Working for Tech Giants: How Small Businesses Can Win Monster Deals

Doing business with heavyweights of tech industry when you are in the middleweight or lightweight category may seem to be a daunting thing. Chris Howard, CEO and Founder of Softeq, suggests a success recipe for handling the initial anxiety, keeping composure and turning small contracts with tech leaders into a series of monster deals.

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©us.fotolia.com/ra2 studio

For years people have been coming up to me and asking: "How does a relatively small company of 200 people manage to work for giant companies like Intel and AMD, Epson and HP, Disney, Microsoft, Nike, NVIDIA, GoPro... and manage to do it year after year?" Here is the story.

It's 8 o'clock in the evening, and I'm sitting on the brown shag carpet in the living room of our California home. It's 1972, and one of my favorite shows, Land of the Giants, is on TV. It's about a small group of people stranded on a planet where everything is 12 times bigger. I wanted to go there so much! The giants of today are 100,000x bigger than me or you. To Microsoft, Disney or HP you're small whether you're one guy in a house or a hundred people in an office.

1. Find Your Magic Beans
When both Atari and 3DO came out with new game systems, I saw this as an opportunity to break into the game business, which was relatively closed, yet white-hot at that moment. In 1995 id Software had a huge hit called Doom - you remember Doom, right? - and I wanted to make a game like that for kids called Nerf War. The funny thing is, this is Doom I, and everyone I'm pitching the game is telling me the FP Shooter has been done. I called up John Carmack [the co-founder of id Software] and went to spend the day with him. John thought the idea was cool.

id Software was also developing for the Atari Jaguar. But I couldn't just approach Atari as an unknown game developer.

So I approached Hasbro about licensing the Nerf brand. I used that license as a magic bean to reach Atari and get their interest.

After a year of effort we had $300k from Atari for development, and we were paying $100k to Hasbro for the license. And there we were - a little business working with two iconic companies.

2. Grasp the Truth About Giants
The truth is when you are that big and massive almost everybody else looks small. But such giants don't expect you to be as big as they are. After all inside these companies are just a big collection of many small businesses. Those small businesses are made up of minions like you and me. And the truth is they need you...

Small companies can provide many services that big companies just can't get from the alike. The blind giant Orion carried his servant Cedalion on his shoulders. Orion had been blinded and needed Cedalion to guide his way.

3. Fe Fi Fo Fum! Learn to Speak Their Language
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True, they need your help. Yet they don't want to work with just one guy. Even when you're just one guy have a company name, a logo, a website, a domain, business cards. Speak in terms of "we" not "me". Brand your communication, brand your invoices, brand yourself. Every time I'm at a meeting with a customer or at a client's office, I'm wearing a branded shirt. I don't know how many times I've been standing in an elevator when someone I don't know will look at the embroidered logo and ask: "So what does your company do?" It starts a conversation.

Nowadays, your website is your office.

I've found the giants rarely visit your physical office, so make an impression with your website and with your communication.

Create processes and communicate with email aliases: sales@yourcompany.com, accounting@yourcompany.com, etc. I had all of those aliases when I was the only employee. Twenty years later, the only difference is there are hundreds of people behind them.

4. Make the Giants Jolly Green
The secret to being exceptional is simply doing what you said, when you said, for how much you said. It's a low bar really. I got my first contract with HP through a personal connection. He recommended me to a colleague at HP, so I got a small job. I delivered my milestones on time and on budget, and soon they were saying, "Wow, this company is the only one delivering working code on time. Let's shift some work to those who know how to do it right."

You need to bend over backwards, grow and support your champion working inside the big business. Impress just one guy. Make them really happy project after project. And they'll tell their big friends.

5. Grow Your Baby Monsters into Monster Deals

Most monster deals start off as babies. Big companies move slowly, so be patient and don't be too anxious.

They're not all multimillion dollar deals at the start. Our project with SanDisk started with just a couple of guys. We delivered time after time. Eventually, that little project grew into a Monster Deal reaching over 100 people. Winning a monster deal takes time.

Don't take on the project if you're not confident you can handle it. Still it's ok to go for something a little bigger than you're used to, but keep it very close to your area of expertise. Bill Gates was negotiating with IBM for his BASIC interpreter when they asked him, "Hey, can you guys give us a Disk Operating System?" Suddenly there's a monster deal on the table.

6. Be Fearless! Speak with Them on Equal Terms
You can win monster deals without getting eaten alive. We had a large customer who approached us about a project, and I realized we needed half a million dollars - UPFRONT - to succeed. I had a choice...either don't ask them and run the serious risk of failure, or ask for enough money to get the job done. My financial advisor told me: "Don't risk losing the deal." But I knew if I did that I'd likely get eaten alive in the end. Big companies want to know what you need to succeed. Have confidence, communicate as a business, ask for enough money to succeed, and deliver.

I asked them and got the check.

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I've found that one of the biggest challenges with monster projects is not the technology...it's the cash flow. Make sure you structure the payment terms in a way that doesn't leave you without cash. These companies are slow to approve invoices and slow to pay.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The well-known saying of Sir Isaac Newton goes like this, "If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Big businesses don't really want to step on you. They want your help, and they want to lift you up.

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Follow Chris Howard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/techris