It’s tempting for small businesspeople to bill their companies as big national firms.
Here’s why pretending to be big is a big mistake:
Some of the biggest companies didn’t start that way.
Google didn’t come into the world as a global brand. It started as a search engine, created in a dorm room crammed full of inexpensive computers. Sam Walton opened the first Walmart Discount City in Rogers, Arkansas; today, it’s the world’s largest retailer.
When the next PI company launches, it’ll start out as the “leading international service provider” and end up as a file in the local court house archive of new business filings.
National, International…might as well add Global to the mix.
Many new small business owners tend to overbill themselves when they hang their shingle. If you ask them why, they’ll often say that clients don’t trust small, local companies to handle their investigations services, or that pretending to be big gets you noticed.
So, to impress potential clients with their vast reach and influence, they tell a little white lie, and call themselves “global.”
You might actually fool a few people into believing that you are an international company…for awhile. But eventually, they’ll start to pick up on clues that your resources are more limited than your claims. Maybe you’ve rushed to finish a report, and it’s riddled with typos. Or maybe you’re so overextended that you start to miss deadlines.
Often, the easiest way for clients to tell you’re out of your depth is by visiting your website.
As a web developer, I can’t help but scrutinize every website that I visit. You have no idea how often I’ve come across a company website that offers international services and diplomatic protection, but that was clearly cobbled together using a drag and drop editor service for a free website builder. If you built your site using Website Tonight, Wix, Yourfreesite, or Site-Builder, you’re not fooling anybody into believing that you’re a national company.
A website is a client’s first clue as to how “global” you really are.
One of your first expenditures should be hiring a designer and web developer to build you a professional-looking website—a site with simple and tasteful design, well-written copy, and easy-to navigate organization. A quality website will be your calling card, a place to prove to clients how tech-savvy, articulate, and attentive to detail you are.
But don’t be tempted to make big, sweeping claims about your new company’s position on the world stage.
Why pretend to be a big enough firm to handle a project for a corporate client, when you don’t yet have the resources to handle the case properly?
In my experience, an investigations company founded on a white lie doesn’t tend to inspire trust. If you want to build a solid infrastructure for a growing business, you’ve got to begin with honesty.
Small and steady wins the race.
The misconception that “if they know how small my business is, people won’t want to do business with me” is based on the incorrect assumption that the bigger a company is, the better its service will be. It assumes that quality is 100% based on size.
You don’t have to go far from home to test this one: Go to a national taco drive-thru chain and eat a mass-produced “taco.” Then go to a local taco truck and try the real thing. Which one is better? In my town, it’s no contest: the local taco truck wins every time.
Generally, quality vs. quantity is pretty transparent in the chain-restaurant market. Indie restaurateurs may have to work harder than chains to help people find their front door, but they offer fare that’s usually healthier and tastier, and service that’s far more personal.
You can do the same as an independent investigations firm: Be small, offer excellent service with a personal touch, and make a few clients very happy.
Act your size, wear your shirt, and work it.
Successful small businesses don’t need to pretend to be more than they are.
Instead of trying to offer clients every possible service, why not distinguish yourself as an expert in one area? Do that thing, and do it well—play to your strengths.
And play to the advantages that small businesses have over large corporations. As a boutique business, you can offer more personal, flexible service and, thus, develop lasting relationships with customers. You can take that call from a panicked client at 9pm, make instant decisions without checking with the chain of command, and generally be available—a real person, reachable on the phone—to see to your clients’ needs.
If you keep answering his calls at all hours, under-promise, and over-deliver, that client will call you before anyone else from now on, when he has a follow-up assignment.
Be who you are.
Don’t get stuck on the “small” of your small business. Being small has its perks: It’s easy to keep overhead and debt low, to implement innovations on the fly, and to maneuver easily when your firm needs to change course.
Best of all, there’s no internal glass ceiling blocking your way up. But you still have a long climb ahead, and no guarantees. Most businesses fail, and very few grow into Google and Walmart. Thousands more march along quietly, feeding their founders’ families *and their employees’ families) for decades, or even for generations.
They don’t do that by being the biggest. They do it by being relevant in their field, and by getting better all the time.