Even though I was a veritable babe in the woods whenI co-founded my firm in 1995, I did know a few things that would be critical to our eventual success:

  • I had to differentiate Peppercomm from the thousands of other PR firms.
  • I had to hit the ground running with every business development tactic I knew.
  • I needed to focus on smaller prospects to build my nascent firm’s credibility.

I accomplished the first goal by developing a unique positioning line: "What separates Peppercomm from our competition is helping set clients themselves apart from theirs." It worked like a charm. I achieved the second goal by expanding my agency’s publicity beyond the obvious PR trades. I pitched stories to Inc. as well as other outlets that catered to an entrepreneurial reader. For the last one, I wined and dined the CEOs of the aircraft-carrier-size PR firms of the day to let them know we existed, and to ask them to send any prospects they deemed too small our way.

By staying focused on achieving our three goals, we were able to survive, prosper, and eventually land more than our share of white whales. But I realize there's a lot more to know. So recently I contacted two highly successful entrepreneurs and uncovered some pearls that I believe should be part of every Inc. reader's new business strategy.

Wedding-cake strategy

Ed Telmany is the CEO of U.S. Coachways, a 60-person, family-owned bus rental organization. Along with a thriving business-to-consumer practice, Telmany focuses on schools and small corporations for his revenue stream. And he's figured out how to satisfy each. "I don’t believe we’re in the bus rental business," he says. "I think we're in the wedding-cake business, because if the wedding cake doesn't make it to the event, it ruins everything. You have one shot to get it right."

That's true in my business. And it certainly holds true for Rami Rahal, a general partner at Blue Cloud Ventures, as well. Blue Cloud is a venture fund that specializes in providing smaller amounts of cash (i.e., $2 million to $7 million) to cloud-related small businesses to either expand or go public.

The two-year-old New York City-based fund set itself apart from the get-go by identifying a white space in the market: "Big funds focused on writing really large checks in late-stage rounds, but there was no one flexible enough in terms of time horizon, board representation, and check size that could give entrepreneurs what they wanted," Rahal says.

To connect with the incredibly busy technology entrepreneurs with whom he partners, Blue Cloud must be much more than a source of funding, he says. “We speak CEO to CEO and show empathy to the incredible amount of work needed to succeed. We don’t think a tech entrepreneur should have to run his business and have 15 different conversations with 15 different funds. It's simply too much of a time suck."

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow

Telmany is a self-confessed workaholic who says he does one new thing every day to push his business forward and make it even friendlier to small-business owners in need of event transportation. Enhancing the user experience on the U.S. Coachways website is just one move he cites.

Indeed, personalizing the customer experience is critical to winning the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs. Telmany offers another example: "As we grew on a national level, I changed the organization's structure. We went from passing a lead from sales to account management and [then further along]. Now we have a more personalized one-to-one model. The same person with whom you initially connect stays as your point of contact throughout the entire process.”

Rahal agrees with the U.S. Coachways approach. "At the end of the day, it's a person business," he says. "So when I go to meet the CEO of a small business, I must sell him on my being the right person for his needs." He says he asks clients, "'Tell me, what do you need? How can I help you? You want to grow internationally? You want more money?'"

Meanwhile, Blue Cloud is actually a co-investor with larger VC funds. As a result, Rahal is not seen as a competitor but as a revenue source. "I don't want to do what everyone else is doing--raising money, raising a fund, and competing with the big guys," he says. "No! Let's partner with them. Let's find deals. Let's bring them leads as well as the unique ability to raise smaller amounts of cash in a shorter period of time. So we co-lead deals with direct competitors." That's brilliant and takes my idea of asking larger competitors to toss me their leftover morsels to a whole new level.

Accountability

Telmany is a big believer in holding every one of his employees accountable. "We have to do so, because entrepreneurs expect more for their money," he says. "They want an even bigger bang for their dollar than do large customers." Sixty percent of the company's bookings are done online, he adds, so "the online experience has to be just as flawless as the actual event planning and execution."

When Telmany adds a new feature, benefit, or service, he again looks at himself and his team. "Our goal is to be the most efficient and most cost-effective solutions provider for small businesses nationwide," he says. "If we don't address that goal every day, some competitor will." 

Rahal agrees accountability is critical but takes a different view. "We may have a structured approach, but we don't have a structured mindset," he says. "That allows us to think about things differently, figure them out, test them, and see what works, what doesn't. It aligns beautifully with the way technology-sector entrepreneurs think.”

Try it; you’ll like it

These approaches work for U.S. Coachways, Blue Cloud, and Peppercomm. Although they're tailored to meet our individual sector needs, they will work for you if you put the harpoon down for a moment and let the great white whale swim a little longer. Perfect your strategy with the small fry, and I promise you’ll land one or more of the big ones in the very near future.