Playing With The Big Boys
Rumored to weigh anywhere from 350 to 800 pounds, Bigfoot is big. He is hairy, he probably smells, and for years, he and his fellow Bigfoots have ignited the popular imagination. Hence, there are numerous clubs across the country devoted to studying this creature, and a statue in Bigfoot's likeness stands in the Northern California community of Willow Creek.
If Bigfoot wore a size 4, would anybody care? Probably not. When Scott Testa was struggling with his company in the basement of his Bluebell, Pennsylvania, home, he probably wasn't thinking about Abominable Snowmen, but he did know being big is impressive. And he knew the sizable corporations he was working with would likely recoil in horror if they saw the conditions he worked in. Explains Testa: "My home is one of these older homes, with a smelly, stinky, falling-apart basement. Little windows. No light. Wet. Small. One step up from a dungeon--without the shackles."
It was in this pit that Testa, 33, and his partner, Dave Christian, 36, did with their company, Mindbridge.com Inc., what a lot of start-ups are obliged to do: They pretended to be bigger than they really were. "I think big companies have a perception that they should do business with companies like themselves," says Testa, who adds, "I'm willing to bet if most of the people knew our size, we would not have gotten . . . ." Testa trails off, but he doesn't need to finish. If clients had seen where he and Christian were designing interactive Web sites, any further interaction would have ceased.
The oil heater sparked and shook, the washer and dryer were often running, and then there was Luke, the basset hound who liked to bark. Testa and Christian had two choices: 'Fess up to their clients, explain everything and hope for some understanding, or . . .
Geoff Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist and a features writer for The Cincinnati Post. The last time he saw Sasquatch was long ago, when Bigfoot battled the Bionic Man.
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."
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 Mindbridge.com 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."
A Legend In Your Time
Today, Mindbridge.com is established, but in the beginning, there were numerous winter days when Testa and Christian stood outside "freezing our--well, you know" and did business on cordless phones while, inside, the dog barked and the washing machine hummed.
About the same time, Walker had left a $60,000 job as a consultant for Computer Sciences Corp., a Fortune 500 firm, to start Ian Alliott and, for three months, was obliged to work in men's fragrances at Dayton's department store. "I'd have meetings with CEOs, then at 6 p.m. show up for my evening shift," recalls Walker, who during the Christmas season saw many of his former co-workers. "Um, Jason, I think you made a mistake," they would say.
"There were some freaking sad times," says Testa of his start, "but you look back and say `Hey, this is where we were a year ago.' It's almost like company lore. It was the worst possible conditions, but it makes the situation right now that much better."
Every company should have some lore. And maybe someday, as your company's sales quadruple, there'll be clubs across the country devoted to studying you. Perhaps a town will erect a statue in your honor. You may never be Bigfoot, but that doesn't mean you can't be big.
Not Kidding Around
When you look like you belong in high school, it's tough to be taken seriously by businesspeople your parents' age. When you're actually in high school, it's even tougher.
Aron Leifer was 16 when he founded MultiMedia Audiotext, a software company. He's 19 now, and last year, his firm brought in $600,000. He just launched an Internet service (http://www.gofix.com) that promises to have a technician at your door within 60 minutes to fix computer problems.
Leifer, who lives with his parents in New York City, says that when people ask your age, "The best thing is to change the subject with a question . . . a question that overquestions the other."
Another reason to avoid discussing the age issue--even if it's working in your favor--is that you're likely to tangent off into a long conversation about how you started this business so young.
"You're not trying to do something bad [by not revealing your age]," says Leifer. "You're just trying to protect yourself from anybody saying `You're too young.' As long as you can fulfill the client's need, it doesn't matter what your age is. Unless you're trying to sell someone alcohol." Which Leifer is still too young to do.
Need ideas on how to make your company look bigger? Try these on for size:
1. If your office has more desks than people, and visitors often come in, put pictures and papers on the empty desks, making them seem as though somebody works there.
2. If you work out of your apartment, remember you work in a Suite. If you work out of your house, you still work in a Suite. (The postal carrier will figure it out.)
3. Scott Testa and Dave Christian use e-mail addresses with their first initial and last name, to give the impression there might be more than one Scott and Dave at the firm. Their phone extensions aren't 101 and 102, but 346, 789 and other odd numbers that give the impression of a massive company.
4. If you haven't lost that baby-faced look, hire your mom or dad for a day as a vice-president of sales and let them help clinch the deal.
5. Make out business cards with your name and several different titles (i.e., president of marketing; senior manager of human resources). Use whichever card is appropriate for the occasion.
6. Run tiny ads in huge magazines and newspapers. Then you can casually ask clients, "Hey, did you see our ad in The New York Times?"
7. Tack the words "International Headquarters" on your stationery and business cards.
8. Get with the program and get a Web site.
9. Get a toll-free number and a voice-mail system that provides professional call answering.
Crystal River Business Solutions Inc., (408) 588-9920, http://www.crbsi.com
Ian Alliott Inc., (612) 333-7383, http://www.ianalliott.com
Mindbridge.com Inc., (215) 283-9466, ext. 825, http://www.mindbridge.com
MultiMedia Audiotext, (718) 435-8691
Zoobee Inc., (972) 931-0602, http://www.zoobee.com