Carl L. Gould touts his firm, CMT International, as the "farthest reaching business mentoring organization in the world." Yet Gould's New Jersey-based operation has just three full-time employees.
Is that a hollow claim, deceptive marketing or, worse, a bald-faced lie? None of the above, says Gould. It's merely the case of a small to medium-sized business using honest, legitimate tactics to look bigger than it is. By building a network of some 110 independent consulting offices, all of which function as contractors to CMT while retaining full autonomy, Gould says his firm can rightfully call itself the biggest of its kind.
The goal in trying to cast a long shadow as a small company, he explains, is to foster a perception among clients, prospects and the public that the company can match or surpass much larger organizations in terms of resources, reach, capabilities and quality. "It's a marketing strategy on one hand," Gould explains, "but it's an incredibly solid business practice on the other. It gives a company credibility, and at the same time, it gives your clients certainty that you can do the job and that you will be around for the long haul."
The perception of greater size is a powerful competitive equalizer, says Tatiana Finkelsteyn, CEO of IQWired Inc., a telecom broker in Denver. "It levels the playing field with the big boys and it eliminates the questions people might have about a small company. That's important when it's your proposal vs. four or five others."
Remember, before you get big, you have to think big. Here are some proven, inexpensive techniques your startup can use to project an image as big as the aspirations you have for your young company.
More shameless upsizing tactics
Here are a few additional ways for a small company to look bigger-- without the help of one of those funhouse distortion mirrors:
Use a true marketing vehicle. Jeff Hill, owner of Seattle-based junk removal service 1-800-GOT-JUNK and plastic moving box rental service FROGBOX, says "parketing" produces customers.
"We book over 60 percent of our jobs from our.trucks being parked overnight at busy locations. This gives people the sense that we have a fleet of vehicles. For both companies, we always hear, 'I see your trucks everywhere.'"
Take the show on the road. Invest in an attractive, professional-looking booth and exhibit at trade shows. "It shows you are able to play with the big guys," says Paul Errigo, CEO of Accounts Receivable Technologies, Woodbridge, New Jersey. (For a cautionary tale about the use of trade shows, see "More buck than bang" on page 34.)
Live and breathe the brand. Hill says he rarely goes out in public without some piece of branded attire. And for the past five years, his personal vehicle has been wrapped with the 1-800-GOT-JUNK logo.
Work the media. Approach media outlets with an offer to share your expertise. You and your company stand to gain recognition and credibility by appearing in print, online or over the airwaves, says Evan Goldenberg of Design Build Consultants Inc. in Greenwich, Connecticut. "People will approach you and say, 'You were the guy in the magazine.' In my business, that's valuable."
Be a big shot by association. The company you and your company keep can make a big difference in how you're perceived. It can also lead to fruitful business relationships. "I spend time with other entrepreneurs who have money and influence," explains Jeff Hill, who owns 1-800-GOT-JUNK and FROGBOX in Seattle. "Not only are they great for alliances and encouragement, but being affiliated with people better off than me makes my company look way bigger and more influential."
Don't be shy about cultivating alliances with much larger companies, nor about leveraging those relationships, Finkelsteyn says. "I seek out deep relationships with much larger entities, and I'm proactive about talking with contacts there to see if there are opportunities to piggyback off what they are doing, like utilizing their marketing resources. If they are your partner and they have the resources, they usually are happy to share them."
Build a scalable workforce. Using contractors and part-time employees not only gives a company flexibility in resource deployment, it gives breadth and depth to an organization, without the commitment to full-time employees. Gould calls it the "network model," where "you accumulate a talent base that rallies around a mission, a method or a certain project."
The ability to deploy contractors as needed, depending on the task at hand, allows a company to serve a broader base of clients, he explains. "We can literally compete with any comparable firm in the world for projects, whether it's for a company of one or a multinational corporation. In many ways, this model gives us a competitive advantage, because it allows us to retain top talent with virtually no overhead. We can do things for a lower price, and for a higher profit."
The tricky part for companies that rely heavily on contractors is appearing and functioning as a cohesive unit. That can be accomplished fairly simply, Gould says, by having contractors use your company's brand identity and communications infrastructure; give them an extension in the company phone system, as well as a company e-mail address and company business cards.
Outsource. These days, a company that doesn't yet have the resources or the in-house know-how to handle certain key functions--phone reception, customer service, warehousing, accounting--can outsource just about any of those responsibilities to specialists, or to companies such as Rocky Mountain Small Business Services in Fort Collins, Colorado. RMSBS founder Alan Jurysta says his company provides clients with "a back office in a box--a suite of services that will allow them to grow their business, increase their footprint and focus on what they do best."
Invest wisely in technology that delivers "big" performance. Finkelsteyn says she has long sought a phone system capable of seamlessly and cost-effectively integrating her firm's distributed workforce (13 employees, 13 home offices). Recently she found it in the form of a VoIP-based platform. "It has a virtual auto attendant and a company directory for all our departments. It sends calls directly to an employee or it can round-robin calls to our sales and service people. It gives our customers huge warm and fuzzies, thinking they're calling into a real office."
Just as important to projecting a big image, says Jurysta, is solid customer relationship management software. "The system I use, I can access from wherever I'm working, and one of the great things it does is provide customers access to their account information, which not many small businesses can offer. It was fairly inexpensive and it gave me an impressive presence."
The Google apps website is a good starting point for finding inexpensive tech tools that help a small business look and act larger, Finkelsteyn notes.
Virtual and physical addresses shape perception. As head of an architectural firm specializing in wine cellars and cigar humidors, Evan Goldenberg of Design Build Consultants Inc., Greenwich, Connecticut, uses three URLs ( cigarhumidors.com , customwinecellars.com and evang.com ) to funnel prospects to his company. "The reason for having different websites is really to showcase the best parts of a business. It builds a certain amount of confidence that we are all three of these things, not just another design-build firm."
Physical address also confers stature. When his Bellevue, Washington, firm, Guidant Financial, began to grow and add out-of-state workers, co-founder David Nilssen secured executive office space in six states. "Because it gave us a physical address," he says, "it gave the appearance we were much larger than we were."
For home-based businesses, meanwhile, Finkelsteyn suggests purchasing the right to use an address that people associate with an established business, not a residence. "For under $100 a month, you get an address with a prestigious, downtown street number."
Play your cards right and your company might eventually make its brick-and-mortar home in that kind of neighborhood.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.