You’re a little company, now act like one

I talk to a lot of companies that are still hunting for customer #1, or a few sales have been made but the ball isn’t rolling yet.

Most of them are making the same mistake: Their public persona is exactly wrong.

I know, because I made the same mistake! But I learned my lesson, and I’d like to share it with you.

Even before I had a single customer, I “knew” it was important to look professional. My website would need to look and feel like a “real company.” I need culture-neutral language complimenting culturally-diverse clip-art photos of frighteningly chipper co-workers huddled around a laptop, awash with the thrill and delight of configuring a JDBC connection to SQL Server 2008.

It also means adopting typical “marketing-speak,” so my “About Us” page started with:

Smart Bear is the leading provider of enterprise version control data-mining tools. Companies world-wide use Smart Bear’s Code Historian software for risk-analysis, root-cause discovery, and software development decision-support.

“Leading provider?” “Data mining?” I’m not even sure what that means. But you have to give me credit for an impressive quantity of hyphens.

That’s what you’re supposed to do right? That’s what other companies do, so it must be right. Who am I to break with tradition? Surely my potential customers would immediately close the browser if they read:

Hi, I’m Jason and I built an inexpensive tool for visualizing what’s in your version control system. It’s useful for answering questions like “When was the last time we changed this file?” Check it out and tell me what sucks!

I mean, can you just imagine a person with “Software Engineer III” on their business card taking me seriously if I just talked like a human being? What if someone gets offended by the word “sucks?” No no, big companies want to see professional language!

But I was wrong. I’ll explain why from the point of view of selling software over the web, but the same lesson applies to every little company trying to get off the ground.

Now repeat after me:

My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin.
My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin.
My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin.

I’m telling you this having sold software to every size of company from micro-ISV to IBM, and, well, to Lockheed Martin.

Your vision is to land $100k deals with big companies — and you will! But not today. Today your product is a shaky version one-dot-oh with bugs you haven’t uncovered yet, missing 80% of the features big companies require, and with no significant documentation like case studies or a proper manual or an ROI model or a large, reference-able customer.

Today, you’re a complete mismatch with Lockheed Martin! But there’s a nice big niche that’s a perfect match: Early Adopters.

Early Adopters are people who want to live on the bleeding edge. They like new technology, even if that means it’s buggy. They like working with teeny companies where they have a personal relationship with the founders, where they are showered with attention, and where their ideas are implemented before their very eyes. They don’t mind putting up with a hundred bugs so long as they get fixed fast. They want to be involved in the process.

Tom is an Early Adopter. At Smart Bear I must have had ten or twenty of these guys before our product was stable enough and feature-rich enough to start getting attention from the big boys.

The best part is, this is exactly the moment in your company’s life when you need Early Adopters to help you build the right product! You don’t need people who download, get discouraged, and then never call you back. You need a chatty Cathy who wants to dive in and help out.

So now back to your website, your blog, your Twitters — your public corporate persona generally. What do you put up on your website that screams out to those potential Early Adopter Cheerleaders that you are exactly what they’re looking for: A cool new company with a fresh product and fresh attitude; a product that might be rough around the edges but is ripe for feedback and collaboration; a company that may be small today but is thinking big.

Well here’s how not to it: Say “a leading provider of” and blather on about how you “Provide the ability to quickly and easily do XYZ so you can go back to accomplishing high-value tasks.”

Puh-leeze. Can you be more uninspiring?

Balsamiq Studios is doing it right. Read their company page. It’s says “Hello.”  It says “Yes, a couple of guys in a studio.” They don’t skirt the issues of being a small company:

I know, it sounds iffy: how can such a small team create, test, maintain, market, sell, and support a software company?

Well, that remains to be seen.

Balsamiq made $800,000 in their first year of operations, so don’t tell me “big companies” need to hear garbage PR/marketing language. Balsamiq got 100 product reviews during their first six weeks of operation, so don’t tell me “a couple of guys in a studio” isn’t a good public persona.

You want that kind of success? Stop acting like a faceless, humorless, generic, robotic company!

Put yourself in the shoes of that Early Adopter. Does she want to see useless garbage phrases or does she want to hear about how you totally understand her pain? Should you come off as a big, established, safe company or as a cool, passionate, small team who wants to make a difference? Should you hide behind “Contact Us” forms or display your phone number and Twitter account on your home page? Should you promote features and benefits you don’t really have implemented yet or should you promote your forums, blog, and weekly all-customer virtual meeting where everyone chimes in with feedback?

Be human. Stop hiding. Be yourself.

What do you think about how small companies should present themselves to their customers? Is it appropriate to be informal or is formality needed? Leave a comment!

67 responses to “You’re a little company, now act like one”

  1. Not to be negative, the article is great, but I work at Lockheed Martin and I know for a fact we just rolled out an application built by a very small company to every computer we own (>80,000). It all depends on what the software does, the target market, and your competitors. For this particular product, there’s very little competition because it is a niche product that we happen to need corporate wide.

  2. I think this is a great point. The problem is that some people stumble into sites via a search, and want to know there is more than a handful of people behind a product. I am not sure the right balance to strike between serving the bleeding edge community, and the average Joe who needs a software solution.

  3. Hi Jason,

    I believe in the same thing. Being human, using real-world speak, being fair, being there – that’s what attracts people to small businesses in the first place.

    That is the advantage that a small company has over corporation: they are still human. And you’re right: other humans love that. Just need to do a good job and respect your clients.

    About the chatty Cathy and the early adopters, they are gold to a company. If you have those by your side, if you can convince them that you’re worth it and you do your best to help them, you’re doing good.

  4. Great advice & thank you! I have been working too hard on our "message". This is a great reminder to keep things simple and straightforward. My solution is to start with a simple video until we get our code finished.

  5. Jason,
    You nailed it with this article! Generic corporate speak and "fake it ’till you make it" attitude shines right through all the garbage so many companies put out. Market wants your genuine interest in solving particular pain points, authentic attitude, and high-touch. Those early adopters can and will lead you to much bigger sales, because if you fix their pain point, they will evangelize the heck out of your product or service.

  6. hey, on the real, this is the truth. i be telling all them people that be fakin jacks about who they are and what they company do. 1 love

  7. Love this post. Especially amazed that while consultants everywhere are telling the large businesses, "You’re a big company, now act like a LITTLE one…" , we have little ones emulating so much of what’s *wrong* with the big ones. I still love what Paul Graham said in an address to Amazon on how/why big co’s should remember their start-up roots, "Dignity is deadly. When you’re a start-up, you have so much freedom in how you behave. As you get bigger, you start losing capabilities, not gaining them."

    Thank you.

  8. I totally agree in part because when a tiny company tries to make itself look like a big company it seems to fill up the space with the business-speak you mentioned and completely useless non-sequiturs. You can just tell that it’s a tiny company trying to look like a big company which I find disingenuous and therefore am turned off.

  9. It’s interesting that in both big-company speak and small-company speak, your example text never uses "You," just "We" or "I."

    That’s always been the main difference I’ve seen in writing that has to work, done for Fortune 500 firms or large publishers or the like: It talks directly to the prospects about their own problems and solutions.

    And so much other, less results-oriented copy reads like you’re on a blind date and the girl/guy walked in, sat down and said, "I’m sure you’re dying to hear all about me. Geez…where do I start?!" : )

  10. Wow! Thank you for opening my eyes. I seem to have come accross myself in this blog. I guess I picked up those bad ‘Phrases’ like ‘"Leading provider?" lmao from my previous employer. They were an unprepaired large group, whom went belly up as an IT firm..Go Figure! As such, I granfathered in some "early adopters", but I have yet to land anymore clients. Is it the economy, or am I trying to look so bad to the bone that I am not protraying the right point to potentials?
    I will take your words to heart. Thank you….

  11. This article should be a must read for every new business owner, entrepreneur, or SOHO. Especially when you said, "Stop acting like a faceless, humorless, generic, robotic company!"

    The reason every one makes this humiliating mistake is because you’re trying to impress someone by being someone or something you’re not. And just like this approach doesn’t work in a social setting it works even worse in your marketing efforts.

    Instead of coming off professional you come off like a fake. It’s painful to watch and even more painful to remember when you’ve made that mistake yourself.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  12. Balsamiq is awesome and they don’t have to be a big company to deliver a product that will change the way we work in one small, but important area.

    Thanks guys for thinking through your work to a product that is great.

    Thanks Jason for encouraging us to find our own voice and be ourselves.

  13. @Abyss — Yes, as a little company I too sold to Lockheed Martin. Note that I’m not at all saying that you can’t sell to anyone you want — you can! — however I promise you that those were not the first 80,000 seats sold by that company. That’s the point — that in the beginning you need early adopters so that you can eventually get to those big sales.

    @Eric — Good point about needing to balance the needs of the "key community" and those of fresh eyeballs who might not want that level of honesty. :-)

    @Ina — I like the way you put it — if you’re getting those "golden" customers it proves you’re "doing good." It’s almost like it’s a sign that you’re doing something right.

    @Scott — So true. Yes you need a strong, simple, clear message, but reaching into honesty and humanity is so much stronger than "marketing-speak." BTW, it’s not bad at all to leave your URL for others — it’s great if we can all support each other in our entrepreneurial struggles!

    @Apollo — Yes the evangelism is probably reason enough to do it right there, and I agree it can be a tremendous competitive advantage. Big-company sales tradition says "people buy from people." Right, so why make your company look like a faceless corporation?

    @Chris — Oh, I made this mistake too, as I mentioned at the top. Maybe we all have to make all the mistakes… is that just life?

    @Kathy — Great insights, as I suppose I should expect from you. :-) Why run from the competitive and true advantages you have, especially when your competitors are trying to be more like you?

    @Karim — So true that when little guys pretend they’re big, it always shows through. Maybe on the website, maybe after you call them up, but it does. Then you’re just a liar.

    @John — Thanks for the criticism! I like your point; it wasn’t intentional but it brings up a useful technique in copy-writing. Thanks.

    @Alan — The economy hurts no matter what you put on your homepage. But I’d guess that people would rather give their money to a human they like rather than some "corporation." We all write crap phrases like that because we think we’re supposed to. But we’re not. I made exactly that error but it doesn’t stand the test of scrutiny.

    @IncreaseSalesCoach — You nailed it — it makes you fake and unlikeable. Is that impressive?

    @Dan — Yes Balsamiq is a fantastic example for any small company IMHO. I’m happy if they can inspire others. And you nailed it too — find your own voice — yes exactly. People respect and admire that.

  14. I wonder how this applies to non-software companies. I have a friend with a business dedicated to storage for college students over the summer. Now, in this market, there’s no such thing as "early adoption".

    But then again, the target audience members are college kids, so it might appeal to them for a company to be small and personal. However, they might not trust such a small company, run by two people, with all their stuff. So it’s not clear if your advice is the best way to go in this market.

  15. Holy crap!

    This is phenomenally good stuff. It is going into my pool of "required reading for entrepreneurs".

    Nicely done. Humbling (from the perspective of another startup blogger), but nicely done.

  16. Well Jason, what can I say…I am so honored that you’re taking Balsamiq as an example on your super-duper-awesome blog over and over…what a love-fest! :)

    Enjoy your new baby, huge congrats to you and your wife!

  17. I totally agree on the first part of your blog. Well at some point if you make up that your company is a big and real one, it would attract lot of customers. However, too much of that making-up won’t do you any good. It’s like hiding behind your own shadows like Could Blind Spots Cause Your Marketing Strategies to Fail by Cheryl Clausen. Early Adopters really are good early Adopters if you manage to keep them at your side.

  18. Great post. Sometimes its good to be small as it helps you slip through the cracks when markets squeeze the big players.

    Could you suggest a few simple steps to market/seo a free software to increase its popularity/downloads?

  19. Nice article – we often find ourselves "torn" between our former day-job lives (with all the comforts of exec positions in well-capitalized companies) and the reality that we are now a couple of guys building a business from the ground up, funded mainly by our AMEX cards, creating what we hope are cool products that add real value…mostly by the seat of our pants! Keep it straight and keep it real…


  20. Great post, we are just about to re-do our website so the advise has come at just the right time for us. Just because we are planning on getting bigger doesn’t mean we need to loose our personality!

  21. @ehsnul — Although clearly it’s not applicable to every sort of company (i.e. a doctor or lawyer doesn’t want to emphasize how unexperienced her is), I doubt it’s true that your storage company doesn’t have early adopters, isn’t still working out the best way to operate, to charge, and to excite their user base!

    @Dharmesh — Wow! I’m honored to have earned such a position in your esteem. And here I thought was the one that was required reading! :-)

    @Peldi — You bet, and you deserve it. Just to prove this isn’t just a crush I have on Balsamiq, consider this recent Tweet I received from @CoderDennis: "@asmartbear great post! I’ve made the mistake before. Won’t do it again! I was thinking @balsamiq even before I saw that you mentioned them!"

    OK, that doesn’t prove I don’t have a crush, it just proves other people do too. :-)

    @DI — Thanks for suggesting new topics — it’s wonderful to know what you’re interested in reading about. I’m not sure that SEO/downloads for free software is much different from other software (other than the fact that "FREE" is probably the best marketing word of all), but yes I’ll try to put something together about that. Thanks for reading!

    @Clare — Such a good point. Often I’m talking from the point of view of the early-early stage, but you’re right that the need for this doesn’t fade, it just often does fade. Companies who do have more spending cash and personal talent who also stay lean and true should be able to completely own niches, wouldn’t you say?

  22. Really good post! So true! I was in a very small company (6 employees) and the language was basically like that: be friendly, be human and so on. Thank you for the reminder!

  23. Thank you very much! I will definitely use your suggestions to modify the current website for our testing tool.

  24. Jason

    You make very wise and useful observations. Ironically, in the old days, like 2 years ago, the problem with relying on early adopters was the small size niche you would play in. I forget the link but just today I had read about a survey that shows that increasingly larger numbers of people are now willing to be early adopters of technology. So, your lessons above may be just perfectly timed for the smart entrepreneur.



  25. So your saying that i should take off the "hot business woman with the pen in her mouth that is leaning on her desk while looking at her laptop" off of my website? Thats crazy talk.

  26. So very true. I think this is a general issue though, that is, not only related to doing business… Sad but true – just leaves more space for "us" to go and making that difference :-)

  27. I see more people in freelance sites asking for individuals / 2-3 man company. So, if you are a small business / one man company, being proud to say so makes sense.

    by the way, i came to your blog first time today. reading articles for last 2 hours !!

  28. I think that the language probably complements the photos:

    "…culture-neutral language complimenting culturally-diverse clip-art photos…"

  29. @Imran — I hope you’re right about more and more absolute number of people willing to be early adopters. Do you have the link to that article? Even if the number isn’t growing, it’s still the key people.

    @Emmet — Not necessarily, but maybe. It’s like medicine — there’s benefits and risks to everything so you have to weigh what’s smartest to you. Perhaps the advantage of sex appeal trumps the genericness? Up to you…

    @Steen — Thanks for saying that! Yes, more room for the honest and forthright.

    @Ravi — Thanks for the kind words. So true about freelancers.

  30. You got it man! thanks for the advice!!

    Hey, was that you in the Bear costume at a Door64 event in Austin, TX earlier this summer? Just wondering…

  31. @Ricardo — Ha, good question. No, that way Roy, our Eclipse developer. People are always shocked to learn that the bear can intelligently articulate everything from Eclipse architecture details to the 10-second product pitch. :-D

    (I was in Las Vegas at the Perforce Conference at the time, otherwise I would have been there. I heard it was fun.)

  32. Another really good article. I think you have inspired me to write a Greasemonkey script to hide any paragraph on a website that contains the text "is a leading provider of"

    that said, I still think it is probably a good idea to avoid sounding extremely colloquial and using words like "sucks" unless you are targeting customers that tend to be a little more quirky or edgy like programmers or teenagers.

    Of course, any good marketer knows you would have a sites for corporate suits at fortune 500 companies and slackers at start-ups. How else are you going to segment the market and capture the surplus on the executive version.

  33. @John — Right, there’s a time and place for different language. You’re right that "sucks" is certainly not appropriate all the time. How about for a website about massage therapy, or a Christian book seller?

    Really the root point is to be yourself, don’t pretend to be something you’re not, and certainly, don’t use fluffy meaningless language. At least say SOMEthing!

    Thanks for the perspective.

  34. Great article. My only comment would be I think web consumers are smarter now, and understand that even if a website makes a company "look" big, that might not necessarily be the case. But then again, I still know people who get sucked into thinking one-man shops are 100-person companies. Forget what I said . . . you’re right. ;-)

  35. Great article. My only comment would be I think web consumers are smarter now, and understand that even if a website makes a company "look" big, that might not necessarily be the case. But then again, I still know people who get sucked into thinking one-man shops are 100-person companies. Forget what I said . . . you’re right. ;-) Eric Rudolf

  36. Great post. It turned my head a little bit. I was just wondering which way should I take with my company.
    I feel much more confortable with this idea.

  37. There was a time (a long time ago) when having a group of business people on a website gave the appearance of a mature, large, established company. That time has long since passed, and websites that use stock images like that look more and more dated. Not only that, they are quite boring to look at. A website should be unique and different. Give the visitor something to remember them by. Business people crowded around a computer is not the way to do that. Small companies should embrace being small and agile, and hopefully, a lot more personal. Loved the article. I’ll be back for more.

  38. Jason,

    I accidentally stumbled upon your blog a couple of days ago, read almost all the others posts, and followed the advice: out in the open now, no longer lying about being a big company.

    Also, I changed the text on the home to be more personal and “live”.

    Thank you very much!

    Keep posting your advice, it’s much appreciated.

  39. Jason, I got led to your entry here by… I don’t remember who, but on Twitter. Maybe @PamSlim. Anyway, your writing triggered some related ideas that I talk about on my own blog.

    Long story short, yet another good reason for avoiding the fake-big-company look on your website is that even if it works it attracts the people who won’t end up buying your product or working with you anyway. It’s not like Lockheed’s not going to notice you’re the only one there when they visit your “corporate headquarters” to discuss that seven-figure software deal.
    .-= Mark W Schumann’s latest blog post: Small isn’t the new Big; that’s okay. =-.

    • Great point, and I really liked your article. If you’re a new reader and got all the way down here (wow!), check it out. Good additional points.

  40. Jason,

    Thanks for the great post! I own a small software consulting business in the Chicago area and its just me, another developer and a friend who does accounting/testing/whatever. A few years ago I hired a marketing firm to help us with our website. They told me that I needed to “seem” big to potential clients, even though we were small. I was never 100% comfortable with this but went with it anyway, because, you know, they are the experts right? Well, I am in the middle of redoing my website myself and basically saying we are 2 guys a girl and a server.

    By the way, I love Austin. A buddy of mine lives down there and I get down there to visit him at least once a year. The Salt Lick is one of my all-time favorite places.


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