Some of my fellow entrepreneurs suffer from an inferiority complex. When it comes to pursuing new business, they believe size is all that matters. They've bought into the self-defeating idea that startups and small companies can’t hope to land big clients. As a result, they have adopted the motto of the Homer Simpson School of Sales & Marketing: “Can’t win; don’t try.”
There's no disputing that established vendors do have certain advantages over smaller players. Most startups must be satisfied with the market’s table scraps during their infancies. But it's also true that even small fry eventually will need to hook some big fish.
Here are five "minnow-catches-whale" approaches you need to embrace as you compete for major accounts and seek to effectively grow your business.
1. Believe you can win.
To start, you must know you “can win and (therefore) will try.” Entrepreneurs limit themselves with negative thinking. They don't believe it's possible for a minnow to catch a whale, so they reconcile themselves to building a business around low-paying, high-maintenance customers. They reduce their field of prospects to the discard pile.
In reality, aggressive minnows that consistently reach out to whales will find at least one to take the bait. At some point, a large prospect will become dissatisfied with a current vendor, giving you an opening.
2. Offer niche solutions.
When you see that entry point, don’t be afraid to exploit it. Offer niche solutions and a level of personalized attention your brand-name rivals can’t (or won’t) match. Learn where your competitors are weakest, then work to get an appointment with a big client by offering a “blue-ocean” list of products or services.
Once you impress the customer in that niche, you can use that first bite to whet your client's appetite. Grow your service menu within the company. Doing so will enhance your reputation and prove you’re a viable company that delivers. This strategy will help you overcome the biggest disadvantage all newbies face: the lack of a track record.
3. Behave as if you're bigger than you really are.
This tactic needn't be mutually exclusive to offering the personal touch that got you noticed in the first place. Work to create the perception that your company is a successful, multimillion-dollar firm, and you'll learn that the right positioning can take you very far. Never lie to misrepresent your business' size -- I'd never suggest you overstep those bounds.
But your marketing materials and programs should project the style, tone and professionalism normally associated with much larger companies in your industry.
Of course, it’s also important that your company be genuinely equipped to handle the business of a big company. Cultivating a professional, larger-than-life image is one thing: Promising more than you can deliver easily could deal a deathblow to your fledgling firm. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
4. Lavish your big client with attention.
When you do land your first big client, do everything in your power to be attentive and proactive. Some larger organizations will take a chance on new, untested firms if they believe they'll receive more time and energy from these companies than they would from larger vendors.
You might be surprised at how many big companies would rather hire a small vendor's “A team” than settle for an established player's “B” or “C” squad. To maintain and grow this relationship, you must consistently deliver “A-Team” results.
5. Build a reputation among mid-sized firms.
Here's a more circuitous -- but effective -- route to major accounts: Build your reputation with small- and mid-sized customers you acquire during your early years. You'll be able to leverage the references from these customers to allay fears a large company might have about hiring an upstart such as yourself.
As a rule, big companies will feel much more comfortable taking a chance on an unknown quantity if you can present a portfolio of testimonials and client contacts to demonstrate proven results. With very few exceptions, large companies have no interest in playing guinea pig to a startup. It's important to minimize their impression of risk and maximize their expectations for reward.
Bonus: Create momentum.
When I launched my company, acquiring larger clients was one of the biggest challenges. We now work with some of the nation's top auto insurers. What made us successful? We believed that if we could gain a foothold by excelling in a particular niche, we could expand the number of solutions we sold to a client.
Our team also learned that big companies don't like to put all their eggs in one basket. A large client never will give you every line of business it can, but winning one prestigious account still creates momentum. It's up to you to capitalize on winning that first big account and use your accomplishment to acquire other brand-name accounts.
Even the most successful startups will face plenty of rejection. You're likely to hear "no" many times, and you also should get used to being told "not right now." Big clients tend to move slowly. You may have to endure an RFP process, various other vetting procedures, technical reviews and more before you earn the right to move through slow-moving contract negotiations.
Survive all that to secure your first big win, and you'll be well-positioned to land other large accounts in the future -- the immediate future.