Playing With The Big Boys

Creative License

When the founders behind Mindbridge.com escaped from the basement and rented an office, their location dilemma wasn't over: They had too much space. "When you have an empty office, the perception is `You're not busy; you're having financial problems,' " muses Testa, who one day was expecting a bigwig from GE Medical to visit. Since half the office could be seen from the conference room, Testa and Christian moved their employees into that portion of the building; the visiting exec saw a crowded, bustling environment. "It looked like we were one on top of each other," says Testa. "Psychologically, it probably looked like we were ready to bust out of our space." Nor is Testa above bringing in his wife and her co-workers to pose as staff.

Mindbridge.com, which now has 19 employees, isn't the only company to do magnifying tricks. "I'd have my friends do follow-up calls, so people would think I had all these employees following up my calls," recalls 24-year-old Billy Darnell, president and founder of Zoobee Inc., a 2-year-old company in Dallas that makes watches with animal designs (to the tick-tock of $250,000 in expected 1999 sales).

Pretending works. Two years after Testa and Christian remortgaged their houses and started Mindbridge.com for about $15,000, the company's 1999 sales are estimated at $1.3 million. Pretending also worked for Jason Alliott Walker, 26, and Mark Ian Colville, 27. Their company, Ian Alliott Inc., does performance and processing management consulting. Started with $40,000, their company expects sales of $3 million this year.

If you're the type of person who thinks adding chocolate sprinkles to your scoop of vanilla means you have a certain joie de vivre, then pretending to be larger than you are is probably out of your league. But, remember, nobody is suggesting you lie. Carla Hannum, 30, founder and president of Crystal River Business Solutions Inc., a PR company in Santa Clara, California, specializes with her partner and CEO, Ben Hanna, 29, in making tiny high-tech companies seem huge. She explains it this way: "You can look bigger; you can use strategies that play on people's perceptions; but if confronted with a question, you'd best tell the truth."

Crystal River knows about trying to look large. The business has a staff of five, including the two founders, who are married. Hannum kept her maiden name because she doesn't want to advertise that it's a "family" business. She and Hanna also look young. "Ben keeps saying he wants to get gray hair," says Hannum, who has jokingly suggested he dye it.

"I don't think companies worry so much about appearing to be start-ups," agrees Sally Hayhow of the National Business Incubator Association (http://www.nbia.org), an organization dedicated to helping businesses seem larger than they are. "I think they worry about appearing inexperienced or incapable of handling clients' needs."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the July 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Playing With The Big Boys.

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