How to succeed in business as a small fish in a big pond

David hook Gioliath

One thing I’ve learnt from working in a corporation and founding a start-up is that small businesses often don’t understand how to court larger clients. Here are three things to consider.

1. Solve a pain point

Find out their objective in meeting with you and match that with your expertise, your unique selling proposition. Ask questions to discover their pain point. Once you work out what you offer that they don’t have, centre your pitch on that – don’t sell your business, solve their problem.

Sometimes the bigger business has the capability to do what you do but there are internal challenges that prevent them from proceeding. Learn to use “tell me more” to obtain context around the pain, then identify where you can add value. Perhaps as a small business, your agility means you can turn projects around more quickly, or maybe your particular expertise can enhance theirs.

2. Know your place as a small business – and own it

One thing that makes large organisations hesitate to work with a small business is doubt that they can deliver at the scale of a big business. Provide reassurance with examples of previous clients or projects that prove you can.

It’s also a common trap for small businesses to try to be all things to all people to win a client. It’s far more effective to offer a specific piece of the puzzle. Have mastery of a niche and be confident that this makes you more valuable than generalists.

If you find that the project isn’t one you want to work on, be firm about saying “no” while keeping the door open. I’ve had offers where my personal values have not aligned with the work, so I’ve declined to move forward. Acknowledge and thank them on an individual level and maintain the relationship. You’re better off sticking to your business strategy and strengths because a job you’re not putting 100 per cent into will reflect badly down the line.

3. Understand the meeting you are in

Learning about corporate structure will help you get a read on the dynamic to understand the meeting you’re in. Know who in the room holds influence and who has the ultimate power – they might not be the same person. This gives you leverage so you can ask for what you want from the right person.

A common mistake small businesses make is overcompensating for size by trying too hard to impress. Hard-sell pitches, showing off all your knowledge, and presentations that are all style and no substance turn potential clients off. The energy you want to bring into a room when you’re pitching should be “this could be a good partnership” with supporting evidence. It’s critical to start asking questions before speaking about yourself; shut up and listen and you’ll learn more.

Occasionally you might be used as a benchmark. There have been times I felt I’d been brought in so the large organisation could prove they were better equipped for the project. If you suspect this agenda, use the opportunity to build a relationship instead. Highlight a strength they don’t have so the next time they have a project that suits, your business is top of mind.

Meeting big clients as a small-business owner can be daunting, but something my film mentor, director Jane Campion, said to me has always stuck: “You’re the director and no one in this film knows this story better than you”. Translated across into business, that means you’re the only one who understands your business holistically. Have confidence in that and you’ll go far, no matter how large the client.