Playing With The Big Boys

Impress The Press

When Walker was promoted to senior vice president of sales and marketing, Ian Alliott Inc. sent out a press release alerting the local media, and the corporation received some exposure. They needed it. Walker and Colville were the only two employees at their fledgling firm. Walker gave himself that title since he did that portion of the business anyway.

The mention in the papers made it sound momentous, and the Minneapolis business community never knew Ian Alliott was located in Colville's rented house, a run-down ruin just across the Mississippi River from what Walker thinks was a metal recycling plant, or perhaps a garbage dump. All he knows is that "all day long, they were scooping up cars and smashing them." The sound of bulldozers moving metal reverberated over the river, so it "sounded like it was in our backyard." They had to close the windows, and in the summer's humidity and 90-degree heat, "we'd be sweating it out, calling CEOs, wearing our shorts," says Walker, whose wobbly office chair had no back.

Needless to say, Walker and Colville never invited clients to visit. When they had meetings, they scheduled them at swanky hotels. Not that they had the money to do so. "Banks wouldn't talk to us, so we each took out 10 credit cards," says Walker, who often sorted through the cards before meetings, trying to decide which ones weren't maxed out. "We skimped on everything from pens to paper, computers--but anything that touched the external world, we wouldn't skimp on. Whether it was a Web site or a business card or anything like that, it had to be the best."

(Testa has a similar story of clients flying in to sign papers. Not wanting them to visit his basement, Testa and Christian made a preemptive strike, meeting the clients at the airport and inviting them to a hotel where they had a suite prepared, decked out with food. "Oh, it's no trouble. We know you don't have time to drive all the way out to Mindbridge," Testa told them.)

Meanwhile, Walker and Colville were churning out slick company newsletters and sending them to clients, and Walker asked an old high school friend to record their phone greeting--Heather Van Nest, a news anchor in Jacksonville, Florida. On the phone, at least, Ian Alliott was light-years away from existing in a dump across from a dump.

Next, Walker and Colville convinced a software firm to co-host a seminar for 50 managers of some of the largest corporations in Minneapolis. Walker talked their seminar partner into footing most of the bill, and "there were [people from] companies a thousand times our size sitting in the audience who were unable to capture the spotlight that day." They also cornered a local reporter at a cocktail party that same year and convinced him to profile their company (no word on how many martinis they had to buy him).

Walker's advice is simple: "You will never look big on your own. But you will if you can sign partnerships [with bigger companies], if you can get magazines to talk about you, if you can get people to pick up your press releases. It's leveraging the media and other businesses."

Testa agrees. He says walked away from smaller clients in the beginning to focus on the bigger ones--a plan that initially cost them money. The upshot? The references, of course, which are pure gold in marketing materials. Testa reports: "When people say `Tell me some of your customers,' and we can rattle off names like Sony, Better Homes & Gardens, Houghton Mifflin and GE Medical, they have a perception that we're bigger and more established than we are."

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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