Every business starts out small, which may make it difficult to attract the attention of investors, clients and others without the staff and resources of a larger company. So what’s an entrepreneur to do? Once, when Sarah Crossman Sullivan was still running her business from home, she turned on her shower while talking with a prospective investor on the phone — to make it sound like she was in a busy production room, rather than in her bathroom. Other business owners who work alone often refer to their “teams,” which may consist of a patchwork assortment of contractors but not actual employees.
“There is nothing wrong with packaging yourself or company in a professional fashion that projects a bigger, more established organization,” says Karen Post, a branding expert and author of “Brand Turnaround.” “Perception is reality. Smart buyers are more concerned with the ability to produce results than the size of your staff and office. Smart sellers understand how small details can imply credibility, experience and confidence — all superseding one's size.”
Today, Sullivan and business partner Jamie Pennington don’t have to pretend anymore: SeeItFit, their Atlanta-based “virtual dressing room” company, isn’t huge yet, with 12 employees and a dedicated office space, but it has partnered with major market brands, like Under Armour, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor, to allow users to see clothes on themselves while shopping online.
In their case, SeeItFit needed the attention of large brands to make its business model work, so it was important to overcome the stigma of a micro-company with few resources. At the same time, while making a big impression may bring positive attention to a small business, entrepreneurs must be careful not to take it too far. “Be careful not to exaggerate or lie because it could come back and bite you,” says Patrice Rhoades-Baum, a small business marketing and branding consultant.
Here are five tips for conveying the competence of a larger, established firm without losing your authenticity:
1. Go on location. Sullivan advises scheduling as many pitch meetings as you can with potential investors and clients, and always offer to meet at the client’s office to save them commuting time. “No one needs to know [that] a meeting in your office would be around the kitchen table,” she says. “The client is honored by your effort and will see your passion and authenticity.” If it’s not always feasible to meet at the potential partner’s office, Post recommends joining a business club and holding important meetings there.
2. Focus on details. The hallmark of a successful, established business is fulfilling the commitments you’ve made to your company and clients. “Delivering on your promises, meeting deadlines and adding value are things that matter in business relationships,” Post says. “Focus your energy on those things.”
3. Create a strong Web presence. No matter how small your business is, you can always have a professional website — and with tools like WordPress, you can do so inexpensively. If you have a virtual assistant or other contractors working with you, Rhoades-Baum recommends giving everyone an email address linked to your company URL to make your company appear more established.
In addition to building a high-quality site, “utilize all social media options for people to easily find you and your company,” Sullivan says. “While it seems easy, it’s remarkable how many small companies still under-utilize social media.”
4. Dress for success. Don't underestimate how your appearance and “other choices in packaging and behavior,” such as your grammar, courtesy and professionalism, “can either make you appear like an established firm or scream that you just started your business yesterday,” Post says.
5. Don’t commit to more than you can manage. “The biggest risks associated with size is taking on more than you can handle,” Sullivan says. “While we all dream of getting that big order from a Fortune 100 company, be sure that you can deliver on the promises you are making to close the deal. Once you have disappointed a client, the chance of them trusting you again — or the next small company that comes calling — is greatly reduced.”
Before attempting to portray your business as larger than it is (yet), carefully consider how you want your company and your brand to be viewed. “Finding the right way to brand your particular business really depends on the target market and price point,” Pennington says. “Whatever you choose to define your brand and explain your service, make sure it honors your integrity as a company and as a leader. We all start somewhere. It’s not where you start [that matters]. It’s where and how you finish.”