STARTUP

3 Ways Startups Can Compete Against the Big Guys

Being selective in your offering and choosing the appropriate partners allows you to have maximum impact with minimal resources.

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BY Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia OConnell - 11 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Being a founder is exhilarating. It can also be exhausting. You're eager to articulate and execute your vision, your way, but you're competing against established business models and brands, and companies whose budgets and bench strength dwarf yours.

How does a lone warrior -- or a small militia -- compete against an army? Service design can help you maximize your impact with minimal resources. Here are three ways you to harness your resources wisely:

1. Focus on what you do best, then design the organization and the customer connection around that.

This is no time for modesty. What is your special thing? Is it sales? Is it operations? Is it strategy? It's a common -- and costly -- mistake to confuse what's easy or what you like best with what you actually do best. Yes, there may be a correlation among them, but not always. Remember, this is about maximizing return on your investment of effort.

One client we worked with loved schmoozing. And he was good at it -- but not as good as he was at coming up with ideas he could get clients to pay big money for. He delegated day-to-day client service to someone else on his relatively small staff.

This worked because he made sure that he spent enough time with clients that they knew he still loved and valued them, and they came to appreciate his time with them in a new light. It also made the most of his time -- and allowed the other person to develop their skills in client relations.

2. Choose your critical customer interactions.

There are dozens of ways to delight or disappoint customers, but some of these touchpoints matter more than others. It may be because of the emotion a customer is bringing to the situation, the amount of money being spent, what's at stake for the client. But critical customer interactions are about why they choose you -- and, ideally, why they stick with you.

If you're a small operation, chances are you are dealing with customers/clients directly, which makes it easy to treat all touchpoints the same, and get bogged down. But that direct contact should also give you a true sense of what really matters to customers and clients. Where are they spending their money? What do they complain about, tell you they need more of, or talk about? If you aren't the one dealing with your customers, ask those who are.

One client who deals in risk and cybersecurity realized his most critical customer interaction was assessment of staff vulnerabilities and staff training, not designing or implementing solutions. He contracted out the solutions architecture and doubled down on assessments.

3. Figure out who it makes sense to partner with -- and when.

You don't necessarily have to do it all inhouse, or do it with fulltime employees -- not in the gig economy A report from The Business Talent Group's ebook On-Demand I.Q. - Winning the War for Talent in the Gig Economy, likens gig workers to Hollywood or sport stars, saying "best talent rises to the top in a free-agent world."

Gig workers let you amass enough scale to undertake large projects without loading up more overhead than you can reliably support. They give you "virtual scale." But that will work only if you use service design tools to make sure that the customer never sees the seams between what you do and what your contractors handle.

"It took me way too long to realize I needed to subcontract parts of my offering," one startup founder told us. "I wasn't spending enough time on only the things that I could do: business development and face-time with clients. "

Sometimes he is able to charge clients for the additional expertise be brings in; sometimes it works out to just about a wash from him. But even when he can't upsell when he needs to partner, he no longer has the both the opportunity and overhead costs associated with doing it all.

There's no shame in being small -- after all, every business started out that way. But don't let the size of your staff impact the size of your goals, your impact, or your dreams.