Lessons learned from selling something gross

The 80s were a tough time for fishermen in New York State.

The regional fishing industry struggled because stocks of cod and flounder plummeted due to overfishing. The area became economically depressed, and fishermen and their families found themselves in a bind.

Enter the Cornell Cooperative Extension Division. The CCED, an economic development arm of New York State, set themselves on finding ways to help fishermen and boost the economy.

When they evaluated what resources they had at hand, they observed that while stocks of cod and flounder were down, squid was plentiful.

Maybe squid was the way forward.

Europeans had been eating squid for thousands of years. If Americans started eating squid, could that save the fishermen?

Maybe Americans didn’t eat squid at the time because of visuals like this

How could they get Americans to eat squid?

The CCED assembled a push for fishermen and the restauranteurs they supplied to call squid by its Italian name: calamari.

The bet was that a sophisticated, European sensibility would hook American diners.

Americans took the bait (pun intended…groan) and squid has been a constant presence on American menus ever since.

Not as American as apple pie

I “pulled a calamari” at my previous venture, 3 Day Startup.

It’s not that our target customers thought our offering—a 3-day startup bootcamp—was gross and squid-like.

They thought our offering was an everyday startup event, and therefore should not cost much.

But I knew our bootcamp was the Cadillac of higher ed entrepreneurship bootcamps, and that to label it an “event” would cause people to perceive it as cheap.

Internally, the team agreed to never call it an event.

3 Day Startup doesn’t run events. They run programs.

Calling our offering a program made it wildly easier to command 5x higher price tags.

And it all came down to the language.

Do any of y’all have a story like this? Have you “pulled a calamari”? I’d love to hear it.