You’ve already lost that money

How to stop what isn’t working

You’ve probably tried a lot of things to market your business over the years.

And you may have noticed that the tough part isn’t coming up with new ideas to try out. The tough part is stopping the stuff that isn’t working.

When we started The Family Knife, and for our first few years, we tried dozens of marketing tactics. We posted on Instagram. We created and hosted a podcast. We ran ads, and we sent out press releases.

And most of it didn’t work.

But it was really hard to stop, especially the more expensive and time-intensive tactics. Mainly because I suffered from the “sunk cost fallacy.”

In his book Design for Cognitive Bias, David Dylan Thomas defines this fallacy as believing “something has value because we’ve already spent so much money on it that it has to have value and even when it becomes clear that it doesn’t have value, our instinct, perversely, is to spend even more.”

The more we spend and the more time we waste, the more we feel like we need to keep going. Keep spending. Keep working.

Which reminds me of John Wanamaker, one of the most influential retailers in history, and how he faced the same struggle. His copywriter John E. Powers plainly explained to him that he would need to change the name of his store from “Grand Depot” to something more evocative and fun to say.

But “I’ve spent thousands of dollars to fasten that name on it,” Wanamaker replied.

And perhaps you’ve felt the same about your product name, your website, your advertising campaign, your technology stack, or your social media. You may have spent thousands of dollars—and hundreds of hours—on them already.

But Powers’ point still holds true: “You’ve lost that money,” he insisted, “better not lose any more.”

The renamed store, “Wanamaker’s,” would go on to become one of the most iconic and innovative brands of its era.

Remember that marketing tactics that don’t work are not failures—they are experiments with valuable results. As the ancient proverb goes, the only real mistake is not correcting one we’ve already made.

It was very hard to stop making our podcast—we’d already spent so much time and money. It was hard pausing our ads—we loved how they looked and represented our company.

And I didn’t want to look inconsistent. I didn’t want to admit that I’d tried something that hadn’t worked out. Sometimes it’s easier to stay the course, even if it’s leading in the wrong direction. As Keynes wrote, it can feel better to “fail conventionally” than to “succeed unconventionally.”

But we can’t let the lesser goal of consistency keep us from our greater goal of success, and a sense of freedom in our business.

We’ll never feel successful if we’re forever chained to our past decisions.

By stopping the ads, ending the podcast, and rethinking our strategy, we were able to free up resources to do what eventually did work for us, including this newsletter.

In fact, this newsletter, which has referred more new clients to us over the past year than our ads, press releases, or podcasts ever did combined, would never have been started if we hadn’t stopped so many other things that were wasteful distractions.

And I suspect that there’s a better marketing tactic that you haven’t tried or given a fair shake because you’re committed and invested in something else. Something that probably isn’t doing what you’d hoped it would.

You’re not wrong for trying a tactic that didn’t work, but you might be making the mistake of not correcting it now.

Grit and perseverance are great and useful when applied in the right way, toward the right goals. But they become stubbornness and ignorance when we value consistency over success.

Instead, as Sun Tzu said, “the ability to gain victory by changing and adapting ... is called genius.”

It’s tough, I admit it. It feels like failing to end a marketing tactic we’ve invested heavily in. But the other side of that feeling, once we’ve pushed through to it, is a sense of immense freedom and opportunity.

Because anything is possible when we’re willing to try anything. But nothing is possible when we’re unwilling to change.

So take some time to assess your marketing efforts, to get real and serious about what’s working and what isn’t.

And if something isn’t working, try to fix it.

But if it can’t be fixed, stop using it.

And try something new.