Nothing serves to legitimize a fledgling business faster than winning that first, name-brand account. But, the Catch-22 facing any entrepreneur trying to do just that is formidable: how does one free up one's time to land the big fish without taking his off the ball and losing the few small-but-beloved clients who have chosen to hire him?

Here's how I managed to do just that and, in the matter of a few years, transform my business from a two-man enterprise operating out of a squalid, one bedroom apartment into one of the best-known public relations firms in the United States.

I began with two fundamental strategies that continue to serve me well to this day:

  • Create a unique and sustainable positioning that immediately differentiated my firm from the thousands of other PR agencies with whom I was competing.
  • Maintain a maniacal focus on always putting my firm's best interests above those of my clients. That may sound heretical to some, but it's my belief that my firm is my firm's most important client (because, sadly, clients come and clients go). As a result, every one of my actions in the past 16 years has been predicated on always doing what's best for Peppercom.

Now, back to the strategies needed to landing that first 600-pound marlin.

To accomplish the first goal, I took a cursory look at what the major players in my field were saying about themselves in their marketing. I also carefully examined how other boutique firms positioned themselves. What I found surprised me. The big firms touted their size. So, each and every print advertisement boasted about the number of employees, the number of offices and the number of awards won. As for my fellow fledgling PR entrepreneurs at the time, they always opted for the most obvious message: a smaller agency will provide more senior-level attention and cost-effective results.

I spotted two immediate positioning opportunities:

  • First, my business partner and I had been trained at large agencies and had mastered one of the most important service offerings the big guys could provide: a strategic process for determining how to differentiate their clients from the completion. We already knew how to do what the Bursons, Edelmans and Hill & Knowltons did best.
  • Second, every one of the start-ups focused on providing tactical, media-by-the-pound publicity for their clients. In fact, I'd heard many stories of competitors walking into new business presentations and literally dropping a two-pound stack of clippings on a conference room table to demonstrate their media relation prowess. I'd always seen quantity as far less important than quality: I don't care how many times your firm's name appears in print; if the article doesn't also explain your point of differentiation and key value adds, it's worthless.

Armed with what we saw as our white space opportunity, we immediately began setting ourselves apart in interviews, case studies and bylined articles with the following brand proposition: "What separates Peppercom from our competition is helping set clients apart from theirs."

Once an article ran, we ordered immediate reprints and began peppering (pun intended) our mailing list of chief communications officers with our unique message: Here are two guys who not only can do what the mega agencies can do, but they also understand how to set you apart and generate publicity that will positively affect your bottom-line. It wasn't long before we began getting calls from the likes of Aon Insurance, Duke University, and, believe it or not, G.E. Capital. The latter was so taken by our value proposition that they included us in a significant pitch for their insurance divisions.

By once again demonstrating our core competence in the new business presentation (along with the passion and enthusiasm that should pervade any entrepreneur's mindset), we were able to convince GE to take a risk. They hired us and allowed us to announce the win in every single one of our trade journals. 

Suddenly, we'd arrived. And, just as suddenly, the phone began ringing off the hook (note: this was before the advent of e-mail). Within three years, our billings had skyrocketed to $10 million, we'd attracted many other blue-chip clients ("Hey, if they're good enough for GE Capital, they're good enough for me") and were being feted with one industry award after another.

Looking back, I still believe my two fundamental strategies are rock solid for any small start-up trying to attract that first big account. You must figure out what sets you apart from everyone else and you must treat your own brand as your most important client. Do both and I can assure you you'll be well on your way to receiving that once-in-a-lifetime call from a G.E. Capital executive asking, "So, how would you like to pitch our business?"

Published on: Feb 7, 2012
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