Editor's note: "The First 90 Days" is a series about how to make 2016 a year of breakout growth for your business. Let us know how you're making the first 90 days count by joining the conversation on social media with the hashtag #Inc90Days.​

Small companies often feel as if they're at a disadvantage competing with large businesses. They feel as if customers are likely to consider a larger company more reliable than a smaller competitor.

However, a smaller business need not fear a larger rival if customers believe that the smaller company can build and maintain credibility.

Most people believe that credibility comes from spending big money on branding and advertising. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For small businesses, credibility emerges naturally from five inexpensive, easily executed tactics:

1. Recommendations

Recommendations cost almost nothing and yet create enormous credibility.

To get a recommendation, ask your existing customers and contacts if they know somebody who could use your services. Don't just ask for contact information; ask the existing customer to send an introductory email to the potential customer, copying you on the email.

This has three important benefits: 1) it launches you into the conversation, 2) it white-lists your email address, and 3) it avoids any suspicions that you made up the referral, as is often the case with emails that start, "Joe suggested I contact you."

More important, when an existing customer or contact recommends you to a potential customer, you have automatic credibility because the recommender is putting his or her business relationships at risk in order to endorse you.

2. Customer Testimonials

Testimonials are brief statements of public praise from existing customers which you post prominently on your website. They play the same role as a recommendation, but are less powerful because they're less personal.

To get a good testimonial, consider the questions a prospective customer might ask before hiring you. Then, request quotes that answer those questions. Example: "Joe not only delivered on time, but provided immediate technical support."

Important: Anonymous testimonials reduce your credibility. If there's not a customer who's willing to publicly cop to the testimonial, it says that either 1) you wrote the testimonial yourself, or 2) the customer doesn't wish to be associated with you.

3. Well-Written Success Stories

Success stories are testimonials with a narrative. They describe a before and after situation where you've helped an existing customer to achieve a goal or solve a problem. The key concept here is "narrative" which means telling a story (as opposed to a case study).

The success stories that create the most credibility are 1) relevant and 2) vivid. To make a success story relevant, choose a situation (goal or problem) that is common to the customers you want to attract.

To make a success story vivid, eschew the usual corporate BS and take the reader on a before-and-after journey where your product changed people's lives and careers. Quick tip: Consider hiring a short story writer rather than a business writer.

4. An Easily Navigable Website

I addressed this issue a couple of weeks ago but it bears repeating. Unless your website IS your business (meaning you provide content for ad dollars or sell items online), your website should be straightforward, even minimalist.

Give your website a simple message, reinforce it with testimonials, and provide a single, simple call-to-action. Use a simple layout, remove extraneous content, don't fill it with poorly-written blog posts.

You lose credibility when your website is the typical pig's breakfast of irrelevant content, Google ads, and menu button barrages. You gain credibility when your website suggests clarity of purpose.

5. A Small Amount of Useful Content

Contrary to popular belief, good content marketing does not involve slathering your website with all sorts of information. Instead, you want to provide a small amount of information that is:

  1. Available on request only. Offer the information; never foist it. A free e-book is a good idea; a video that plays as soon as you hit the website is a bad idea. Credible companies are never pushy.
  2. Succinct and simple. Nobody wants to wade through complicated documents filled with jargon. In business, verbosity is the enemy of credibility. Credible companies get the point.
  3. Relevant to the customer. Rule of thumb: Explaining what your product does is usually irrelevant; explaining how a new idea or technology will improve the customer's life or career is always relevant.