Lessons Learned Through Our Adopt a Business Challenge

Lessons Learned Through Our Adopt a Business Challenge

Big Ideas

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March 26 2021
Big Ideas
Author: Marty Fisher

Adopt A Business Challenge Final Thoughts 

In February of 2020, all hell broke loose at Sherpa Marketing. Thanks to what became the global pandemic of COVID-19. We saw our gross revenue plummet so hard and fast it was nothing short of a gut-punch. 

Our management team began a daily ritual of trying to run number scenarios to define what success would look like. We ended up with, survive to fight another day without destroying the equity in the business.

Businesses across the country were experiencing the same uncertainty and financial trauma.

With the stock market in a free-fall and many businesses cutting staff hard and fast, the government intervened with effective programs that allowed us to maintain our staff level. The CEWS program effectively allowed us to keep our folks on the payroll, if even only at 75% pay (we are back to 100%). 

Having a full complement of staff with no work presented its own challenges.  

Putting People to Work 

I had an idea that I had to sell to my management team. 
If the government is signaling that they don’t want Sherpa’s staff on EI, what could we get them doing that would : 

  1. Be rewarding 
  2. Help other businesses that were having a hard time adapting to the “new reality” of doing business in a pandemic

I suggested something crazy, something that took time to get buy-in. What about creating an opportunity where a local business in each of our local cities (Winnipeg, Kitchener/Waterloo) could apply to receive $25,000 of professional services from our team of incredibly skilled marketers, designers and software developers. 

We set about creating a website, application forms and social media content and launched the Adopt a Business Challenge (AABC). With Sherpa staking $50K in free work, we quickly made a national splash and had many other businesses and individuals raise their hands and offer to help as well. We were quickly able to raise $250,000 of free marketing services. From copywriting to video capture and web programming, we had an incredibly gifted and generous group assembled. 

Our Partner Businesses

Bold Commerce 
Direct Focus Communications 
Pivot Turn Consulting 
Bold Social Strategies 

View the list of services our partner businesses donated as part of the AABC:  

Eventually we had hundreds of applicants from across Canada and we were able to pair many of our applicants with a free service. 

A Plot Twist We Never Saw Coming 

Here’s the surprising part.  

Even though we could pair service providers with companies in need who applied, it was wildly difficult to actually give work away. 

All the AABC partners did their diligence and follow up with their adoptees, but in many cases they were met with unreturned emails and phone calls. 

Turns out it’s actually hard to deliver generosity.  

That’s not to say that we (and our fellow) “Adopters” didn’t have some incredible successes, but that we were unsuccessful in giving the entire pool away. 


I addition to this surprise, we also discovered with one of our own “Adoptees” that it was hard to get on the same page and gain any sense of urgency in moving forward on the tremendous (and free) work that we were doing on their behalf. 

The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” came to mind.  

Why Was It Hard To Give Away Free Services? 

“Why weren’t these small businesses falling over themselves to get free help?”  was something that came up constantly in our weekly internal check-ins. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last 6 months. Here’s a quick summary what I have come to think. 

  • Small businesses are more often than not, a means to creating a job for the owner. They wear ALL the hats in the business and when you are a great baker or potter, you probably aren’t a great marketer. What we were recommending was far beyond their expertise. 
  • Our timing was probably off. While Sherpa and its partners rushed to help, our offer was so early into the Pandemic that people weren’t even ready to think about what we were offering. People need some sense of certainty before they make decisions and the last year has offered little by the way of certainty. 
  • Businesses needed to transform digitally, and e-commerce, social media, SEO and SEM are so foreign and intimidating to many small businesses that they didn’t feel like they could take it on. Yes, we – and our partners, could set them up with a kick ass Instagram campaign, but there was likely a feeling that they couldn’t manage this on their own once our engagement ended.  
  • Business owners, big or small are incredibly proud, hardworking and stubborn. Sometimes people are in business because they don’t want to be told what to do. 

A Rewarding Experience 

The benefits for my team were a hundredfold. We got to work with small businesses that we patronize and with ones that would likely never choose to spend their hard-earned currency with an agency of our size.  

We are intensely proud of what we did. We helped a couple of local companies with the type of effort and passion normally inaccessible to small businesses. 


One of our adoptees, on our recommendation, ran a sponsored Instagram campaign that we created for a long weekend that ended up resulting in the adoptee’s greatest single day of sales in their entire history. 

So, if I had it to do all over again, would I do it? 

Yes, I think I would. 

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