Technology is all around us—mostly due to the efforts of companies like Google, HP, Cisco, and Microsoft. Yet, even the largest enterprises had to start somewhere (for more than a few, it was in a garage somewhere). These famous companies clung to core principals like focusing on long-term customer relationships and listening to feedback. I recently asked executives at some of these companies for their best tips for growing a company from scratch.
1. Use social media for listening, not just talking
Ed Abrams, an IBM vice president for midmarket businesses, advises companies to listen to customers on social media; don't just talk. In practice, this means not just posting about your latest news on Twitter and letting people know about a new hire on Facebook. It can often mean reading comments and browsing the posts from your best customers on feeds like Google+ and Path.
2. Start simple and go deep
Abrams also advises small companies to start small with technology. There’s a tendency to embrace many different tech platforms, from CRM to supply chain management. But he says it is better to start with one major platform and do it right—make the data accessible from every phone and tablet first. He says integration nightmares start when a small business dabbles in multiple platforms at once.
3. Pick a large customer
It may seem obvious, but one of the best strategies for any young company is to pick a large customer. David Trucker, the vice president and general manager of Cisco Small Business, says many companies focus on building their product first, then figure out which customers to target. He says, if you pick a customer, you can even include them in the building process to shape the product. “Demonstrating how your company’s product helped target and solve a specific customer need will help garner credibility within the industry and, as a result, help grow your business,” he says.
4. Get detailed feedback from users
Customers are a goldmine of information. Just ask Google. When Google releases a product, it is one of the best large companies at incorporating actual user feedback. Mary Himinkool, head of global entrepreneurship outreach at Google, says the trick is to roll out a new product to a small set of users and get detailed feedback from them, then iterate on their suggestions. She says to use this data as a driver for changes. “Give users clear, easy-to-use ways to submit feedback, and study it closely. Be creative and be bold in experimenting with new ideas, but let the data drive you,” she says.
5. Make social media a priority
Social media is an obvious game changer. But making it a priority can be a challenge for a start-up. Chris Ogburn, the director of small and medium businesses at HP, says small companies should focus on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms in a concerted effort. He says two-thirds of customers use social media as a way to make a buying decision and send feedback. “With customers predominantly online, it’s important for entrepreneurs to be part of the online conversation,” he says.
6. Focus on the long term
Some entrepreneurs are hyper-focused on getting a mention in a tech blog or generating buzz. Matt Thompson, the General Manager for Developer and Platform Evangelism at Microsoft, says a better approach is to focus on building long-term customer relationships. He says this is a two-way street: Your customers are looking for product solutions but they can also provide great feedback. Thompson says, long term, every company has to address the needs of customers and understand them.