Every entrepreneur dreams of the “big get” -- that major client or deal which propels your company forward to stratospheric success. One day you’re struggling to make payroll, the next day your business is a household name on par with those of Apple, Facebook or Uber.
While most startups focus on the tech space these days, you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to land a “big get.” Case in point: Win Charlebois, an entrepreneur who actually left California in 1974 and proceeded to change $50 and his knack for negotiation into a 2006 million-dollar diamond sale, the first of its kind in New Zealand, and a multi-million-dollar jewelry trading business.
His secret to success? Relationship negotiation.
What negotiation is based on: customer relationships
According to the latest State of Small Business Report from Wasp Barcode Technologies, small businesses say that improving customer experience and relationships is their top priority for growth. These businesses aren’t wrong: Customer experience is important: Delight your customers and they’ll pass the word on to their networks, be they Yelp or personal friends.
“Our goal with every transaction is to exceed customer expectations,” says Nicole Corsini, the marketing manager with Lang Antiques, an online jewelry, and antique trading website. “Jewelry and antique sales can be a tough market to break into. You have to establish a base line of trust with customers and build from there. From my personal experience, I’ve seen customers come back to have us sell their own jewelry only after they’ve conducted smaller-scale transactions with our team. It’s all about building a strong trust foundation.”
Corsini is right: Strong customer relationships are essential for a successful business. But as every entrepreneur knows, customer relationships are just one type of relationship. Entrepreneurs need to strengthen the relationships in their entire network.
“Ask 10 different entrepreneurs what the key to success is, and you’ll get back 10 different answers,” says Seth Rend, the founder, and CEO of Rand Marketing. “Innovation, risk-taking, and foresight are all important skills. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to relationship building, be that with clients, customers, fellow entrepreneurs or the guy who delivers the mail. The most important asset an entrepreneur has is his network and the ability to leverage relationships within this network to achieve a vision.”
Entrepreneur Win Charlebois understood this "network" principle from day one. After sailing from San Francisco to the South Pacific with his wife Linda, the couple settled in New Zealand, where Charlebois immediately put his knack for relationship-building to work.
How Charlebois went from $50 to a $1 million dollar diamond sale
Charlebois took $50 in savings and began buying under-valued goods at local flea markets, then re-selling the products at a value to more established marketplaces. It didn’t hurt that Charlebois had a good background for picking out valuable jewelry, ivory carvings, Asian antiques, European glasswear and small paintings from estate sales and flea markets.
But the most valuable skill he perfected was the fine art of negotiation and relationship-building. Soon, he was dealing with well-established jewelry retailers, antique dealers and auction houses. One of these relationships turned into a long-term business partner that opened a new path into the pearl and diamond-trading business, ultimately allowing Charlebois to build enough capital to launch his own company.
In 2006, the businessman faced a potentially crippling setback to his successful business. His current landlord was preparing to do major renovations to the building that housed Charlebois’s shop and trading offices. The building would be closed for at least two months, effectively shuttering sales.
But rather than seeing this as a setback, Charlebois saw a growth opportunity and put his relationship and negotiating skills to work. First, the business held a huge “shutting down sale” that provided a huge cash flow during the closure period. Charlebois then proceeded to work cooperatively with the landlord and negotiate a rental benefits package that included a brand new shop (completely paid for by the landlord), a substantial rental “holiday,” long-term staff parking, a long-term renewable lease and numerous other benefits, including free office spaces during the closure period.
Next, Charlebois took the break from his regular business to leverage existing relationships and make his big “get”: He contacted his largest New York-based supplier and proposed a major promotion to drive the store's re-opening. His proposal was to sell a million-dollar diamond, something that had never been done in New Zealand.
Charlebois then launched a media promotion blitz around the diamond, which the Auckland media dubbed the “Star of New Zealand.” Thanks to two decades of relationship building, Charlebois had no trouble selling the diamond to a local wealthy business personality, who bought it for his wife.
“The diamond sale attracted huge, nationwide coverage and a PR buzz that sent our business into the retail stratosphere,” Charlebois told me, of his company, The Diamond Shop. “Through that extraordinarily successful promotion, we achieved massive exposure for very little money.
"We elevated our business, launched our new shop and ended up with new lease agreements that were extremely financially beneficial for years to come, all based on the strength of our relationships and ability to negotiate.”
Relationships and negotiation are what drive business growth.
Nearly a decade after the major diamond sale, Charlebois is still hard at work innovating his company. Most of his sales come from his website, as he has embraced ecommerce and digital marketing. But he says his ability to build relationships and leverage these relationships for business growth is his continued key for success -- whether he’s selling from his storefront in Auckland or his new website.
Charlebois understands a basic principle that all too many entrepreneurs struggle to grasp. It’s not how many people you know or what you create, but how you leverage your relationships to move your creation forward, whether it's a visionary product or a new twist on an old business model.
Just ask John Lemp, the founder of RevContent. While RevContent is a decidedly digital business (unlike Charlebois’s trading company The Diamond Shop LTD), Lemp, like Charlebois, needed a strong understanding of relationships and negotiation to get his company off the ground.
“When I founded RevContent, I knew our success would hinge on our relationships,” says Lemp. “My most important asset has been my network, and I don’t mean my 'social' network. It’s the ‘real’ relationships I have offline that have helped move our business forward the most, along with my ability to strategically negotiate, based on the strength of these relationships.”
Yes, social media provides countless new opportunities for connecting with customers, clients and colleagues. (Even the police are using social media to hunt down criminals!) But one strong relationship in the real world is worth about 10,000 virtual likes, links and follows.
These real-world relationships -- with our fellow entrepreneurs, vendors, mentors, former colleagues, landlords and business partners – are the ones we need to build, strengthen and ultimately leverage in order to achieve our biggest visions.