Most entrepreneurs still adhere fervently to their dos and don'ts. But those who rebel find that breaking the rules can pay off royally.
Company: 5 Boroughs Ice Cream
Rule it broke: Don't poke fun at your customer base.
Why it likes being bad: Distribution at 40 locations, up from 6 last year, including select Whole Foods Markets (WFMI)
Politicians risk career suicide by making fun of their constituents -- Imagine the fallout if a West Virginia senator cracked redneck jokes.
Similarly, entrepreneurs who poke fun at their customer base take chances with their future success.
"A standard business rule is to avoid insulting your potential customer base," explains Romney Williams, president of small business consultancy
Entrepreneur Launch Group, LLC
"Your biggest risk is offending someone who is looking to pick a fight."
Rude New Yorkers
So, what were the founders of New York City-based 5 Boroughs Ice Cream thinking when they conjured up flavors such as "Upper East Side Rich White Vanilla" and "South Bronx Cha Cha Chocolate?"
Ben & Jerry's
was getting tired and too played out," says Scott Myles, who started the company with his wife, Kim.
The couple started playing with names for fun after adding a local bakery's baklava to their homemade vanilla ice cream. That flavor later became "Astoria Bakla-Wah?!"
Myles insists he never intended to insult anyone. "Contrary to popular belief, we
developed the names as a lighthearted look at our city," he says.
Bad Press Is Good
The Myleses' lightheartedness didn't stop Staten Island Borough President James P. Molinaro from urging a boycott of the company last summer over its Staten Island Landfill flavor, a reference to the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills landfill, now closed, which was once the largest landfill inthe world.
But instead of a boycott, the controversy catapulted 5 Boroughs into some national press.
Myles says they sold more ice cream than ever and even broke into markets in New Jersey and Connecticut.
"Certain people in the industry said the names were horrible and that we wouldn't sell them in a mainstream store," says Myles, who admits he took a gamble.
But in this case, appealing to a niche market and alienating the rest worked. The ice cream is now being sold in Whole Foods.
"Having enemies helps strengthen the loyalty base," says Williams. "Their irreverence is a branding strategy that puts them on the map,"
Word of the new ice cream brand spread all the way to Poulsbo, Wash., where former Staten Island resident Maria Marsala, a small business advisor, took notice.
"It took Staten Islanders' worst nightmare -- being known for having the largest dump in the world -- and poked fun at it," she says. "But breaking a fundamental business rule set the start-up apart in a field that's overcrowded with confectioners."
The ice cream flavors include locally-produced mix-ins, costing up to 3 times more than mass-produced varieties, according to Myles, who buys biscotti from
Rose and Joe's Italian Bakery
But the company negotiated deals with local businesses to print their contact information on the ice cream pint, in exchange for discounts, says Myles. "The mix-ins are all about tapping into the local economy and supporting the small guy," he says.
Marianna Hayes, president of
Halo Business Advisors
, says the company actually isn't breaking rules -- it's just playing by a new set.
"They're not selling ice cream. They're selling an experience and feeling," she says. "In a small business, you have to pick a niche and go with it."
Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.