Learning to Scale as Your Clients Grow
Any contractor working with early stage companies wants to see their clients take off. When you’re lucky enough to sync up with a fast-growing company, your client might have 10 employees when you start, and hundreds a year later.
While hitching a ride on a rocket ship can be a great opportunity to grow your own business, I’ve learned first-hand that you need to make sure your services stay relevant as your client’s needs evolve.
Nearly four years ago I was referred to a small company – less than half a dozen fulltime employees including the founders – who had just arrived in San Francisco from Denmark. Fast-forward to today, and they’re the leading cloud-based customer service software company with more than 25,000 customers, 300 employees, and an eye towards an IPO.
Below are some essential guidelines for contractors looking to scale their business with a fast-growing client.
1. Identify the Rising Stars
Not all early stage companies will make it. As a vendor, you’ll want to develop a discerning eye to determine which startups among your clients will survive. The basic criteria are simple: The track record of the founding team (success and failures), and their investment team. VCs spend their days vetting companies, so when an early stage company secures a top tier firm, that is one of the strongest signals you can receive.
You can’t stay in the same place and expect to keep pace with a rising star. As you develop new expertise you need to make sure your new skills are applied and made visible to the client. It’s easy for contractors to become pigeon-holed into a specific role where there’s no ‘promotion’ track. For example, when you’re first hired you’re brought on to solve one particular issue. Over the next 6-18 months you do a great job of delivering against your initial deliverable, but you’ve developed expertise in other areas and you’d like to grow the scope of work with your client.
This is where it’s critical to communicate your expanded value as you grow your skill set. You won’t be offered more responsibility or larger projects if you don’t let clients know what you’re capable of – remember to position your new expertise in terms of the problem you’re solving.
3. Find Your Niche
As a small vendor, you can’t scale in the same way a venture-backed organization does. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have an important place at the table. In my case, about two years after my client’s arrival in San Francisco and their B round of funding, the resources of a larger PR firm were needed. While they have a new agency of record, I’m still valued for my local relationships and company history. When a company grows beyond a certain size, it’s only natural that you won't be able to meet all their needs. Instead, figure out the unique value you offer and carve out your own niche within the framework of the client’s other resources. Other vendors aren’t necessarily competitors. Sometimes, a small piece of a bigger pie is better than a large piece of a small pie.
4. Get to Know New Management
When you start working with a company on the ground floor, you’re working closely with the founders. You might think that as long as the CEO knows how great you are, you have job security. Not necessarily. Your relationship with the CEO won’t matter when there’s a new C-suite exec, VP or Director in place who’s not aware of your history, skills, and successes. Therefore, it’s critical to ask for introductions when a new manager joins the organization. Schedule a lunch meeting and do what you can to make your accomplishments visible.
5. Emphasize Your Past History
When a company is adding hundreds of employees a year, don’t underestimate the value of being able to provide ’historical’ background to new employees and management. Your history with the company means you’re intimately familiar with what worked and didn’t work in the past. Take the time to help out new team members; your efforts will pay dividends by establishing you as a key resource.
6. Nurture Relationships Across All Departments
You never know what department may need your services down the road. For example, I typically work with marketing departments, but at my ’rocket ship’ client I recently began handling projects for another department with a different set of team members and needs. As companies grow, inevitable departmental boundaries translate into less information sharing and recommendations as in the past. This means it’s up to you to make your presence and services known. Cultivate relationships throughout the company, attend social functions and make yourself visible. You never know where a casual conversation may lead.
7. Don’t Be Afraid To Walk Away
Whether you’re a full-time employee or long-time contractor, it can be difficult to make large changes within an existing engagement. If you want to change or expand the type of work you’re doing, sometimes the best strategy is to leave.
By walking away, you gain the opportunity to grow with other clients and gain new skills. When the time is right, pitch your return. With your prior history and your new expertise, you’ll be able to command responsibilities and compensation far greater than the incremental steps had you stayed. Of course, for this approach to work, you can’t burn any bridges and must develop your skills while you’re gone.
The needs of a 300-employee company are vastly different from that of a completely new startup. To stay relevant as your clients grow, you don’t have to scale at the same level; you just need to figure out how to stay on the rocket ship by developing your skills, finding niches within the client’s organization, and doing what you can to keep your accomplishments front and center.