How to Swim with Sharks

What I’ve learned about winning business against – and with – mega-competitors.

By John Dillard, president and co-founder of Big Sky Associates

As many readers of Overdrive know, it’s really hard to be a young entrepreneur and grow a business in a market filled with large, well-funded competitors. There is a strong temptation to find a market in which there are few big players – or where the players are weak, so that you can take the lead quickly.

At Big Sky, we’ve chosen to take a different approach: “Swim with the Sharks.” We are a small management consulting firm and our competitors are frequently big players with deep pockets. You’ve probably heard of the companies we’re going up against, because many of them are well-known brands: Accenture. Deloitte. Boeing. Northrop Grumman. Booz Allen Hamilton. If you’re a little guy like us, it sounds pretty scary. If you’re a team of 10-20 people and you’re going up against 50,000, how can you win? By sticking to the four principles below, we have grown rapidly since our launch in 2006:  

  1. Put people and ethics first. If you’re small, your customer can get to know you and your people really well. If your customers trust you and know that you’ll always tell them the truth, you cut through the noise of the large firms with thousands of employees.
  2. Build a team with big and small business experience. We’re all for entrepreneurial spirit, but we also hired people from Accenture, McKinsey, and other big firms. Your customers get the agility and responsiveness of a small firm but have the confidence that your team has successfully completed complex projects for Fortune 100 clients.
  3. Partner with the sharks. We’ve had great success carving out small portions of projects that the Big Guys don’t want, or that are well-suited for a small business, and convincing the Big Guys to let us do that portion of the project. Then we work really hard to build incredible relationships with the end customer. 
  4. Win on style points. Let’s face it: trying to be “unique” is pretty darn tough unless you’re a genius or can predict the future. Big Sky isn’t different because we have a dramatically different product or service: we’re different because we are building a quirky culture that is laser-focused on customer results. For example, we’re adopting Best Buy’s Results-Only Work Environment, in which employee results are important instead of when or where they do their work. 

Those four guideposts are important, but just as important are the things that we don’t do. We don’t compete on price. We don’t have expensive offices. We walk away from work that doesn’t fit. We don’t focus on an impossibly small niche. We don’t make claims to be “world class” or “best of breed.” We’re just great problem solvers with great customer relationships, and we do it all with panache. The result: we have nearly doubled in size every year since 2006.

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