• Homeless, Not Helpless: Entrepreneurship in Unlikely Places

    by  • November 13, 2011 • Branding, Life, Marketing


    Until I visited the Santa Barbara Pier, I’d never thought of a homeless person as entrepreneurial. Few do. Some would say they don’t have an enterprising bone in their bodies; if they did, they wouldn’t be on the street. I understand why people come to this conclusion; when they see homeless people, they see them sedentary—lingering on street corners, slouched on park benches, sleeping under blankets in alleys or crouched against buildings with empty cups in outstretched hands.

    Below the Santa Barbara Pier is the commercial realm of a homeless entrepreneur. Within reach of a poorly tossed coin from the above boardwalk, I viewed a series of strategically placed picnic blankets spread six-feet apart. Each represented a novel and entertaining merchandising theme designed to encourage “customers” to part with their money. Displayed on one blanket was a large empty beer mug accompanied by a hand-written slogan, “Why Lie, Need Beer Money.” Clearly, this entrepreneur understood the male psyche. His target audience would take him for an honest satirist. Unlikely, would they figure him for a clever marketer and merchandiser. And if they did, it would not matter.

    Another of his exhibitions featured a checkered tablecloth, a candle, a vase of flowers and a single place setting. The main plate and side plate were bare, (except for a dollar bill, ten or twelve quarters, some dimes and a few nickels). “Help Me Make Dinner” was this merchandiser’s call to action. Women parted with more cash than did men.

    “Try your Luck” enticed the gambler. The homeless entrepreneur offered an entertaining game of chance. On an off-white sheet, he had colored a circular target with numbered rings and a bulls-eye. An assortment of coinage lay on the rings. The caption on the sign next to the exhibit inspired his clientele to participate. “Bet You Can’t” referred to three beer mugs that he had placed within the bull’s-eye. People chucked coins, challenged others, and kept score; all the while, the entrepreneur’s loot added up.

    The last exhibit I encountered on my way to the section of the pier over the ocean offered a rational and an emotional pay-off. The man had written, “Homeless, Not Helpless.” The distance between the brain and the heart happens to be longest and hardest nine inches to navigate in the marketing world. This guy had nailed it. People walked away with a smile, feeling good about lending a hand. I’ve a hunch that this insightful entrepreneur may be the wealthiest panhandler in Santa Barbara County. Note that I no longer use the term “homeless” because this chap could very well have invested his earnings in a permanent abode.

    As for the pic accompanying this post, I discovered it on-line. It is a great example of ingenuity. If you’ll pardon the pun, I suspect we are going to see an extension of this kind of creativity amongst the homeless.  Ingenuity and creativity can be as resourceful to a panhandler as a Fortune 500 CEO.

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    Formerlife: Jacobs Suchard CEO (Kraft, Nabob), Strategy Consultant. Afterlife: Palgrave Macmillan Author, Historical Novelist, Business Journalist

    5 Responses to Homeless, Not Helpless: Entrepreneurship in Unlikely Places

    1. Kelly Boulding
      November 14, 2011 at 8:59 am

      Great article John. Thanks for the perspective and maybe more importantly… inspiration!

      • John
        November 15, 2011 at 7:47 am

        Thanks for stopping by, Kelly. My pattern is posting every Monday, on leadership, strategy, marketing and life.

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    3. November 19, 2011 at 11:09 am

      As a homeless chap – currently writing this from a library – I can very much offer understanding with the guy under the pier. My litle dating site is for ordinary joes and a percentage of their subs goes to homeless charities. They sign up as they have empathy and are doing thir bit. Love the four Ps although my little venture probably only has three

    4. John
      November 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm

      Homeless Chap – I am delighted that you weighed in on this post. One can never underestimate the strength of the human spirit.