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  • Writer's pictureAnika Horn

Utilizing word of mouth for small businesses: Field notes from the ecosystem

What the Ecosystem team has been up to

In March, the Ecosystem team participated in the following activities:

  • Co-hosted the first Women entrepreneur meetup to start a series of events for local women entrepreneurs every other month. 

  • Convened the Regional Coalition of the Shenandoah Valley to work on gaps and challenges in the ecosystem

  • Gathered with entrepreneurs and accomplices at the Staunton Innovation Hub Happy Hour.




What we heard from the ecosystem

Meeting with the Regional Coalition, a group of entrepreneurship supporters from around the Shenandoah Valley, is a treat that we get to enjoy twice a year. In these three-hour work sessions, we 

  • Share all the events and opportunities that the different support organizations have available for entrepreneurs across the Shenandoah Valley (see them here!)

  • Identify common challenges that entrepreneurs face in our region, and discuss how we might solve them through collaboration (see below)

  • Brainstorm storytelling ideas to continue to shine a light on entrepreneurship in a rural community (see here)

During our most recent meeting in March, we focused on four issues that business owners in the Valley are struggling with: human resources, marketing, accessibility, and landlord advocacy. Read about these issues we worked on and how we’re planning to address them here.





What We Heard from Entrepreneurs

Throughout March, Nick was out in the community to

  • Become a certified CO.STARTERS facilitator. He will be facilitating the next Launch Harrisonburg Cohort starting April 30th. Registration is open!

  • Judge entrepreneur pitches from Augusta County Highschool students, and

  • Speak about startup financing to a class of entrepreneurship students at Bridgewater College


Here’s what he learned from the conversations he had in the community:

  • Successfully creating a product or service is one thing, knowing how to sell them effectively is quite another. Especially as a solopreneur or micro business, it is often overwhelming being the expert, producer, and salesperson all in one (on top of marketing, accounting, legal, etc.). There are, however, resources that enable local entrepreneurs to efficiently create marketing collateral with a limited time commitment. I recommended they watch this webinar, How to Use A.I. to Streamline Your Marketing

  • A business's minimal viable product, or MVP, should be positioned to scale. Imagine duplicating an MVP, does the business at scale meet an end goal in mind? If the initial MVP does not align with the business at scale, pivot and recreate the MVP. If it becomes difficult to create a business model, create monetary values for each decision to provide clarity. Some questions to consider are: 9-5 workday vs extended evening hours, purchase products vs wholesale, mobile vs retail. Utilizing this strategy will encourage a business model to meet owner expectations and generate revenue.

How you can get involved

  • Join SCCF for a national conference with fellow entrepreneurial ecosystem builders! Here’s a preview of what to expect during this 3-day immersive experience! 

  • If you want to help us tackle some of the systemic barriers entrepreneurs face in the Shenandoah Valley (Landlord advocacy, marketing, HR, and accessibility), please contact Anika Horn and join the regional coalition of entrepreneurship supporters (RSVP here). 

  • If you already use AI in your business and enjoy sharing your hard-won lessons with other entrepreneurs, we’d love to hear from you! 

  • If you have moved from a mobile point of sale to a storefront and are willing to share your experience, please reach out to us! 


Nick’s Corner: It’s Time to Rethink Using Word of Mouth 

What Small Business Get Wrong & How to Update Marketing Strategies

In 2017, I bought my first pair of glasses with my own money. I was a broke college student and my existing pair was utterly worn out, scratched, and uncomfortable. The pair on my face was a $200+ purchase my parents made years ago with insurance at our local eyeglass provider near our house in Timonium, Maryland. I brought them with me to college, but I needed a usable pair and an updated style. I came across this website, Zennioptical.com, a place where you can buy low-cost glasses with prescription lenses. I was very skeptical because it felt too good to be true: stylized glasses, with prescription lenses for $19.99. I figured, if I didn’t like them, I’d return them. I purchased the glasses and when they arrived at my dorm mailbox a few weeks later, they were perfect. Ever since that purchase, I have been a walking, talking billboard for Zenni Optical. Five years later, whenever I get compliments on my glasses, I immediately tell them, “Zenni Optical. 20 dollars with a prescription.”

This isn’t an advertisement for Zenni, although that would be nice. But this is a prime example of the tool often misused by entrepreneurs called word of mouth.

Word of mouth is obsessively focusing on your product or service, so customers aren’t just users of your product, but they share it every chance they get. Word of mouth is so powerful that 88% of friends would trust a friend's recommendation over an advertisement. A big brand like Tesla utilizes this tool well. They don’t spend any money on marketing, instead, they make their cars far better than the competition. Small brands can do this well too. Chicano Boy in Staunton, Virginia is highly recommended by locals and is one of the busiest places during lunch time. 

When I ask early-stage entrepreneurs how they will plan their marketing, I often hear “word of mouth” as their primary focus and I become confused. Word of mouth is a vehicle best used with intentional strategic planning, obsessive product focus, and distribution already established. In 2024, word of mouth is not as powerful as it used to be. Years ago, when competition was sparse, and advertisement conversions were high, word of mouth was a powerful tool.  But now, barriers to entry are low and many industries are saturated with similar products. 

A better approach to think about Word of Mouth is to reconfigure the term as customer resharing. How often are your customers sharing your business with friends, family, or strangers? To increase customer resharing, try to get customers to respond to these two questions: did I solve your problem (yes or no), and did you solve it well enough for them to reshare (yes or no)? If your customer responds no to either of these, you may need to rethink how to market if you’re using word of mouth as your primary marketing vehicle. 

If you need marketing help, check out our blog The Marketing Dilemma for Small Business Owners.



What’s on our radar

  • April 10th-24th: Brand Toolkit 101: A free in-person workshop series, Staunton Innovation Hub, Staunton

  • April 10th: Creating a Marketing Budget - In this workshop, we will go over the basics of creating a marketing budget and how to implement it in a way that effectively drives business growth.

  • April 17th: Meta and PPC Ads - In this workshop, we will focus on implementing Meta Ads and pay-per-click ads. The focus will be on customizing audiences, ad creation, and setting up ad campaigns.

  • April 24th: Organic Social Media - In this workshop, participants will learn to build authentic relationships with their audience, fostering sustainable growth and maximizing their brand’s impact, reach, and engagement.

  • April 15: RevUp ShenCo: A free business Summit, Edinburg

  • April 17: Social Capital Hour, The Perch, Harrisonburg

  • April 17: Small Business Financing & Resources Noon Knowledge, webinar

  • April 24: Small Business Breakfast, Edinburg

  • April 25: Caffeinate/Innovate, The Perch Harrisonburg

  • April 30 - May 2: Startup Champions Network Summit, Harrisonburg



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