I started my career in consulting about 20 years ago in my first job right out of college. I remember being excited about getting my first work computer, cell phone and business cards. I also remember being confused after being asked how many holiday cards I wanted to send to clients. I didn't have any clients to send cards to, nor did I have much of anything to say. 

Now after 20 years of receiving company holiday cards, it looks like no one else has much of anything to say either. These corporate holiday cards have three fundamental problems.

First, your holiday cards are not memorable. Most cards I receive have a barely legible signature and make an impression that disappears faster than a Snapchat story.

Second, they often have very little to enhance the perception of your core business or your startup's brand. Holiday gifts like popcorn, chocolate or cookies are more enjoyable as gifts, but unless you are in the snack business, it won't enhance your customers' perception of what you do.

Finally, there is no return on your investment. Perhaps its inappropriate to think about a payback when it comes to holiday card or gift. But there's no reason why every investment can't both be inherently good and profitable. Surely there is a better use for that money, especially for a cash strapped startup. To that end, I have several suggestions. 

Celebrate Key Customers With an An Invite-Only Holiday Discount.

At least an invite only holiday discount is something your customers will care about, especially if you make it exclusive to your best superconsumers who already love your category and buy a lot of it. This solves for all three problems articulated above, as your customers will surely remember you, think better of your business and there is a clear return on your investment.

If you have a business to business startup, many customers have budgets that they have to use or lose before year end which you might be the beneficiary of. If your startup sells to consumers, then this is a great way to be top of mind once the holidays settles down in the new year. 

Celebrate Key Employees In Your Startup.

Most things done to celebrate employees at the holidays are double edged swords. Thanks to open bars, holiday parties can be the best of times and the worst of times. Year end bonuses can make employees extremely happy, until the gossip starts and envy creeps in. 

I know the CEO of a startup that did something very creative. One time he heard an employee's parents were coming into town, so he invited the parents in and praised the employee in front of his parents. It was certainly memorable, as it nearly brought his employee to tears. 

Celebrate The Most Valuable People To Your Startup.

Every startup has other people (e.g., mentors, investors and allies) that made a huge difference to them. It is far better to send a deeply personal message to a few people who mattered the most this past year to your startup than a lame holiday card to many people.

So in keeping with the holidays, here are my "12 people of Christmas" to thank for their wonderful contributions to me in my early startup life. 

  1. Thanks to Bruce Onsager, who blazed this trail for me a decade prior and is always generous with his wisdom about the solo-preneur life, family and faith.
  2. Thank you Mark Leiter, who coached me on solo consultancy model from his years at McKinsey, Bain and Leiter & Co, and for believing in me from the start.
  3. Thank you Steve Carlotti, who helped me see that the path as thought leader might be a more enjoyable and fulfilling path versus general manager. 
  4. Thank you Christopher Lochhead, who said to think like a 'master martial arts sensei' and only choose the best clients with the courage to create new categories.  
  5. Thank you Dwight Brown, for taking my latest ideas on growth strategy and making them better, as only a rare leader who has built several billion dollar businesses can.
  6. Thank you Miguel Zepeda, who shares my passion for superconsumers and for creating new categories to make people's lives better. 
  7. Thank you Keith Levy, for modeling the ideal leader who cares not a lick about corporate politics, but only wants to do build amazing businesses and teams.
  8. Thank you Kamie Eckert, who showed me to be unafraid to lead her own way, helped me realize my quest for apprenticeship and to put learning above all.
  9. Thank you Daniela Simpson, for lending her marketing experience to me and my nascent brand to help me breakthrough.
  10. Thank you Linda Deeken, who has been my chief of staff in writing and in many other ways over all the years and continues to be an incredible support. 
  11. Thank you Dan McGinn, who has put up with my hair-brained article ideas and made my writing vastly better over the years.
  12. Thank you Kristen Yoon, my wife who trusted me to take this crazy journey in the first place and always pushes me to be better. 

I'd encourage you to put your own list of 12 people to thank on social media, via a truly personal holiday card, or by phone or face to face. 

Published on: Dec 23, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.