Don't Do It Yourself

Smaller Than You Care to Admit?

I’m talking about company size people, c’mon! 

Are you a “solopreneur” or part of a small team trying to convince bigger companies to play in the sandbox with you?

I've often found myself as part of a small team where we’ve had to prove to an established (million to billion dollar) company that there’s little risk to work with us.  How did we do it?  Sometimes we showed a solid track record and other times we just downplayed our inadequacies.

Having a small, lean business gives you many advantages.  You have less overhead and you can be nimble.  But a major problem with a small company is the perception from prospective customers.  Customers often equate size to stability and ability to execute.  Whether you choose to admit it or not, often times that stereotype is correct.  But it’s your job to prove them wrong and be the exception.

Here are my favorite techniques I’ve used to prove that size doesn’t matter.

Show ‘em a Happy Customer

This is by far the most successful tactic you can use.  From the very start you have to categorically delight your first customer.  Do everything imaginable to make them happy and over-deliver on all your promises.  Pull all-nighters, devise workarounds for problems, or bake cookies if you have to.  If they’re not willing to sing your praises, you’ve got more work to do. 

In software development, sometimes problems come up and deadlines are missed.  To show dedication to a client, we've launched partial systems with manual workarounds for missing components while development is completed.  Once I had to spend a week processing credit card transactions by hand (late into the evenings) while my developers worked on a bug that would allow the system to do it automatically.

Once you’ve got a killer reference, ask if it’s ok to mention them to other prospects.  When you’re selling your wares, bring up the great reference early in the sales cycle.  If Big Company X decided to use you, it should be a no-brainer for Big Company Y.

Show ‘em Personal References

If you don’t have any customers yet, it’s time to be creative. If you have a customer, partner, or employer from a previous company that’s willing to vouch for you, try borrowing credibility.  A reference from a reputable company or respected industry insider goes a long way.  And if you’re short on experience, you could also consider asking investors, your lawyer, or even vendors to vouch for you.

We've used some of the same high-quality references to help sell new work in multiple new companies.

Don’t Focus on Size

Try not to draw attention to your size.  If asked directly how many employees you have, it’s ok to be vague and give a range.  When I’ve had a small core group, I’ve said things like:   

“We’ve got a nimble team…under 10 people and a network of freelancer developers we use to staff up quickly as needed for projects”.

Don’t ever lie to a customer, just try to paint your picture in a favorable light.

Staging an Office

So what do you do if a customer wants to visit?

Co-working is a great way to change the perception that you’re all alone working by yourself.  Search online for local co-working groups that rent out space to individuals or small teams.  Many of these groups have conference rooms for a great space to meet your client.

office stagingOr, if you already have an office but not many bodies to fill it, nobody says that everyone in the office has to work for you.  Consider inviting anyone you know with a laptop to come work in your office for a day.  I know some companies that have even paid actors to stage an office. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but you could ask your vendors and local freelancers to all come in and either help present or look busy knowing the meeting could result in more work for them.

Joint presentations with vendors work great.  Not only does it show a larger team to the prospect, but your vendors are essentially vouching for you when they present along with you.

What if You Don’t Have an Office?

All is not lost, just don’t meet at your home.  No matter how “office-like” you make it, it’s still a home.   Either go to the customer’s office or setup a time for coffee or a lunch meeting at a neutral location.  Even people with nice, large offices go out for meetings so it won’t be unusual. 

If your team is all remote, it’s also becoming much more acceptable to explain that you have a virtual team spread out geographically.  Just tell the prospect you’re the only team member in town.

If All Else Fails…

…and you need to convince a customer to work with you, cut them a deal they can’t refuse.  If they’ll be your guinea pig, you’ll not only wow the crap out of them (see my first point), but give them a deep discount on your service. 

Or, instead of making them strictly a customer, consider adding them as a partner or investor.   Setup a deal where they become a stakeholder and share in the company’s profits.  If you do this, you’ll be surprised how happy they are to start referring new customers your way.

 Photo: dennisharper