4 lessons from $0 in sales

On July 27, my business partner and I sat in an empty conference room in silence. Hanging in the air were the last words spoken,

“I think we need to call it.”

We both knew it — we’d known it for weeks, actually. But that was the first time the words had been said out loud. I don’t even remember who said it first.

We had spent the prior two months planning and trying to sell our first high-ticket event. It was an event on project and launch management — a topic we are uniquely positioned to teach.

Our positioning was sticky and interesting. I work as a copywriter for some of the biggest names online. He is a FEMA-trained Incident Commander who’d built a career on setting up systems in disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.

We combined our worlds to create a system unlike anything anyone had ever seen. And people wanted it. We’d been consulting with extremely high level teams on this for years.

And now, 3 weeks out from our planned event, we saw a big, fat 0 on our shopping cart page. Despite sending out direct mail, forming high-level partnerships, speaking on this topic, and conducting over 20 sales calls … nobody was biting.Screen Shot 2018 09 10 at 12.15.22 PM

This was new for us. The previous month, we’d run a webinar series that generated $11,522.52 in profit from just 2 emails. We closed 86% of our prospective client calls. We ran a membership site with just 3.13% churn.

Stats for a short 2-email promotion for my course on voice, The Codex Persona

We couldn’t wrap our heads around why this didn’t work.

So over the next week, we performed an AAR or “After Action Report,” one of the key components of the launch management system we were going to teach.

Here is what we learned:

Lesson 1: Like most things in business, ascension models aren’t as easy as they tell you

Shortly after I first conceived this event, I attended a high-level mastermind meeting as a guest. During the meeting, the organizer presented his ascension model — how he gets his clients to progressively spend more and more money with him.

Later at dinner, I sat next to him and asked him dozens of questions about the details. He flippantly said to me, “Abbey, you already have an engaged audience … send this one email and you’ll fill the event tomorrow.” He then went on to tell me how I should upsell the attendees into a $20K+ high-level group, similar to the one I was with that weekend.

He gave me confidence in an idea that wasn’t fully formed yet. On one hand, this was a great motivator for me to create the thing that until that moment had only been in my head. On the other, he oversimplified what it takes to create, promote, and fill an event at this price for a very small, niche market.

Looking back, I went too high-end too quickly. This event was $7,500. In contrast, my Business of Copy membership is $197/mo and my Codex Persona workshop is $597 (both of which I never have trouble filling). That was a huge jump and my community was not ready for it.

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Lesson 2: When your market tells you ‘no,’ don’t ignore them

There’s a running joke in our house about my “visions.” Everything I do — from writing a sales letter to selecting dining room furniture to hosting my kids’ birthday parties — I see it first in my mind. I have a crystal clear idea of what I want it to look like, and then it’s just a matter of executing. From the start, I had a vision for this event. I pictured the venue, the attendees, the vibe.

After the vision came the research … was this viable? What did the market want? I spent hours on the phone with previous clients who were in the market. Many of my good friends and colleagues sent me their event details, spreadsheets, and budgets. I even traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to have Dan Kennedy critique my idea for 15 minutes.

Hot seat
On a hot seat with Dan Kennedy

From all of this research, I had a really good idea about who my market was and what they wanted. The problem is, I already knew what I wanted the event to look like, and I was very resistant to any feedback that altered that vision. And the feedback I got was very counter to what I wanted this to be.

I even joked about how people in my market had told me over and over that their team was fine when it came to project management — even though I’d been inside many of these companies and knew there were holes.

(Later, a conversation with avatar expert Allison Carpio revealed that when doing these research interviews, I was putting my own biases and judgments into the interviews, rather than listening to what they were actually trying to tell me.)

There’s a big difference between your market being “problem unaware” and them being adamant that they don’t have a problem at all. And my market was firmly in the latter camp. Each and every one of them said my event was a great idea, but not right for their high-functioning team. I only heard the “great idea” part.

I created the event I wanted to see, not what my market was clearly telling me they wanted.

Lesson 3: A map and a calendar can be your enemy

Part of my “vision” was to make this event unlike any other event out there.

  • I didn’t want a generic hotel ballroom
  • I didn’t want another city everyone had been to
  • I didn’t want to compete with the packed schedule of the fall and winter

The problem is, I never stopped to think that there was a reason that most events are held in major cities during the fall and winter months. Because that’s what sells. My event was a 90-minute drive from a small regional airport. The nearest major airport (JFK) was a whopping 4 hours away!Sales page

Screenshots from our sales page

It was scheduled for smack in the middle of the summer — when kids are home from school and people are off on vacation. At least two of my prospects cited a family vacation as the specific reason they couldn’t attend.

Others didn’t want to have an entire day of travel for a 3-day event. They wanted something simple to get to that didn’t interfere with their lives. Or put another way, they preferred a hotel in a major city during the fall or winter.Screen Shot 2018 09 10 at 12

Lesson 4: Get over yourself and sell the damn thing

This lesson is almost laughable considering I write sales copy for a living. I went on a training tour — I did webinar-style training for Copywriter Club, Copy Hackers, and Copy Chief. At the end of all of these, I had 6ish “pitch” slides.

I rushed through them. I didn’t want to use partners’ platforms to pitch — even though I’d been very upfront with everyone that I was trying to fill an event. They encouraged me to pitch … they wanted me to pitch! And I hesitated.

I made the typical mistake of hoping that the value I provided would be enough to sell it — throwing away everything I know about the psychology of sales.

Then, on 1-on-1 sales calls, I wouldn’t close. Prospects asked at the end, “when do I have to decide by?” And I had no answer! Urgency and scarcity are two of the most powerful sales tools, and I didn’t use them. I wanted to do it differently — to be different. That’s ok … but I failed to employ the core principles of the profession I’ve made my living at for the past decade.

The good stuff

A mentor of mine once said that problems in business don’t go away, they just get more expensive. When you start out, maybe you have a $100 problem by investing in software that doesn’t work or business cards with a typo. Then your problems become $1,000 problems. And then $10K and $100K problems.

With it all said and done, this event cost me $2,855.16 in lost deposits and marketing costs, thousands in wasted work hours, and tens of thousands in opportunity cost. I said no to a lot of high-level clients this summer (including one $50,000 project) so I could focus on filling and executing this event.

And I could look at this one of two ways. I could see this as a $70,000+ mistake. Or, I could marvel at the fact that I’m at a place in my business where I can make these mistakes and still be on track to have my highest revenue year ever (by double). It’s been a good year.

Here’s the good that came of all this:

Subscriber growth

While my “training tour” didn’t result in any event sales, from June 24 to July 27 my email list grew 20.4% with no paid traffic. My message was resonating with people. They want to hear more about project and launch management.

What’s left to figure out is how they want to hear that message and the right monetization model. I’m excited to keep talking to my growing community and figure it out.

Subscriber growth
Subscriber growth during the promotional period

Solid partnerships

Too often when you meet a potential business partner (or even a potential friend), you make vague plans like, “we should connect on something!” Months and even years go by and nothing comes to fruition.

This event allowed me to solidify some of those partnerships and friendships by providing real value to their communities. We set the stage for future collaboration. I was amazed at how supportive everyone had been. Turns out, they’ve all had big flops, too.

Screen Shot 2018 09 10 at 12.43.10 PMScreen Shot 2018 09 10 at 12.44.36 PMScreen Shot 2018 09 10 at 12.45.43 PM

Re-engaged previous client relationships

There’s a lot of advice out there about how to rekindle cold leads or business relationships. And I got to do it in a sincere way.

During the research phase of this project, I reached out to a dozen of my top past clients. We got on calls, we laughed, we brainstormed. I even sent them money with my face on it.

Dave Ruel


A friend, Dave Ruel, holding $1,000 in “Abbey Bucks”

They were all so supportive of my new venture, and it was just nice to rekindle the relationships with people who have been part of my business journey.

That journey has been built on 3 core tenets:

  1. True, deep relationships with people who want to see me succeed
  2. Building a community by and for hard-working, motivating, incredible people
  3. Creating simple, impactful products based on what people ask me to build

And if nothing else, I learned that success comes from doubling down on those principles, not ignoring them.