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7 Marketing Lessons from a Gun Show

November 25, 2013

Gun showI grew up in Nashville, TN. I have relatives who live just a few hours away, in the mountains of East Tennessee and Virginia. They’re (mostly) good people, but they’re rednecks. And like most rednecks, they love their guns…a lot.

Because of this, when a big gun show would come through Nashville, which was usually a few times per year, my relatives would come down for it.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, a “gun show” is where hundreds of gun dealers and individuals who love guns get together to “buy, sell, and trade” gun-related things. It’s very similar to a flea market, but with rifles, automatic weapons, blowguns, military surplus, self-published books on various conspiracy theories, and various types of ammunition instead of flea market stuff.

Kid at a Gun Show

My grandfather was an ammunition dealer. He drove a Toyota Tercel hatchback and, when it was packed with a load of ammunition, it looked like he was driving a lowrider.

I had no interest in guns or anything at a gun show, but when my grandfather came though town, I tagged along to help him… And that was the start of one of my first businesses.

A lot of the gun show guys were old and out-of-shape. They traveled the gun show circuit every weekend, living on fast food, sleeping in trailers they pulled behind their trucks, and generally sitting around all day. If they got any exercise at all, it was from loading and unloading their items for sale.

But why load and unload a bunch of heavy stuff when there is a 13-year-old boy who will do the work for tips?

People saw me helping my grandfather and approached me to help them. I did, I got paid in tips, and pretty soon, I was showing up every time a gun show was in town, approaching them as they checked in.

For a kid in middle school. I made pretty good money. However, I walked away with some lessons that were far more valuable…

7 Marketing (and Entrepreneurship) Lessons from a Gun Show

1. Buy Low, Sell High – There is big money in the gun business. My grandfather’s goal when buying something was to be able to sell it for 100% profit and I saw him do it again and again.

If you’re in a business with low margins, unless you’ve got a ton of volume, find a new business.

2. Repeat Customers = Easy Money – My grandfather was in this business for years. People would call my parents’ house before he even made it into town, wanting to set appointments with him, before he met with anybody else.

Being a marketing guy, I completely get the appeal and excitement of finding new customers, but if you’re not keeping contact info and reaching out to people whom you’ve already dealt with, you’re leaving big money on the table. At the very least, set up an autoresponder and let it do the work!

3. Leverage Your Knowledge – My grandfather knew a lot about guns and even more about antique ammunition. Because of the relationships he had with customers, he also knew what people had to sell and what they were looking to buy.

Specialized knowledge allows you to buy for less, sell for more, and be the “dealmaker” that puts everything together. Even if you’re not getting money on the deal itself, putting an opportunity together for other people is likely to pay you in the future with goodwill and additional business.

4. Leverage Your Time – I made good money hauling guns and ammo for out-of-shape guys, but the majority of my time was waiting around for them to show up. Because of this, I decided to make use of the money I had in my pocket by getting into the “buy low, sell high” business myself…

Guns how

5. Leverage Your Money – There is big money in the gun business, but the gun show was also full of guys making good money selling knives. As I had no interest in guns, I started to invest the money I made in an inventory of the coolest looking knives I could find.

I made a connection with a knife guy who had a bunch of cheap, Chinese-made “Rambo knife” knockoffs that he was willing to sell me for $5. The handle was made of plastic and the blade sucked, but to the average 13-year-old, they looked badass.

And since looking badass is pretty much ass the average 13-year-old boy thinks about, I bought everything the guy had…

The next week, I was selling the knives at school for $20 each…

6. Make Your Own Rules – Every industry has the equivalent of what the gun show guys call “commie gun laws.” I’m not saying it’s a good idea to break the law, but I do believe way too many entrepreneurs get caught up in “rules.” Even worse, we get caught on “perceived rules.”

Just because nobody else is doing something doesn’t mean that you can’t. And just because nobody has ever done something doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

7. Be The Boss – Guys on the gun show circuit made a ton of money. I know because they’d pay me by peeling a few bucks off huge rolls of cash. However, regardless of how big the rolls of cash were, the guy who made the most money on each show was the guy who was running everything.

The “boss” was a huge man. He looked like Humpty Dumpty and I got the feeling his knees were going to give out any minute. He was racist, paranoid, and didn’t seem too smart…certainly unlike any boss I’ve ever seen.

I was curious about him…

One of the flyers with upcoming show dates had his address on it, so I looked him up. Imagine my surprise when I found out he was living in a very nice area of town, in a neighborhood known for attorneys, doctors, and businessmen.

I was a smart kid, but never thought of myself as the type to be a doctor or attorney. I mean, I knew how I could do those jobs if I went to school, but I was never able to put two and two together in a way that made it seem like an option for me like it was everybody else.

So this gave me hope… If a guy with seemingly little formal education, physical gifts, or social skills could make that kind of money, I had a shot.

And you have a shot too!


Where have you learned your biggest business lessons?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Every Monday, I analyze the good, bad, and ugly about the marketing behind a common business or famous personality. See other posts in this series here and, if you have a request for something (or someone) you’d like me to analyze for this series, contact me via Twitter.

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