Tips on dealing with large companies

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Many startups endeavor to work with large companies, usually as channel partners, e.g. ways to acquire customers cost effectively. As posted previously, I’m not a fan of this strategy for early stage companies, much better to wait until you have customers and revenue before trying to partner with large companies.

Back in my days as a serial entrepreneur I spent much of my time on business development with large companies: Apple, Netscape, Lotus, Microsoft, WordPerfect, Fujitsu, Ernst and Young, Reed Elsevier, Silicon Valley Bank, and many others.

Here are some tips you may find helpful as you try to convince large companies to work with you:

  • Most importantly, learn how to pitch your company convincingly. Get lots of practice with investors, job candidates, mentors and others who will give you good feedback.
  • Do an out of town try out. Don’t try to go directly to Broadway, in other words try your pitch with smaller companies and modify it as necessary based on your success with them before you try it with big companies.
  • No one likes to go first. The first question most big companies asked me was “Who else is working with you?” That’s where having some success with smaller companies with good reputations can really help you. Best yet is if you are working with their competitors – that will get their attention!
  • Don’t try for the market leader right off the bat. Market leaders tend to be very arrogant, hard to reach, and generally feel like they don’t need any help from anyone, let alone a tiny startup. The companies in 2nd, 3rd or 4th places are looking for ways to catch up with number one. Generally for that reason they are more receptive to meeting with a startup than the market leaders.
  • Figure out what’s in it for them. This is actually my first rule of business development. You should know what’s in it for you: “what’s the ask?” Don’t ever schedule any meeting where you don’t have a clear objective for the outcome. But in bus dev you need to study the large company and figure out what you have of interest to them. That can be your technology, your business model, or your means of customer acquisition. You do have to be careful as large companies often just copy the successful approaches of startups. After all, do you have the hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions it will take to sue them? I didn’t think so. So your pitch needs to be tantalizing but don’t give away your trade secrets.
  • Find and cultivate someone to champion you. In my case, being in the education market, I found and cultivated the directors of education marketing at the BigCos. I gave a lot of thought to how I could help them succeed at their companies. You also need to arm your product champion – he or she is going to battle with senior management on your behalf. So make sure you have a great web site, one page executive summary, and slide deck at the least. Even better is a demo, prototype or shipping product your champion can show their manager.
  • Be persistent but not annoying. Getting a meeting with large successful companies in your market can be difficult. Set up a Google alerts for the company, their product, and their competitors. You may well find something in the news that you can use as a door opener. For example, if you are in the educational market and you see they just hired a new director of education marketing that new hire may well be more receptive to meeting with you than someone who’s been on the job for years. It may take a lot of calls and emails to reach the right person. As with investors a warm introduction – an intro from someone who knows your target personally – is always best. Just blasting emails to everyone on LinkedIn who is of interest to you will waste your time and effort.
  • Set up meetings at conferences. Most people going to conferences expect to meet new people there and set aside some time for such meetings. It can be a lot easier to get a meeting at a conference or trade show than at corporate headquarters where your target person’s schedule may be booked solid for weeks or even months.
  • Make friends with the administrative assistant. AA’s are the gatekeepers for the schedules of senior managers. Treat them with respect and kindness – they have a tough job and are often taken for granted. AA’s can be a good source of info – is the manager you want to meet with going to Comdex, for example. If an AA takes a liking to you they might just squeeze you in for a quick phone call where someone else might just be told, “sorry but my manager is totally booked out this week.” If you can get an AA excited about your product they  are much more likely to help you out than if you just take them for granted.

Finally, don’t neglect the two prime objectives of any startup: ship a product that people will want to use and get to know your customers. That may well generate incoming calls from someone at at BigCo who wants to learn more about your company and product. One incoming call is worth a thousand outbound calls.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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