Visa is perceived as a consumer credit card company, having entered the lucrative small business marketplace slowly.  The Visa Business card, which helps small business owners track and manage finances and earn valuable discounts and rewards, has been available for years.  Still, awareness of the card and its value to small businesses was negligible.

Looking to increase its visibility among small businesses, Visa recognized that it could establish a niche in the rapidly growing, but virtually untapped small office/home office (SOHO) segment of the marketplace (companies with consist of 20 employees or less).  To develop a higher profile with this segment, Ketchum developed a yearlong business-to-business program.  The campaign was designed as a compelling on- and off-line contest to find, fund and grow three start-up businesses that Visa would monitor for one year to track and “nurture” progress and success.  

Dubbed Visa Start-Up 2000, the contest kicked-off with a national business plan competition designed to select three viable companies and provide funding and resources typically unavailable to start-up businesses.  To drive participation in the Visa Start-Up 2000 contest and simultaneously develop a database of potential Visa customers, Ketchum conducted a targeted campaign to small business owners through direct mail, email, a dedicated web site, and 1-800 number.  The business plan competition was followed by several complex judging phases and mock venture capital presentations to select the three winning companies.  Each received $25K in funding from Visa and US Bank (in the form of a Visa Business card), $10K in products/services from each of the campaign’s five business partners, and one year of free educational training from the small business experts/sponsors—a total prize value of approximately $110K per company.


SOHOs represent a fast growing sector of the U.S. economy with a new business starting every 30 seconds, according to Working Solo, Inc.  Visa saw an opportunity to be the first credit card company to infiltrate this important and untapped market

According to IDC Statistics, more than half of the revenue generated by SOHOs is from home offices, reinforcing Visa’s public relations plans to target this market  

Based on a review of direct competitors’ past small business activities, Ketchum discovered that American Express and MasterCard had never specifically addressed the SOHO market, paving the way for Visa to lead in this market segment.  (Existing awards programs focused on recognition of the broad small business market only)  

Small businesses on the Internet doubled to 41% from 1996-1998 according to IDC Research, demanding that Visa orient its campaign tactics to the Web in order to reach SOHOs where they do business

 “Incubators” (mostly large companies offering financial assistance to start-ups) have risen to 800 programs in 2000 from 12 in 1980, according to the National Business Incubation Association.  Ketchum saw the contest/incubator approach as a compelling way to attract SOHOs—to leverage this hot trend for start-up support and create a unique long term business program/solution

Identifying businesses that have a proven commitment to the small business community helped Ketchum secure the appropriate companies as partners for the campaign



  • Elevate visibility of Visa’s branded small business card and resources among SOHOs
  • Generate business leads, marketing database and future partnerships for Visa Business, US Bank (issuing Visa Business cards through direct mail solicitation) and program partners


  • Create innovative competition to demonstrate how small businesses can conduct business better using Visa resources    
  • Partner Visa with high-profile companies that offer critical small business resources to expand Visa’s web of influence
  • Create vehicle for US Bank and program partners to market directly to SOHOs and deliver sales leads


  • To ensure privacy and confidentiality of entrants’ business plans, legal rules and regulations required a “permission” clause for database marketing from program participants and a confidentiality clause from the judges
  • Finding and reaching SOHO companies (ranging from solo workers to telecommuters) posed a challenge.  Targeting specific, multiple channels and outlets helped reach this segment (radio media tour, direct email)        


Designing the Competition

Ketchum developed a unique national business plan competition [Visa Start-Up 2000] wherein 530 small businesses competed based on viability of their business idea, their business plan (financial projections) and their overall likelihood of success

The contest gave Visa access to SOHOs and provided them with a platform to offer tools to help SOHOs succeed:  1. Start-up funding, 2. Valuable and relevant business products/services, 3. Free educational training/consultation, 4. Awareness building for small businesses backed by Visa, 5. Network of partnering companies accessible all in one place/program

Securing Partnerships

Secured high-profile companies dedicated to small business to join Visa’s network of partners and add credibility to the competition:  Compaq, Office Depot, Symantec, E-Stamp,, Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Identified and partnered with official judging entity (Kauffman Center) with expertise in national business plan competitions

Secured substantial grant from the Kauffman Center to host quarterly meetings and provide yearlong training to winners

Getting the Message Out

Developed an exclusive contest Web site and offered toll-free number to facilitate contest entry

Implemented a direct mail and email campaign targeted at the SOHO market including SOHO subscribers to Inc. magazine, small business organizations/associations, top business schools, Visa partners, SOHO mailing lists from and (companies specializing in targeted Internet mailing) to attract eligible businesses

Developed a multi-phased publicity campaign to publicize results directly to SOHOs and business media

Conducted a radio media tour with a Visa spokesperson and distributed a radio news release to announce contest, encourage entry and deliver small business product messages

Featured three Visa Start-Up 2000 winners in a national Satellite Media Tour and comprehensive media outreach to demonstrate the value of the Visa brand, resources and Business card product to the SOHO community


Objective 1: Elevate visibility of Visa’s branded small business card and resources among SOHOs

Through the multiple channels of contest distribution and media impressions, Visa reached six times the market size (41 million SOHOs) with a total circulation or reach of 260 million, which includes:      

Nearly 430,000 members of the SOHO community received details about Visa Start-Up 2000, Visa’s Business card and its benefits to small businesses:

286,100 direct mail pieces included in small business association newsletters

90,211 direct mail pieces to SOHOs

51,850 blast emails to SOHOs

The competition spiked a 300% increase in monthly hits to Visa’s general small business Web site

More than 27,000 hits to theVisa Start-Up 2000 website were recorded

665 target small businesses called the Visa Start-Up 2000 toll-free number to request information about the contest

253 million media impressions in the outlets where SOHOs typically get their information (Business Week Online, USA Today online, Bloomberg News) clearly defined the Visa Start-Up 2000 program and its key messages

6.1 million listeners heard contest details via a satellite media tour, radio news release and radio media tour

Objective 2:  Generate business leads, marketing database and future partnerships for Visa Business, US Bank and program partners


Contest created interaction with diverse mix of industries that represent business leads for Visa (retail, personal business sector, payroll, manufacturing, etc.)

Developed a database of over 500 potential Visa customers through campaign’s direct mail, opt-in email permission, web site and 1-800 number components  

Gained market intelligence from evaluation forms submitted by three Visa Start-Up 2000 winning companies; learned how these businesses were using the Visa Business card and applied information to refine product offerings

US Bank and Program Partners

Generated 520 qualified sales leads – via opt-in permission database/contest – for US Bank and five program business partners
Through questionnaires, the contest provided partners direct dialogue with three Visa 2000 Start-Up companies; learned how the businesses were using their products (intelligence for new product development, as well as case studies)