Zero-cost Marketing Through Partnerships


Partnerships bring value to both sides. Being passionate and articulate about your business is critical to building your negotiating skills and getting to “yes.”

By Jennifer Beall Saxton
I am the founder and CEO of a start-up that has gone from zero to sixty thanks to strategic planning, serious hustle and a steadfast belief in the power of grassroots marketing. They say “nothing in life is free.” This is true, though at a minimum, effort is required. If you have an abundance of willingness, strategic partnerships can be the key to growing your business for little to no investment — for both franchisors and franchisees. 
Tot Squad is a mobile business that provides professional cleaning, safety and repair services for car seats and strollers. We serve more than 20,000 customers and operate throughout Southern California and New York City, and our first franchise just opened in Washington, D.C.
Though not yet a mom myself, I developed the business plan for Tot Squad while attending the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Despite the fact that, unlike my classmates, I wasn’t working on a tech start-up, I went on to win the Kellogg Cup business plan competition, followed by an invitation to join the prestigious Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program and was awarded the second grand prize in the NextGen in Franchising Global Competition. 
Today, this little start-up has strategic partnerships in place with The Honest Company, leading car seat and stroller manufacturers, and national retailers such as Babies “R” Us and Whole Foods — all on a shoestring marketing budget. How did we do it?

Strategic Alignment

The crux of Tot Squad’s business model relies on retailer partnerships. Tot Squad mobile units deliver our signature services via pop-up events at different retail locations daily. While a strictly “house call” model would be most convenient for busy parents, the drive time in Los Angeles would reduce our capacity, force prices up, and make Tot Squad services unaffordable to many families. We needed to find a better way. By strategically aligning with retailers, we can consolidate demand from any neighborhood and minimize unprofitable driving time without sacrificing consumer convenience. But why would retailers agree to have a “no name” company such as Tot Squad at their stores?
People are increasingly shopping online and internet retail is king for those millennial parents who will use any means to avoid doing unnecessary errands with small children in tow. This means that traditional brick-and-mortar stores are struggling to find compelling ways to get consumers in the door. Tot Squad found not only a way to solve the foot traffic puzzle, but also to create a “captive audience” as mom and baby will usually shop in store for 30 to 60 minutes while waiting for the service to be completed. 

Know your partners’ goals, business model

Tot Squad keeps our customer acquisition cost near zero with the retail partners promoting our pop-up events with in-store signage, flyers, and social media posts. But approaching retailers is no easy task. They are constantly bombarded with requests and proposals and are often wary, particularly of a new company or unfamiliar brand. Our secret to getting retailers to “yes" is to start by discerning their objectives and goals, and understanding their business model, customers and challenges. Doing the research and coming prepared to that face-to-face meeting can make all the difference. We asked consumers to complete exit surveys about how much they spent in-store during their service, so that we could come armed with solid data showing Tot Squad’s impact to lock in a long-term arrangement. And with one “yes,” there is often a domino effect: Securing one well-known partner generates credibility and others soon follow.  
Prepare to offer something for free to any skeptical prospects. A sampling program can be very compelling. For reluctant retailers, Tot Squad offers a “Free Cleaning Day” where franchisees provide our entry-level service package for free to induce new customer trial, with the option for the customer to pay to upgrade the service. We fondly call this our “freemium” model because, despite offering a free cleaning, about three-quarters of customers pay to upgrade. The retailers are able to offer a unique amenity to their shoppers, and it’s a win/win/win situation for all.  
When it comes to leveraging relationships, determine if your vendors could become your strategic partners in some mutually acceptable arrangement. Consider all facets of your business, especially the major cost drivers. Cleaning products would normally represent a major expense for a service such as ours, but, thanks to a strategic partnership with The Honest Company, a trusted manufacturer of safe and eco-friendly cleaning products, we have been able to eliminate this line item.  

Partners gain effective, low-cost marketing

What would inspire a manufacturer to become a sponsor? Similar or overlapping missions and values, and sharing a similar target audience are critical alignments. Tot Squad and The Honest Company speak to the same type of parent who tends to be highly educated, fairly affluent and cares about the health and safety of not only her children, but also of her greater community. Imagine the costs for a brand to do a sampling program in a major retailer. Tot Squad essentially does live demos of the efficacy of The Honest Company’s products while cleaning strollers in front of the retail stores where the products are sold. The Honest Company recognized that sponsoring their products for Tot Squad’s use was not only an effective way of marketing their brand, but also a significant cost savings compared to a traditional sampling program. 
These are two examples of the many ways we have mastered low-cost marketing, and more examples abound. From a public relations perspective, Tot Squad hustled to be selected by Nissan as the face of a small business using its commercial vehicles in Inc. magazine. I encourage businesses of all sizes to think about how they can “barter” with like-minded companies to deliver value.
Partnerships are all about bringing value to both sides. Understanding what this means for your prospective partner, as well as being passionate and articulate about your business are critical to building your negotiating skills and getting to “yes.” 
Jennifer Beall Saxton is Founder and CEO of Tot Squad, a mobile business that provides professional cleaning, safety and repair services for car seats and strollers. It serves more than 20,000 customers in Southern California, New York City, and Washington, D.C.