Whether you run a design firm, a PR agency, or a landscaping business, if you’re a “small business,” there are barriers--perceived and real--to landing the big-name clients that will take you to the next level.

So why do big companies hire small firms?

Typically, because they are perceived to be cheaper, hungrier and more willing to run the engine past redline to please clients. 

Paying the requisite dues to get into the country club is still a fact of life for many small firms, but under-bidding and over-delivering are not sustainable practices, especially for small firms. 

In a world where reputation rules, how do you avoid the inevitable Catch-22 of needing the big- name experience to get the big-name experience?

First, you need to go after work that you want to do, and work that you can do well. But even if you’re ready for the big date, you need to get the invitation. Fundamentally, landing big clients is about trust. You don’t have to be big, or published in the journals, or have offices in Manhattan. 

You have to be the best version of yourself, and you have to be persistent; here at Hornall Anderson, we have both succeed and failed in going after big name work.

Here are 10 tips for small businesses to landing those whales :

1. This actually is a first date:  Be polite. Be on time. Be interesting. Listen more than you talk. You have to be someone the client wants to be on the phone with every day for weeks on end. One advantage small firms have is being more accessible and personal. Overcome the expectation of flakiness that your bigger siblings have set with your clients.

2. You are a global company: You’re all about early mornings/late nights; you present well over the phone; you don’t mind travel. No matter where your office is, show them that distance and time are not gating factors to entering into a relationship with you. Our recent work with the Empire State Building had us Seattleites on East Coast time for several months, but it also taught us to be very proficient with Web conferencing and other sharing tools.

3. No one wins every time: For every marquee job, there are two to three beautifully executed, thoughtful, presentations in the recycling bin. Going to bat costs time and money: When you lose, be graceful, but be ruthless about getting feedback on why you struck out.

4. All visibility is not created equal: Market your capabilities and your brand aggressively, but in a way that is directly relevant to the kind of work you want to get. Quality over quantity when showing your past work, and always talk about why it’s relevant, not why it’s good.

5. Be agile: Your size lets you move quickly, engage in rapid prototyping, make impulsive decisions… these can be good things. You are not hamstrung by preconceived notions of process, and if you can, within reason, say 'yes' where the other guys reflexively say 'no,' you might make your client look like a hero for hiring you.

6. Be careful about speculative work: Spec work can get you hired, but it can also get you burned. The big guys get hired for their ideas, not just their executions. Have the discipline to sell your ideas--and your approach to the project--without high-fidelity executions: If you’re waiting until first round design to get hired, you probably won’t.

7. Don’t over-listen: Responding to every line item in an RFP makes you the teacher’s pet, but if you can show that you thought about the fundamental problem they’re trying to solve, and not just the deliverable, they might actually read your whole proposal.

8. Do "big-client work" for your small clients: You’re only as good as your last job, so look for opportunities to invest in the little guys to get the big guys’ attention. And put your money where your mouth is--over delivering for an existing client or doing something pro bono is almost always a better investment than spec work. We have found that our personal lab projects are often more compelling to clients than past work--it shows how we think.

9. Focus on the business result: Have an almost unhealthy attachment to metrics. You’re not on a retainer, so show the client that you’re not hunting awards: their bottom line is your bottom line. You should be constantly trying to streamline your own processes as well, and those metrics make a statement to clients that you will be grading yourself long before they will.

10. Overcome the accountability barrier: They have to believe in you. Remember, the people hiring you are accountable to other people for your work. They feel safer with the name they know, not because the work will necessarily be better, but because by hiring “the best,” they are defraying some of that accountability. Small firms simply have to work harder to earn that trust, which comes from clear expectation setting, not just saying yes.

Ultimately, size isn’t about how many people you have on the clock. Great ideas, thoughtfully presented, will win big work. Play to your strengths: you are cheaper, you will work harder, and you are hungrier than they are.

 

Jamie Monberg is the Chief Experience Officer atHornall Anderson in Seattle