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When starting a business, it’s natural to go after small clients: it generates revenue, sharpens your offerings, and lets you make mistakes on a smaller scale. But it’s not the only way to grow.
My company was three years old when we landed our first multi-million dollar contract with a US telecommunications company — at that point we had less than 10 employees. Landing one Fortune 100 client may seem far off if you are 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 – an increase of 48% in just one year – for a combined profit of $1.8 trillion. Winning even a small percentage of that business can pay big dividends for any startup; however, this requires strategic planning and perseverance.
Here are four key lessons I’ve learned doing business with some of the largest companies in the world.
Related: 6 Ways Small Businesses Can Win With Big Businesses
1. Create an irresistible value proposition
In the wireless industry, companies compete solely on product and price. Landing a big contract meant going up against global tech giants, which are tough subsidize their products or aggregate the costs into other service models. We would never win on those selling points alone.
To even qualify, we knew we had to create an irresistible value proposition, one that would solve pain points that our competitors weren’t aligned with. For this we went to the source: the client. At every major company we targeted, we asked their support team what their customers’ most common paint points were.
It turned out at the time that a customer would be shut down by their service provider if they didn’t use a certain number of minutes within a certain time frame. Another common problem involved battery installation: at the time, it was illegal to ship devices with pre-installed batteries. So they would arrive separately, causing confusion for the end user.
Once we knew what our prospects’ biggest customer problems were, we were able to tailor a solution that solved the whole problem: a quick start guide that addressed installation issues and automated reminders to use minutes before the close date.
No longer competing with incumbents on product and price, we offered a solution that no one else had – one that not only met the requirements, but also reduced call center costs and churn.
If you’re a startup, finding creative ways to compete on value can not only give you the confidence you need to pitch big clients; it can set you apart from competitors with long-standing relationships.
Related: 3 tips for closing deals with big companies
2. Identify your inner champion
Selling to large companies takes a lot of time. Outdated policies and bloated org charts perpetuate inefficiencies and change is slow, 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 on the same page: internal politics becomes an important factor in this process. I’ve seen multibillion-dollar projects fail because an executive didn’t want to be outdone, to the detriment of the company.
For this reason, it is critical that you build strategic relationships with company insiders who have the power to defend your proposition and guide you office politics.
Look for the people who ask logical questions during the first meeting – this indicates they are engaged, understand the strategy and may be willing to support you. if you can convince these people that your company can provide significant value, they can become strategic partners and help you close the deal. Even if you miss the first one, maintaining these internal relationships can lead to deal flow later on.
3. Offer white glove service
Large companies often do bad customer service and that’s where startups have an advantage.
At a large company, it can take days to identify the specific person responsible for solving a customer problem, and once that person is found, they may not be empowered or incentivized to act on it. If you’re a team of 10 people, this is a challenge that you don’t have to navigate.
When a problem arises for one of our clients, we get to the root of it quickly, while maintaining exceptional communication with the strategic partners we’ve built within. If a request is out of scope, we’ll let you know, but often we’ll still help resolve the issue if it means keeping the relationship alive.
As a startup, it is in our DNA to exceed customer expectations. By providing a level of service that our larger industry peers can’t compete with, we’ve achieved a 100% retention rate – an almost impossible feat when serving smaller businesses.
Related: 6 tips for working with high-profile clients
4. Consolidate deal terms in advance
I often say that I learned more from the 1000 things I did wrong in business than from the 100 things I did right. One of these important lessons is how important it is to have deal terms clearly laid down in a rock-solid contract in advance.
When working with SMEs, deal terms are generally well understood among key decision makers. Paperwork is important, but there is less risk of a deal falling through because a standard operating procedure has not been approved by an unnamed stakeholder.
Multinational corporations can have dozens of stakeholders involved in closing a deal, and if not everyone signs off, all the time you’ve spent building relationships and negotiating the contract may have been for nothing.
C level managers leave companies and projects are canceled when leadership changes hands. Therefore, it is critical that you do not engage in speculative work. The good news is that once you sign a major contract, the slowly changing culture of a major company works to your advantage, resulting in less churn and higher revenue.
There’s no perfect litmus test to gauge whether you’re ready to go after big things or not, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll never realize the reward. If you see every mistake as a learning opportunity and don’t give up on the prospect, you can compete for world-class customers and your business will emerge stronger.