

Much as every single sale is a success and worth money, some sales have a negative real value.

Over the years, I have become better at spotting clients that I’d live to regret accepting money from.

With some clients, it’s cheaper to pay back the money and send them their way.

With some prospective clients, it’s better to talk them out of the product before they buy.

Never before have I told quite so many people: “Sorry, this simply isn’t for you, please do not send any money to me.

As a result, I have an amazing group of clients who are a sheer joy to work with. Negative stress is reduced to a minimum – for myself, the clients, and the island.

Always keep in mind that even a client who gives you money may yet have a negative real value to you. Do not hesitate to either turn them down or refund them with a polite but firm note asking them to jog on.

Life is too short to work with (and take money from) the wrong customers.

#8: Nothing replaces putting your nose to the grindstone

Just the other day, I had a conversation with a friend about the perceived glamour of entrepreneurship.

Instant success.

Quick money.

Media fame and glory.

As if.

Nothing ever comes easy. If someone promises you that it does, run as fast as you can.

I’ve received a number of comments along the lines of: “You just sold 100 ring binders and made a hundred grand off it. Easy money, eh?!

It reminded me of the old saying that most “overnight success” stories are 20 years in the making.

It’s taken me a quarter of a century to learn the ins and outs of Sark. The preparation for this campaign has involved months of writing, editing and brainstorming. When it all went live, my entire life was hijacked for four months to deal with clients’ needs and emergencies.

Nothing ever comes easy. If someone promises you that it does, run as fast as you can. Hardly any entrepreneurial success ever comes without gargantuan struggles and burning the midnight oil.

Sark Society seems like an incredible overnight success story, but it is based on hard work.

It’s not a new or particularly original point, but worth mentioning. My website will never promise anyone quick and easy solutions. If you are looking for those, please sign off and read someone else’s blurb.

#9: When it’s good enough, get it out there

I have long been a fervent believer in the motto “Done is better than perfect.

I first spotted this saying on a poster in the Silicon Valley campus of Facebook. I liked it so much that I took the poster off the wall (with permission from friends at Facebook, of course!) and home with me.

The launch of Sark Society was done in haste because of a few external factors that made me believe (erroneously, as it turned out) that I had to launch immediately.

Even when I launched my service package, I could have pointed out a dozen areas of improvement. Today, I know the proverbial 101 points that I should have improved before the launch.

Yet, it once again showed that launching the product was right.

Launch, learn, adjust.

Then relaunch, learn some more, and adjust again.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

If you have a decent product, put it out there and see what happens.

Stalling and delaying until eternity are what will kill your entrepreneurial plans – not the imperfections that any product will have at any given time.

No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. But it doesn’t matter. You have to get it going, and then you can improve it as you go along. And if you have any f***-ups along the way, simply ask for forgiveness (see point #2).

Stalling and delaying until eternity are what will kill your entrepreneurial plans – not the imperfections that any product will have at any given time.

It’s another point that is not particularly original, but it’s worth highlighting given how many people get stuck for fear of launching anything but a perfect product.

#10: Deadlines are an invaluable marketing tool

The Pareto Principle says that you will get 80% of your revenue from 20% of your customers.

When adapting this rule to marketing, you could say that 20% of your marketing message will contribute 80% to your marketing success.

In the case of Sark Society, nothing was as powerful as pointing out a hard, unchangeable deadline.

For citizens of the EU/EEA/Switzerland, moving to Sark was going to be easy until 31 December 2020 but a lot more difficult from 1 January 2021 onwards.

Before this deadline, such citizens would just have to fill out a five-page form.

After the deadline, they would have to go through a complicated application process.

Having such an exact deadline focussed everyone’s mind and made people get into gear. I do think it was the single most influential factor in my marketing, backed up by the fact that >90% of my clients hailed from countries affected by the deadline.

It left an impression on me, too. Whatever I will promote in the future, I will always carefully consider if I can get a deadline into the mix. If there isn’t an external deadline, maybe I can create my own?

Be creative with deadlines and use their incredible power in your marketing! Fear of Missing Out (“FOMO”) is one of the oldest principles in marketing and not a new idea; that doesn’t make it any less effective, though.

#11: Round numbers and simple messages work

I am a big fan of Donald Trump’s approach to business and marketing, going back as far as the early 1990s.

His work inspired my marketing pitch for Sark Society.

My main pitch was based on:

  • 500 new residents (not 400, 347 or 491 – 500!).
  • “Doubling” the population of the island.

Everyone is short on time, and the human brain processes simple messages more effectively.

Round numbers are easier to grasp. 500 is more visually appealing than 406.

“Doubling” is a concept people understand (just as they understand “half price”).

You need a concept that is easy to communicate. If it is, you’ll get three to ten times more attention.

It’s a timeless principle. For marketing, you need to create simple messages, not scientific essays.

Provided you want to get things done, that is.

There are those who like to talk, and those who prefer to get things done. I firmly place myself in the camp of the latter.

The future of Sark Society

In case you wonder, at the time of publishing this article, I have paused sales of my relocation package with no fixed relaunch plan. If or when I relaunch my service, it will probably focus on bringing online entrepreneurs to Sark. I have a few ideas on how to make that legally possible without too many constraints or costs, and with a view to offering it to potential clients from anywhere in the world. It’ll also specifically be geared towards bringing investment and employment to the island, besides creating synergies between all the online entrepreneur who are based on Sark.

How about a Sark with 100+ resident online entrepreneurs, wouldn’t that be quite something?

Such a new service would probably target just a small number of clients (and with a different price point), instead of bringing in people by the dozens.

Once I am ready to (re)launch, those who are registered readers of this website will hear about it first.

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