what the wizard of oz can teach you about business


“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

That’s got to be my favorite line from the beloved Hollywood movie classic, The Wizard of Oz. I’ve heard and used the phrase a hundred times or more, but just the other day I caught the movie on TV, and got a totally new insight from the scene in which The Great Oz is exposed as just a regular man. The Great Oz, it dawned on me, fell into the same trap that many small business owners do.

Heavy emphasis on marketing, not nearly enough on infrastructure. Think about it. Everyone in Oz – from Munchkins to Flying Monkeys – knows who the Wizard is. He’s got Glenda the Good Witch sending him referrals out the wazoo. And not once when Dorothy mentions, “I’m going to see the Wizard of Oz”, does anyone reply “Who?” Obviously, his Ozness has got one helluva marketing strategy if he’s that well known in a place that’s full of so many other colorful characters.

He’s also got a pretty good brand image that emphasizes exclusivity (no one gets in to see the Great Oz, you know) and dazzling opulence. But as soon as customers come seeking his service, it all starts to fall apart. First, the great and powerful Oz makes them jump through hoops to get his service (What? You don’t take credit cards? You’ve got no website? You’re only open every other Tuesday? It only works on a PC? I gotta kill a wicked witch to get an appointment?). And even once his customers have completed the extremely difficult task he asks of them, he stalls for time. “Come back tomorrow,” he says. “I know I said that if you did this, then I could meet your need, but…”.

Time and time again, I see businesses of all sizes spend a fortune in time and money on creating beautiful presentation and packaging for their business, generating a lot of buzz and publicity, and subsequently falling flat on their faces or driving themselves insane with work, when the customers hit the door and they realize they’ve got to deliver on the unrealistic expectations their marketing created.

So, am I saying that you shouldn’t do a great job of marketing and branding your business? Nope, not at all. But I am saying:

Your marketing and promotions should match your infrastructure. If you’re marketing to the world that you make the biggest and baddest widgets on the block or that you’re the premier, most exclusive this-that-or-the-other, then dammit, you’d better have the infrastructure to back it up, or someone’s going to call shenanigans on you.

Only promise what you can deliver. Better yet: underpromise, and over-deliver. Don’t tell your potential customers that you can get their product to them in 2 -days, when you know it could take 3 or 4, or even 2 and a half days. If you think it’ll take 2 days, tell them it’ll take 3, and surprise them with the good news. Set realistic expectations, and meet or exceed them every time.

It’s ok to have limitations, just be sure to reveal them upfront. You’re a small business. Everybody knows it. There’s no shame in having a limitation here or there. You’ll be surprised how forgiving people can be if you just tell them (yes, even in your marketing) about your limitations, and let them know how you’re working to improve.

It’s not ok to have the same limitations forever. If you’ve been giving the same “we’re working to improve” line to your customers for years, eventually they’re going to get tired of hearing it. They will expect more of you. And you should expect more of yourself. Spend the time and effort to stabilize your infrastructure, or if you don’t know where to start, ask for help.

The moral of the story is: The hoodoo, magic, pomp, and circumstance of over-the-top marketing might make you a popular little business, but you’ll need to pay some attention to what’s going on behind the curtain to be a successful little business.

The good news is… you probably already have everything you need. Some brains, a lot of heart, and a little bit of courage.

And a pair of sparkly red pumps wouldn’t hurt either.