In 2009, my husband and I were contemplating whether to launch another startup. We'd sold our first company to Intuit and taken a few years off to enjoy family and life. But, as entrepreneurs, we were restless with all the down time and eager to jump back in. We didn’t mind the risk or the hard work, but we faced a fundamental dilemma: With all the 800-pound gorillas in our market, should we even try?
Some friends told us we were crazy to get back into our service field of legal filing. Even Intuit had since abandoned the market, but there were still some very major players in the space. You've probably heard their commercials on national radio and television spots.
Fortunately, we decided to put our doubts aside and march full-steam ahead, with confidence that we could differentiate ourselves from other players.
Most entrepreneurs and small-business owners face a similar challenge these days. You'll always have a Wal-Mart, Amazon, Salesforce, Home Depot or other giant looming over some part of your market. I can tell you from experience that competing against the deep pockets of a major player isn't easy -- but it is possible. Here are five tactics we've used to help build our company.
1. Find your niche.
When you have limited resources, the first lesson is to realize you can’t do it all. Large companies can juggle countless products, services, divisions and business units. But a small company that tries to be all things to all people will surely fail.
Your best bet is to find a narrow niche and dominate it. Heap a ton of love and attention on a few select products, services or market segments. You’ll be able to provide a product in this segment that's superior to anything a big, distracted company ever could. And once you establish yourself as the leader in your particular niche, you can begin to expand outward.
2. Offer personalized service.
Big companies typically push for scalability. This generally means a one-size-fits-all approach to customer service, not to mention lots of automation. At best, this results in relatively bland service that isn't very personal. And at worst, customers end up in a nightmare of automated voice recordings and offshore help.
Customer service is a key aspect that can easily differentiate you from the big guys. Don’t worry about doing things that won’t scale. Any investments you make in customer service will pay dividends, in the form of recurring business and word-of-mouth recommendations. Have a personality, and set yourself apart by showing how pleasant and likable everyone is. Throw in freebies or offer free tools and resources whenever possible to show customers you understand their challenges and can provide ways to help.
3. Embrace word-of-mouth marketing.
A few years after launching our business, I got a wakeup call. I'd been trying to keep up with other companies' big marketing budgets, matching their spending on Google AdWords. It was bleeding us dry.
We changed course. Instead of competing directly in expensive ad markets, we focused elsewhere. For example, one of our primary efforts focuses on providing customers with exceptional experiences that drive positive reviews. After all, 92 percent of customers trust recommendations from friends and family more than other types of advertising.
In addition, we make the most of social media by engaging with customers on a regular basis. We communicate through humor, offers, contests and information. I try to leverage social media to give other small-business owners the helpful information and tools they need to run their own companies. We go beyond topics related only to the services we provide.
The bottom line? Don’t feel pressure to keep up with everyone else, particularly with pay-for-play advertising. It won’t work. Do your own thing based on
4. Don’t obsess over your competitors.
I used to lie awake worrying what all my competitors were doing. It took some time to realize just how unproductive this behavior truly is. It’s important to keep tabs on what’s happening in your industry, but your competitors shouldn’t guide your strategy. If you're simply reacting to what others are doing, you'll always be a few steps behind.
Here's a key lesson: You are not in business to compete against other companies. You are in business to help your customers and offer something great. Focus on what your customers and employees need, and things will take care of themselves.
5. Be the underdog.
Whether it’s in business or sports, people love to love the underdog. Don’t try to hide the fact that you’re a small business -- embrace it. Your B2B customers probably face many of the same issues you're up against, as small companies -- like yours! -- competing with the big guys. Being small is a great way to get people to relate to you and build customer loyalty.
Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan explained why “underdog” brands resonate so well in the marketplace: “Underdogs show perseverance in the face of adversity and are resilient even when they fail, staying focused on their end goal," she said. "Their determination forces them to pick themselves up after they lose to try to win again. They defy others' expectations that they will fail.
"They are more passionate than others about their goals, which serve a central role in defining the meaning of their lives; and they remain hopeful about achieving them, even when faced with obstacles.”
Keinan's words sum up the philosophy behind many of the great entrepreneurs and small-business owners I know. Break away from the traditional corporate-marketing playbook and focus on telling your unique story as an entrepreneur. Let people hear why you started your business and learn how you grew it. Never shy away from sharing the bumps and challenges you’ve encountered along the way. Your customers will love you -- and your business -- for it.