It's undeniable: Big companies can do big things. Deep pockets, extensive resources, lots of manpower... wouldn't it be nice?
If you're competing with major players in a well-established market, you have to find ways to disrupt your industry, differentiate yourself, and develop a loyal customer following.
So how, exactly, do you go head-to-head with big competitors? For the most part, you can't. But with some creativity, perseverance, and innovation, you can use the size of your small startup to your advantage. Here's how:
Carve out your niche and develop a unique differentiator
Know this: no business--especially a small one--can be all things to all customers. That's why it's important to develop your niche. Do your research. Identify your core customers and articulate how your customer experience will be different. What will you do to be exceptional?
For example, there are five coffee shops in a one-block radius around my office--Starbucks, Peet's, a couple boutique shops, and then there's Boston Brewin'. My team gets coffee from Boston Brewin' every morning.
What makes it special? The owner, Tom, knows all his repeat customers' names, sources only organic, fair-trade coffee, and has partnerships with several local charities. His entire business model revolves around "giving back." Buying coffee from him, as opposed to a big chain, makes me feel like I'm doing some good in the world. How's that for a differentiator?
Get to know customers and build relationships
When you have a small customer base, you can actually build rapport with them. If you have a retail store, talk to your customers every day. Learn what they really want from your business. If you can't talk face to face, listen in on customer service calls. Or send out surveys via email.
In a big company, the people who work directly with customers often don't have access to strategic decision makers. And communication of customer wants and needs can get lost in the chain of command.
At my current company, one of our mantras is, "We love our customers, and we don't exist without them." Our customer service team manages most of our customer communication, but I regularly read our reviews and listen in on calls. These pulse checks help us connect with customers in a way that our big competitors can't.
React quickly to failure
Big companies are known for moving painfully slowly. But as a nimble small business, you have the freedom to pivot. Rather than fighting through layers of management, policies, and politics, you can react quickly to both success and failure.
Case in point: My current company started as an online logo maker, but we decided to expand into business cards. We developed our product and started investing in marketing. But we quickly saw we were losing money; we couldn't compete head on with a $1 billion printing competitor.
We switched gears and adjusted our product strategy. Instead of acquiring business card customers directly, we combined our business card and logo tools to create a one-stop branding platform. We succeeded and learned from our mistake.
From product offerings to delivery models to marketing campaigns, constantly be testing new ideas. With lots of red tape, it's harder for big companies to test out new ideas. But as a small player, you have the flexibility to do it quickly and easily. As long as you rely on data to gauge success, this is your best path to innovation.
At my current company, I push my team to constantly be testing and trying new things. We have a weekly "Experiments" meetings on Friday mornings to go over results and share updates with each other. We even used to wear lab coats during this meeting for some good-spirited fun. In a startup, everyone is a bit of a scientist.
Believe in yourself
Remember: the size of your small business is a big asset. Embrace your entrepreneurial spirit and do the things big players can't. By creating unforgettable, personalized experiences for customers, you'll build customer loyalty and trust -- leading to overall business growth.