Dear Norm,
My business partner, Andrew Brown, and I own a company that cleans movie screens. We started doing this type of work in high school and began our own business after college. We are now in our early 30s. It's a growing industry, thanks in part to cleaning crews that use leaf blowers to collect trash. They blow debris all over the place, causing rapid dust and food buildup on top of the nacho cheese, Gummi Bears, and spit wads that regularly get thrown at movie screens. And yet, despite the need for services like ours, I'm having trouble getting through to anyone above a field technician's position at the large chains. That's partly because the screen-cleaning business has an image problem. General managers are bombarded with sales pitches from local companies, each of which swears it has the best cleaning method around. There's a widespread perception that these businesses are selling snake oil and screen cleaning doesn't really need to be done. But as my customers can attest, our services increase light reflection and improve presentation at theaters, which can make a big difference to moviegoers. I could show other theater owners the value of what we do, but I haven't had much luck reaching people with authority to hire us. Any ideas?

--Michael Quaranto, 1570 Cinema Services, Chicago

Getting through to the right decision maker is a challenge for many people starting out in business. There are two fairly easy steps you should take before throwing up your hands in frustration, and I suggested both to Michael. The first is to make sure you've done all the necessary research. He told me, for example, that his company has worked with about 30 Imax theaters, and that there are more than 400 in existence. He has been approaching them one by one. While I admit that I had no idea this type of business even existed before receiving his e-mail, I have had some contact with the Imax corporation, and I asked Michael whether he'd considered trying to gain the exclusive rights to clean its screens. It turned out he knew little, if anything, about the company, its owners, or their relationship to the theaters. He obviously had some research to do. I invited him to get back in touch after he'd done it.

The second opportunity lies in not just attending industry trade shows and conferences but also actively supporting them. Michael said he'd been to a big Imax conference and made good contacts with theater owners. He planned to attend a Cineplex show as well. I told him he should pay for a booth. I've been involved in industry groups, and we call suppliers who attend but don't buy a booth at one of our conferences "freeloaders." They're taking advantage of the networking opportunities, but they're not helping to cover the cost of the event, and as a result their reputation suffers. Michael understood immediately and got right to work preparing for the next trade show.

Please send all questions to Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. Their book, The Knack, is now available in paperback under the title Street Smarts: An All-Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs.

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