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Why size doesn’t matter when landing big clients

Tuesday, 5 June 2012 | By Alexandra Cain

feature-bigdoglittledog-thumbNailing that first account with a big business is a rite of passage for every start-up.


The process is easier with some multinationals than others. Recent Australian ventures by Google and Microsoft demonstrate a desire to embrace the smaller end of the market, not to mention the recent emergence of WEConnect International, a network linking big businesses to budding female entrepreneurs.


But how does a virtually unknown start-up win that first account, pitch itself against established rivals and also make sure the business isn’t swamped in the process?


Micah Smith, a director of IT infrastructure consultancy business Thomas Duryea, says it took a few years before what he calls “enterprise clients” or larger businesses were prepared to do business with the firm.


“We had formed strong relationships with a number of mid-market businesses and when staff from these businesses who had had a good relationship with us moved into larger organisations, it served as a good entry point into these larger firms,” he says.


“We’ve also put in a lot of hard work cold calling sales prospects at bigger firms and honing our unique selling proposition. At the start, we also got specialist help preparing tenders,” he explains.


When it comes to pitching against larger competitors, Smith says the business emphasises the advantages of having a local support presence, compared to international firms that might provide support offshore.


“We’re also smaller and faster than large organisations, which don’t necessarily treat every engagement with the same passion that we do,” he says.


Smith says it’s also important to demonstrate that you understand that larger, more mature clients have particular internal processes and change and project management systems that need to be respected.


“Even in the pitching process, it’s important to acknowledge you understand and will comply with their systems,” he says.


“You also need to appreciate their risk of engaging with you as a smaller organisation, they are assessing whether you have enough resources, so you need to understand this view and respond to it.”


Indeed, when it comes to making sure you have the right resources to take on a project with a big business, Smith says it’s essential not to oversell your business.


“We have contracting and recruitment relationships so we can onboard resources on an as-needed basis,” he explains.


“You also need to make sure you have a resources back-up plan and set the right expectations. Don’t set an expectation you can have 10 people working on a project tomorrow; you need to be clear if it will take you a number of weeks to get to full capacity on a project.”


He says, from a financial perspective, it’s also key to ensure the larger business pays you milestone payments, so you can manage your own cashflow and costs.


Toby Jenkins is the CEO of web strategy company Bluewire Media. The business has dealt with the Australian subsidiaries of large multinational corporations.


He says personal connections are one of the best ways to get on the radar of a bigger business.


“We’ve done work with a subsidiary of a large global financial services business, whose CEO I met through a friend at a Christmas drinks party,” he says.


“I followed up with him after the party and the relationship evolved from there, from one small piece of work to a bigger relationship.”


Like Smith, Jenkins says the fact Bluewire is local is an advantage that can be leveraged when competing against bigger business for work: “We understand the local market and the language, which makes a difference, because a global strategy is not going to work in every geography.”


With another large client, the first contact was made after the business searched Google for a special media speaker and found Bluewire.


The client liked Bluewire’s website, then engaged the business to prepare a social media strategy, then rollout the strategy.


But, unlike Smith, Jenkins says Bluewire avoids pitching for business whenever possible.


“It’s an extremely expensive process and so much depends on the relationship with the client firm – going in cold can be a nightmare,” he says.


Marcus Dervin is the director of WebVine, which specialises in developing SharePoint solutions and websites for clients.


As a former Commonwealth Bank employee, initially he was able to win work from the bank thanks to his relationships with staff at the company.


He has also been able to win work with bigger businesses by jointly pitching with partners, increasing the amount of services that they offer.


“When I’m pitching, I always emphasise that the client will be dealing with me. I’m the first point of contact for the business.”


“I’m involved in designing the solution and I make sure the work gets done. It’s not like I have a sales guy who comes in and promises the client the world, only to get the technical guys involved who will say, well, yes, the project can be done, but it will cost double what was first estimated.”


Dervin says having worked inside big businesses such as Optus and Apple, he also understands how they tick and their politics.


“I’m aware of their advantages and limitations, which is really helpful,” he says.


“You also need to understand when you’re dealing with an individual inside one of these businesses, you are also dealing with all their politics.”


“You can’t just go for it; because they have brand, marketing, IT, security and communication considerations.”


In terms of maintaining connections within larger firms, Dervin says the idea is to make sure you are always on the radar of former clients so they don’t forget about you.


“Try to stay in touch with former clients because it encourages them to pass your information to other contacts within the business,” he says.


“And don’t forget to get out there and go to different networking events; and always be willing to meet new people, because you never know where work will come from.”


“But having a few big names as clients really does help your credibility and increases your chances of winning work from other big firms down the track.”


Five steps to landing a big-name client:

  • Do your research. Where are the market failings? How is your business able to solve a problem when others can’t?

  • Forge useful contacts. Go to networking events. Talk about your business to everyone who will listen. If they won’t give you their custom, they may know someone who will.

  • Use your size to your advantage. Establish a rapport with potential clients to underline the hands-on, personal approach of your start-up. It’s a key advantage you have over the big guns.

  • Don’t overstretch. It may be tempting to promise the moon and stars to a big-paying client, but can you afford it? Will it run your business into the ground? What will the consequences be if they ditch you in the future?

  • Keep the lines of communication open. You’re a start-up with a small, personable team. It may even be just yourself in the business. This means that you aren’t a large, faceless corporate that chews up clients and spits them out. Don’t burn bridges with former clients and try to maintain a wide network. It can benefit you down the line.