A few weeks ago I was contacted by an associate producer of a well-known cable television program. She said she was doing research and thought my company and products might be a good fit for a feature that would air in April. She needed more information before making a decision, so I answered a few questions. Then we made an appointment for a follow-up phone conference to discuss the feature in greater detail.

This kind of inquiry is not common for me, so I was kind of excited, but she said there were several more steps before I would know if my products had been selected. Last week was the second meeting, during which she spent 40 minutes outlining the types of media exposure my company would receive beyond the 3 – 5 minute feature. With related commercials, email promotions, and social media coverage, it all seemed too good to be true…and it was. After more than an hour of discussions, she mentioned (for the first time) that the pre-production fees and prize donations they required of participants totaled upward of $50,000.

I am a small business owner. My kind of small business isn’t the kind that has 500 employees or makes millions of dollars or spends $50,000 on a 5 minute spot on cable TV. My kind of small business is the kind that has one employee who designs and makes all of the products, puts together her own web pages, and handles her own social media. That employee washes her own dishes and does her own taxes. She also answers her own phone. That employee is me. When I get telemarketing calls or other inquiries from salespeople, I prefer to cut to the chase. Honestly, I don’t have lots of time to chat about opportunities that are out of my reach or inappropriate for my company. Usually salespeople don’t have time to chat with business owners who can’t take advantage of what they have to offer, either, which is why I’m still a little baffled. Why would you wait so long to bring up the costs? Why would you want to keep talking long after you knew I was a “one-woman band”?

But at the very least, the experience was thought-provoking. For one thing, the producer told me repeatedly that this was “not an infomercial” but an opportunity to educate their viewers. I think there’s a lot of difference between “here’s an interesting company we found” and “here’s an interesting company we found that was willing to pay $50,000 to be here.” Do the show’s viewers know this? And if their show works this way, how many other shows do the same thing? Maybe I’m being naive, but I actually believed that some of what TV show hosts present are things they genuinely like, not things they’ve been paid to like. Wake up, Emily!

It’s an interesting reminder of yet another barrier to entry for small businesses: opportunities like this one are open to a very few businesses, none of which are the “small” businesses I know about and work with. Even if they could handle the rapid growth and immediate increase in sales from this intense attention, few can afford such high costs. It seems that in order to get big exposure like this, a small business has to already be big. And most of us aren’t.

Of course I keep thinking about that $50,000. What if I had access to that kind of money without mortgaging my house? Would I spend all of it on a single media opportunity? What would I do with $50,000?

What would YOU do? You could take a pretty serious vacation (or several) with that money. You could buy a car with it (or really, almost 2 cars), or pay down your mortgage, or invest in your kids’ college fund. Or invest in that dream company you’ve been dying to start. Would you try to buy your 15 minutes of fame? (Or 3 – 5 minutes, I suppose, if you want it on cable.)

How would YOU spend it?