3 Ways You Can Level the Playing Field Against Big Business
To gain ground against well-established rivals, focus on the three Cs: Competition, credit and connections.
Too many small businesses are stuck at the bottom of the economic mountain, watching in frustration as larger competitors hog the top, snagging resources and reaping the benefits.
Bigger companies can afford to use quantity discounts to undercut prices. Banks are happy to accept small-business deposits but don't build strong relationships with credit and loans for their smaller customers.
Even programs marketed for small businesses, such as vendor finance programs and dynamic discounting programs, often benefit the large company that takes the discount. Even government help seems to favor the well-connected. Just see what happened with the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program.
But there are ways small businesses can level the playing field. We can refer to them as the 3 Cs: Competition, credit and connections.
Competition: Don't join 'em. Beat 'em.
If the competition feels unfair, change the rules. This may seem daunting at first, but inventive and nimble thinking goes a long way. Consider this real-life example: A woman in Georgia who ran an on-site fueling business for heavy equipment operators found she was consistently undercut by established energy giant competitors. She finally acknowledged she'd never win contracts if she kept bidding for projects under the billing rules set by huge rivals, who could charge less. So she got creative. She offered to extend payment time to 30 days—a change from asking customers to pay every week—and levied a small surcharge.
Within a few weeks, she'd won every contract she'd submitted. Customers were happy to take advantage of the extended payment time because it allowed them to keep cash on their own balance sheets longer, despite the surcharge. This business owner changed the game on her competitors.
New credit resources when your bank ignores you
Make your bank pay attention or leave it. In our parents' era, bankers were local members of the community who were truly trying to help the local farmer or the neighborhood shop grow their businesses.
But as the banks have become larger and more consolidated, their online lending platforms don't know you. They don't know your business. They don't care what your business does. They care only about lending you $200,000 because they're going to make a lot of money from that loan. Demoralizing, right? But remember: those banks are also required by federal law to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, which encourages big financial institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities with which they do business. That includes low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
If you have a small business checking account with a big bank, ask a branch officer about CRA compliance — and how your business can help that bank meet CRA requirements via loans and lines of credit. More information here.
You can also visit a local credit union in your area or a CDFI. Both are not-for-profit and both may be able to provide more customized services to you and your business.
Work these connections
Get free advice from experts. Many government programs feel rigged against small business. Consider the recent $660 billion PPP loan program which was supposed to help small businesses squeezed by COVID-19 but instead delivered much money to the rich and politically connected, such as Kanye West, members of Congress, and large restaurant chains like P.F. Chang's and TGI Fridays.
Yet many small business owners don't realize the government also has free, valuable tools available and accessible around the country.
There are almost 1,000 Small Business Development Centers, or SBDCs, throughout the United States. These are partnerships between the Small Business Administration and local colleges or universities. Many SBDCs are staffed with retired executive entrepreneurs who have built and run successful companies, people who are happy to help small businesses find resources, build relationships, and figure out which specific capital tools are needed to grow a business.
SBDCs also can help business owners wade through confusing regulations to qualify for government contracts as a women-, minority-, or disadvantaged-business enterprise. More information is here.
If you need advice on taxes, capital, marketing, training, and networking, call or visit your local SBDC.
Outsmart, outflank, outhustle
I've started and operated enough businesses to know some will always have an edge. A small business may not have the financial resources to outspend their larger rivals, but they can outsmart, outflank, and outhustle them.
Look for ways to rewrite the rules and keep the 3 Cs in mind.
Competition: Can you outmaneuver them by rethinking billing or other conventional practices?
Credit: Ask a bank officer how your business can help that bank meet Community Reinvestment Act requirements via loans and lines of credit.
Connection: Call or visit your local Small Business Development Center for help with everything from taxes to marketing and networking.
The playing field will likely never be tilted entirely in your favor. But the 3 Cs may help you knock some smug rivals off their perches at the top.
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