What to Learn From Big Words

A little while back, I raved about John Bates, cofounder of and evangelist for Big Words, a web site for college students.

I talked about his in-your-face marketing style, with people in jumpsuits bouncing rubber balls at students. I talked about how he listened and responded to his customers. I was especially impressed by how he was willing to offer a better deal for buying back textbooks, which he’d make even better if it were taken out in “site credit.”

Well, Big Words is gone. The site’s demise was “announced” on October 24, and a few days later, the huge Big Words site had been reduced to a single logo.

I still think John Bates is a fine marketer with a lot to teach us. I still think the idea of listening to customers and responding with what they want makes sense. But a business isn’t like a football team that can succeed with an all-star offense and no defense (or vice versa). For a business to succeed, everything has to work.

It reminds me of a line from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” In the song “Putting It Together,” the character of George (played by Mandy Patinkin) sings, “Having just a vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.” (The song was later used as a title for a Sondheim retrospective, and the tune was used in some Xerox ads during the early 1990’s.)

The point is, as many dot-com businesses have discovered this year, marketing alone is not enough. Generating interest and even sales isn’t enough. Executing a business plan requires that you make money on the sales, find a way to deliver what you promised at a profit, and execute better than your competition. The company doesn’t need a net profit right away; if the market’s growing rapidly enough, you want to invest ahead of that growth. But you do need gross margins. You have to make a profit on every transaction.

What happened here? It may be that the market was too small for the way Big Words spent. It may be that competition from sites like Memolink and CollegeClub.com was too much. It may be that those that invested $30 million into the company in January simply lost patience. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

I tried to contact John Bates, but he’s evidently pretty busy. (I don’t know, he might be looking for a job.) I’d be interested to know exactly where Big Words failed. Was it in fulfillment, conversion, or organization? Or was it somewhere else? I’m still not convinced the failure was in marketing, although some will disagree.

Maybe you’re one of those people. Maybe you can teach me how I was so wrong about Big Words. There’s a lesson from all this, for me and for you. You learn only when you change your mind.

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