What This Dive Bar Can Teach You About (Not) Marketing


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Dirty Franks is a dive bar located in Philadelphia, which is also home of The Wharton School. Although only a short Uber ride away, it is seldom frequented by the business students. Too bad, as they would be well served to study Dirty Franks marketing plan, which has withstood the test of time.

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Brand Building The Old Fashion Way

During my days at Wharton (long before Uber), the bar had no name, no sign – no indication of what lay behind its grimy front door. Fortunately, one of my hip roommates, Rick Matcovich, had the guts to enter Franks, thus turning me onto its retro authenticity.

Opened after shortly after prohibition, the locals (who were apparently punctuation challenged) dubbed it “Franks.” A few decades later, the no-name bar had morphed to “Dirty Franks” and the name stuck, as did the bar’s not-so-friendly catchphrase, “Cash Only.”

Franks didn’t need a sign, let alone a marketing budget. Locals within walking distance knew it was a refuge for serious drinkers who were looking for a no-frills environment to quaff cheap liquor.

Hurry Up And Stop Marketing

Entrepreneur and noted investor Brad Feld unwittingly echoed Franks approach to marketing when, during a discussion with me, he declared, “…companies should… focus on building amazing products. If you have amazing products, the marketing of those products is trivial. If you have <explitive> products, the marketing is impossible. Instead of focusing on marketing as an activity… integrate it into (your) products. Whenever I hear the word marketing, it makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth.

I am not suggesting that startups follow Franks lack of a marketing strategy throughout their lifespan. Classic marketing certainly has it role in the maturation of a startup. However, in its early stages, aggressive marketing can actually cloud the assessment of whether or not a venture is achieving a sustainable product / market fit. In such cases, entrepreneurs risk confusing marketing traction with product traction.

For this reason, Rincon Venture Partners looks for companies which are scaling sales, despite the absence of a marketing budget. For instance, at the time we invested in The Resumator, purveyor of software which facilitates the hiring process, the company had spent less than $10,000 on marketing. Even so, it had acquired hundreds of customers and a meaningful amount of recurring revenue due to its product’s merits, not a clever marketing campaign.

It may be frustrating to watch your competitors confuse the market by loudly making promises that their solutions cannot support. At such times, take solace in something else Brad shared with me, “… startups who… (say) ‘We’re the market leader in blah.’ Well if you’re the market leader, why doesn’t anyone know who you are? If you have to tell me you’re the market leader, are you really the market leader? Don’t tell me what you are, just be it and show me.”

If your product, like Franks, is delivering value to its target market, your long-term, capital efficient approach will eventually pay off.

Poor Franks Got Yelped

The proprietor of Dirty Franks probably didn’t have a Wharton degree, but nonetheless he realized that the key to marketing isn’t to “purchase” your brand with a deluge of ads. Rather, it involves delivering a product your target customers want, at a price they can afford, which yields you a reasonable profit.

Twenty-five years after my first drink within its walls, I recently paid homage to Franks. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that it has been Yelped. The hipsters I shared the bar with were no doubt attracted to the authenticity of Franks brand, ironically not realizing that what made it cool was the fact that people of their ilk were previously intimidated to enter its doors.

There is still no signage. I suppose even the Millennial who manages Franks social media channels realized that installing a sign would be going a bit too far. To supplement the lack of signage, there is now a large mural on the outside of the building picturing a variety of Franks, such as Aretha Franklin, Frankenstein and a frankfurter. For some reason, I wasn’t even surprised to learn that Franks now has a website that sells merchandise emblazoned with the no-name bar’s “name” and its now tongue-in-cheek catchphrase, “Cash Only.”

Despite the recent besmirchment of its brand, Franks survived for over 80-years by unknowingly adhering to Mr. Feld’s advice: “… startups who… (say) ‘We’re the market leader in blah.’ Well if you’re the market leader, why doesn’t anyone know who you are? If you have to tell me you’re the market leader, are you really the market leader? Don’t tell me what you are, just be it and show me.”

I can’t help but wonder how long its doors will remain open, now that it is being “marketed.”

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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