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How I Won My First Big Customer

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Like it or not, we all compete in a global market. And while the barriers to entry have never been lower -- thanks to the Internet -- that also means we face more competition than ever before. To help you gain a competitive edge, here's a story about how I beat the odds and won my first big customer.

Back in the early days of the personal computer, I had an opportunity to pitch the fastest-growing company in the industry, Compaq Computer. All the big semiconductor chip makers wanted a piece of this hot company's business and mine was no exception.

So I flew to Houston and met with Compaq's PC development team. It was the first time I had ever visited a big potential customer on my own. I was terrified.

As it turns out, nearly all the custom chips in Compaq's PCs used standard industry technology, so there was no way for me to differentiate. Besides, the company was happy with its existing vendors. At first, I thought we were screwed.

But there was a new manufacturing process Compaq needed for a couple of high-end chips, and mine was one of only a few companies that had it. The problem was the software. Nobody had yet developed the tools to design chips with this new technology.

I immediately knew that was the one and only opportunity to get our foot in the door. So I went out on a limb and promised to deliver it, even with a commitment on their part.

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When I got back to the office I made another pitch, this time to my own company to fast track the software development for what I hoped would become my first big customer win. They turned me down flat, said they didn't have the resources to commit on a hope and a prayer.

I was devastated. But I didn't give up. I made a commitment, and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to find a way to make it happen. So I decided to develop the software tools Compaq needed myself. In addition to my regular job I worked long nights for the next month or two (it was a long time ago) and ultimately delivered the goods as I said I would.

Compaq was so impressed with the support that they not only awarded us their high-end chip business but ultimately gave us a big share of their standard custom chips, as well. And as Compaq grew to become one of the top PC makers in the world, it became one of my company's biggest customers in the U.S.

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There are three big takeaways from that pivotal story:

1. Go big or go home.

The 80/20 rule should be the 100/0 rule. Focus on the biggest customer(s) and when you get the opportunity to get your foot in the door, even if it's the tiniest crack, do whatever it takes to get at least something going. Jump through as many hoops as you have to. How you perform on that one opportunity might make all the difference.

2. It's OK to make crazy commitments … as long as you meet them.

I know that sounds a bit chicken-and-egg-ish, but here's the thing: If you don't take risks and go out on a limb, you've got exactly zero chance of anything good happening. Figure out what your customer needs, tell them you'll do it, and move heaven and Earth to deliver the goods, even if it means working 24/7 for a few months.

3. Make it personal.

One thing I failed to mention is what my boss said to me in the copy room as I was printing out my pitch before leaving for the airport. He said, "This is important. Don't f--- it up." I took it as a challenge, but it also put the fear of God into me. I sometimes wonder if that's what he intended. Either way, it worked. There was no way I was going to screw up that opportunity. And I didn't.

In case you're wondering, that happened way back in the mid-to-late 80s. And while I went on to run marketing and sales for a number of high-tech companies big and small, the lessons I learned from that one episode set the tone for the rest of my career. They've served me well over the years and I trust they'll do the same for you and your business.

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