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When starting a business, it’s natural to go after small customers: It generates revenue, sharpens your offering, and allows you to make mistakes on a smaller scale. But it is not the only way to grow.
My company was three years old when we landed our first multimillion-dollar contract with a US telecom company—at that time, we had fewer than 10 employees. Reaching a Fortune 100 customer might seem a long way off when you’re a startup, but it can be done.
The total market capitalization of Fortune 100 companies reached an all-time high of $33.2 trillion in 2023 — up 48% in just one year — with a combined profit of $1.8 trillion. Winning even a small percentage of this business can bring big rewards to any startup; However, doing so requires strategic planning and grit.
Here are four key lessons I learned setting up business with some of the largest companies on Earth.
Related: 6 Ways Small Businesses Can Win Over Big Businesses
1. Create an irresistible value proposition
In the wireless industry, companies only compete on product and price. Getting a big contract meant taking on global tech giants, who heavily subsidize their products or bundle costs into other service models. We wouldn’t have won these selling points alone.
To be considered, we knew we had to create an irresistible value proposition, one that would solve the pain points our competitors weren’t interested in. To do this, we went to the source: the client. At every major company we’ve targeted, we’ve asked the support team which points are most popular with their customers.
It turns out, at the time, that the customer would be cut off by their service provider if they did not use a certain amount of minutes within a specified time frame. Another common issue with battery installation: at the time it was illegal to ship devices with batteries pre-installed. So they will arrive separately, causing end user confusion.
Once we knew what our potential clients’ biggest issues were, we were able to customize a solution that solved the whole problem: a quick start guide that addressed setup issues and automated reminders to use minutes before a deadline.
We were no longer competing with companies based on product and price, we were offering a solution that no one else had – one that not only met the stated requirements but also reduced call center costs and customer disruption.
When you’re a startup, finding creative ways to compete for value doesn’t just give you the confidence you need to attract big customers; It can set you apart from competitors with long standing relationships.
Related: 3 tips for making deals with big companies
2. Identifying the hero in you
Selling to large companies takes a long time. Outdated policies and bloated organizational schemes perpetuate inefficiencies and change happens slowly, especially when it comes to onboarding new partners.
Not only is it difficult to get all the necessary decision-makers in one room, but you also have to get them aligned: domestic politics becomes a major factor in this process. I’ve seen billion dollar projects go south because of a CEO who didn’t want to outsmart the company, at the expense of the company.
For this reason, it is critical that you build strategic relationships with company insiders who have the power to support your proposal and guide you through office politics.
Look for people who ask logical questions at the first meeting – this indicates that they are engaged, understand strategy and may be willing to support you. If you can convince these people that your company can offer great value, they may become strategic partners and help you close the deal. Even if you miss the first one, maintaining these internal relationships can lead to a flood of deals down the road.
3. Provide white glove service
Large companies often have bad customer service and this is where startups have an advantage.
In a large company, it may take days just to identify the exact person responsible for fixing a customer’s problem, and once they are found, they may not be empowered or incentivized to act on it. When you’re a team of 10 people, it’s a challenge you don’t have to navigate.
If an issue arises for one of our clients, we get to the bottom of it quickly while maintaining exceptional contact with the strategic partners we’ve built in-house. If a request is out of range, we report it, but we’ll often still help troubleshoot if it means keeping the relationship going.
As a start-up company, it is our core to strive to hustle and exceed customer expectations. Providing a level of service that our larger peers in the industry cannot compete with has enabled us to achieve a 100% retention rate – a near impossible feat when servicing small businesses.
Related: 6 tips on how to work with high-profile clients
4. Establish the terms of the deal in advance
I often say I learned over 1000 things I did wrong in business, over 100 things I did right. One such key lesson is the importance of having the terms of the deal clearly spelled out in a strict contract, upfront.
When working with small and medium businesses, the terms of the deal are generally well understood among key decision makers. Paperwork is important, but there is less risk of a deal falling through because the standard operating procedure has not been approved by an anonymous stakeholder.
Multinational corporations can have dozens of stakeholders involved in closing any one deal, and if not every single one of them signs, all the time you spent building relationships and negotiating the contract could be for nothing.
C-level executives leave companies and projects are canceled when leadership changes. This is why it is important that you do not engage in any speculative work. The good news is that once you sign a great contract, a slow-changing great company culture works in your favor, resulting in lower disruption rate and higher revenue.
There is no perfect test to measure whether or not you are ready to pursue great business, but if you don’t take risks, you will never realize the reward. If you view every mistake as a learning opportunity and don’t pass up that possibility, you can compete for world-class clients and your company will emerge stronger for it.