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Too Much of a Good Thing

“Trust in God but make sure your camels are tied up” – Arabic Proverb

Living our dream is quite different from dreaming it.

For one thing, there’s a lot more poop than my wife and I had considered when our farm was still a dream. Then there is the daily deluge of eggs, which we’re now selling (organically fed, $2 a dozen). And we’ve got enough goat milk flowing in to bathe Cleopatra for a month – even after making some of the most delicious feta cheese you’ve ever tasted.

We’ve always dreamed of having our own farm and being able to live entirely off the land. And we’re getting close. Self-sufficiency in food, electricity, and water is our five-year “we must be mad” goal. I’m amazed at the number of friends who, after seeing what we’ve started here, remark that they’d love to do it, too. Very few will venture to do so, but I’ve realized that there’s a growing market for day-long seminars at our small farm to give people a taste of a self-sufficient lifestyle without them actually having to live it every day.

A One in a Thousand Chance

You should, indeed, be careful what you wish for. Surely it could come true… and then what would you do?

Success can be a little overwhelming, to say the least. Case in point: In September, Led Zeppelin announced that they would be playing only one concert this year – in London in November. (I suspect it was a cunning marketing ploy, and they’ll actually be touring.) There were only 20,000 tickets available and, within hours of the announcement, it is estimated that 20 million people attempted to register for them. The Web server hosting the registration site crashed and has been intermittently unavailable or extremely slow ever since.

I’ve seen a similar thing happen to companies I consult with.

A couple of years ago, for example, International Living scooped an article about retiring abroad, which appeared on the home page of MSN. Within two hours, MSN had pulled the link, because International Living’s Web server could not handle the demand – over 300 times the website traffic that was normally expected for that time of day.

Offline, two examples stick out. One was the result of a PR campaign I developed for a client in the UK. After being featured in a television report, their phone lines were jammed with inquiries for three days solid. The other one was the result of my first appearance on QVC. I sold out all the company’s stock, and QVC wanted us to re-run the product right away. But the company’s lead time on that product was weeks, not a few days.

All of these serious problems were created by the realization of that big dream – the dream to come up with a blockbuster offer, something that would have customers pouring in.

Am I telling you to pull back on your marketing efforts just because success might be too much for you to handle? Of course not. But most new entrepreneurs are taken completely by surprise when their start-up business takes off suddenly – and you don’t want that to happen to you.

Just as you should have a “what if” plan to deal with things that could go wrong, you need to have a plan that allows you to deal with sudden success.

So let’s look at four “what ifs” that you should plan for in advance.

1. What if so many people suddenly start visiting your website that it crashes?

First, you have to know what your limits are. So have someone “load test” your website to find out the maximum sustained number of visitors it can support. If you get a link from a popular portal or news website (like MSN or Yahoo), the traffic can be thousands of visitors per second. How quickly could you move to a new server or have your Web-hosting company upgrade either the server or the size of the connection to it?

Many websites are now built with a content management system or blogging software that uses a database to store content. However, this method may not be fast enough. It’s possible to speed up an otherwise slow server by a factor of 10 or more by using what is known as static HTML pages or files. This eases the load on the server and can get you out of a scrape if sudden success descends on your website.

You can also redirect incoming traffic for a specific page at your site that may crash your smaller Web server – just during the initial traffic flood. Let’s say your website has a page that is linked from an article on AOL or The New York Times website. Have your webmaster create a copy of that single page and put it on another Web server or another domain, off your regular Web server. Then have him direct all incoming traffic for that page to its copy on the external server. You can remove the redirection when traffic subsides.

2. What if you suddenly get floods of customer e-mails?

If e-mail is the primary way for customers to contact you, and your business is prominently mentioned in a newspaper article or other media, you could get a deluge of inquiries/orders for your product that you won’t be able to answer for days. Meanwhile, those customers will be expecting an immediate response from you.

Plan ahead by setting up an autoresponder message that will be sent – automatically and instantly – to every one of those customer e-mails. Something like this: “Thank you for inquiring about our revolutionary super-organic, beef-flavored, never-lose dog Frisbee. We’ve had a phenomenal response, and we may be unable to answer your e-mail personally. You can buy the Frisbee here [link to your website], but hurry. Stock is limited!”

Not quite as good as an instant, personal response to a customer e-mail – but better than not replying for a week.

3. What if your product is oversold?

Having too much supply and not enough demand is worrisome. Having too many orders and not enough stock is an equally frustrating problem. It pays to know where you can obtain additional stock in a rush. You might also want to identify outsourcing suppliers you can turn to. From time to time – perhaps during a lull – it’s a good idea to test the ability of various manufacturers to produce high-quality versions of your products.

4. What if you’re understaffed?

When orders are pouring in, you must have trusted people to whom you can turn, possibly at a moment’s notice. It’s worthwhile training and retaining good people ahead of time, and having them work a day here and there filling orders or handling customer calls when someone is away or on vacation.

Insurance When You Need It

Having a contingency plan for sudden success in your business is like an insurance policy. And, as the saying goes, “Nobody needs insurance until they really need it.”

So don’t be afraid of sudden success. Prepare yourself by knowing how you will cope with it when it hits – and keep on promoting your business!

[Ed. Note: David Cross, Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing in Baltimore, is one of the core contributors behind ETR’s new Internet business-building program.]

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.