Guerilla Marketing Fail – What I Learned From The Austin Police

Article first published as Guerilla Marketing Fail – What I Learned From The Austin Police on Technorati.

David BelleAcrobatic ninjas, the Austin Police and several livid tradeshow executives – a perfect recipe for a reality television show, but not a great combination for Seth Epstein’s startup, Social Stay.

Seth discusses below what happened in Austin when he tried to rock the largest hospitality tradeshow of the year and what he learned from this humorous, but stressful experience.

You can watch my interview with Seth below or on YouTube here:


To hear Seth verbally describe this enlightening story, watch the video. Below is a guest post in which Seth tells the story in written form. Both the video and Seth’s post are excellent primers regarding how to deal with guerilla marketing gone wrong. I suggest you check out both the video and Seth’s entertaining depiction below. Note: the story takes place in Austin, not Dallas, which I incorrectly reference in the video.

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Parcours Ninjas Vs. The Austin Police
By: Seth Epstein

SocialStay LogoAs John Greathouse noted in his blog entry, Putting “Trade” Back Into Tradeshows, several years ago, I pulled off a guerilla marketing coup at a large tradeshow by hiring actors to portray monks. The “monks” paraded around the show floor in a conspicuous, but understated manner. Each day their antics became more animated until the final day, in which they wore large medallions emblazoned with my company’s logo while chanting my company’s name: FUEL, FUEL, FUEL, FUEL…The impact was tremendous, culminating the keynote speaker asking a crowd of 1,200,  “Who the heck are these FUEL monks? What’s up with that?” For less than $10,000, we became the talk of the show and closed several new clients directly attributable to our faux monks. If you have not read John’s article, check it out, as it provides an informative contrast to our failed attempt to recreate this impact. 

Fast forward to Socialstay, my current mobile start up which allows guest centric venues (hotels, conferences, dorms, etc...) to build and deploy custom mobile apps.

This year, the annual Hospitality Technology conference was held in Austin. As SocialStay is a young company on the rise, I figured that slight twist on the Monk stunt would be a perfect disruption to an otherwise staid industry. 

Here was the idea: Hire a bunch of people to dress up as ninjas - and in a ninja-like way, appear all around the conference center, hiding behind trees, sneaking around, tip toeing across cross walks - you know, stock ninja moves. With each progressive day of the conference, we would reveal that the ninjas were in fact from Socialstay...making a memorable impact.

Seth Enthralling Young UCSB Minds
So we placed an ad on craigslist, which was hilariously written by one of the gals on our team. Eventually, we got an interesting response from a guy who runs the Texas Parcours Group - Parcours is a combination of acrobatics, running, jumping, and climbing in and around urban environments - which has caught fire on YouTube. 

We were ecstatic - what are the odds of placing an add on craigslist for a ninja and getting a modern, urban, acrobatic team on board to help you out for 11 bucks an hour?

I met with the ninja team Sunday evening when we arrived at the conference center in Austin and gave them the following ground rules:

1. Do not scare anyone

2. Be playful but not aggressive and do not interact with anyone, be stealth

3. Do not, whatever you do, step foot on the conference center grounds

The final point was essential, since our contract stated, “you may not promote your company anywhere outside of your booth on the property.” We figured if we were on private or city property that was NOT part of the conference center grounds, we would not be in violation of this provision.

After I gave the ninja team direction, our point of contact said, “Oh, by the way, I am not going to be here tonight for the first run, but “Dude” (not his real name) here is going to be in charge”. 

Dude was a likeable guy but he was a little aggro and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic. He had brought yellow goggles and was excited to get out there. In hindsight, he also clearly was not listening to the instructions while I explained them to the group.

The opening keynote that evening was Randi Zuckerberg talking about Facebook and social media. I explained to the team that the attendance would be solid and it would be a good first run before the opening of the show to get people exposed to the ninjas. Right before they went out, I made what ended up being a critical mistake, I handed them ninja headwear, the kind where there is an opening just for the eyes....

The ninjas went off to do their first run and that was the last time I saw them face-to-face.

Michael and I continued setting up our booth. A couple hours later, we were nearly done when Michael paused and motioned that there was someone was behind me. I turned to face a lineup of 4 executives in suits and 2 armed security guards just behind them. One of the executives was a heavy set guy who was clearly high-strung, sweating, twitching and clearly was going to lose his sh*t. I knew this was bad news.

Our exchange went something like this:

“Are you Mr. Epstein?” asked one of the executives in a thick southern drawl 

Yes”, I responded.

“Son, we have a real problem here. We have detained some young folks who are being held by the State Troopers and they gave us your card - the police had to chase them down the hallways.”

“Mr. Epstein, are these young people under your direction?”

“Yes, I take full responsibility for whatever happened.”

“Mr. Epstein, we are considering arresting you for what transpired. Your ninjas were running up and down the hallways scaring people - they were wearing full head masks - people were really shaken, they thought they were terrorists.”

“They were IN the conference center?” I asked.

“Yes, just outside the keynote session upstairs and people are really shaken.”

I was stunned. How the hell did these guys miss the instruction, “you cannot be anywhere on the convention center property”?  To make matters worse, they were outside of the hall where the sister of Facebook’s founder was about to speak - with their faces covered and Dude wearing the yellow goggles I had asked him to take off.

All I could do was apologize and take full responsibility. I told the executives that the ninjas did not follow my directions and our intention was to be outside of the show and be light and entertaining. The show executives “took a point away” for future shows, which means I will have the worst booth in the place and said they were considering kicking us out of the show. 

Finally, they informed me they would let the kids go, but that they were precluded from coming within 3 blocks of the convention center or they would be arrested. Although I will never know for sure, I believe that my willingness to take responsibility and not confront their anger is the reason we were allowed to remain at the show.

After they left, I turned to Michael and we both were dumbstruck. Admittedly, I was a bit shaken - but more importantly, our primary marketing tool has just imploded, big time.
We started to think about alternatives, other ideas that might produce the desired result, other stunts, other outside of the box ideas --  and nothing we came up with had the subtly or marketing build up required to make the necessary impact at a huge tradeshow. In the end we focused on the tradeshow itself and doing our best to meet as many people as possible. 

My take away, looking back at it 2 months later - is that it was a blessing in disguise. I believe everything happens for a reason, in fact I choose to approach everything that way. 

Fundamentally, being an entrepreneur is a constant exercise of turning lemons into lemonade.

Lessons Learned

In retrospect, there are several things I should have done differently.

Go With Your Gut – I noticed that the guy with the wigged-out yellow goggles was not listening when I was gave them their instructions. I should have stopped and had everyone confirm and repeat back the ground rules, especially yellow goggles guy.

Tactics AND Strategy Matter – Don’t expect other people to get the subtlety and nuance of your vision. The ninjas did not understand how to act or why they needed to subtle. We provided them with our tactics, without explaining our strategy. When the leader of the team informed me that he would not be involved that evening, an alarm should have sounded in my head. He was the guy I had communicated with the most and he best understood what we wanted to accomplish. His absence contributed to the overall lack of communication between me and the ninjas.

Sharks Ain’t Dolphins – I hired PARCOURS guys and gals.... they run around and flip and jump. Why the hell did I think they would do anything differently? Don’t expect a shark to behave like a dolphin. A shark is a shark. A parcours runner is a parcours runner. My bad for expecting subtlety from aggressive acrobats. 

Failing Boldly Is OK – Always be bold, especially when you are the underdog, the small fish in the pond. The saying “boldness has genius, power and magic in it” is an essential mantra for any start up entrepreneur.

Stay tuned for future guerilla marketing campaigns. Although our Austin experience was unfulfilling, we will continue to fly close to the sun in order to gain outsized exposure from our limited marketing expenditures.

If you have guerilla marketing stories you care to share, please do so in the comments below.


Seth Epstein is the Co-Founder and CEO SocialStay, and former Founder and CEO of FUEL (acquired by Razorfish), Emmy winner for work on X-Games and re-brander of ESPN’s Sport’s Center.  Seth attended UC Santa Barbara, but dropped out to start a denim company. 

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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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