I had coffee with a colleague the other day and recounted the tale of how bits.co came to be. When I finished, he looked across the table and made an appropriate, yet smart-assed remark about how lucky I had it. Obviously, we both knew that I didn’t just walk into my local hardware store one day and get handed a large contract from a multinational client.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that I have found myself in the right place at the right time more than once. One of the lessons that my parents instilled in me at a very young age was that hard work pays off. As a result, any time I was presented with a great opportunity, I sure as hell wasn’t going to blow it. This has landed me (and kept me at) some fantastic jobs, as well as lining up several clients from around North America who traditionally would be looking for a much larger agency.
As we’ve grown our business, we’ve always tried to stick to our roots. I started bits.co (well, then Bezanson IT Solutions) from my basement, strictly building websites using the Drupal Content Management System. It’s what I enjoyed and what I was good at. I had a client in New York who kept me more than busy, and I tried to fill my extra time with clientele based in the local Halifax market.
I’m a huge believer in doing and supporting business at a local level. I buy my coffee from a local roaster like Java Blend, buy groceries from Pete’s Frootique, and so on. However, running my business I realized the importance of strategic thinking.
Last summer we started noticing a trend. A few fantastic opportunities came up, each presented in an open tender. We bid on the projects where we thought we could truly make a difference, poured tens of hours into our proposal, and were doing our daily stretches in preparation for the call to start the job. In every case, we received the disappointing notification that we were not the vendor chosen for the job. Whatever we were doing just wasn’t working.
We thanked the client for reaching out, wished them the best on the project, and asked them for feedback so that we could adjust and refine future proposals. We learned the importance of asking these questions and were very appreciative that so many were willing to share their feedback with us. In each case we were told that our proposal was great, our strategy and approach were solid, and our pricing was right in the pack (a few of them noted our pricing was more expensive than the pack, I’ll admit). The most common piece of feedback received, however: you were one of 20-25 bids received, all from local agencies.
Now, for readers not from the Halifax area, we are a bustling metropolis of just under 400k citizens. The city’s largest employers are government and military sectors, with a good number of small to medium sized businesses balancing things out. Let's just say that the client to marketing agency ratio in this region is quite bloated.
This has pushed a couple of strategies from all those competing, each with differing levels of success. The three strategies that I see most occurrences of are: (1) bait and switch; (2) buying your business; and (3) expanding the reach of your geography. I’ll quickly touch upon each of the first two (spoiler alert: I find both to be quite deceiving), and then get into the third option.
The bait and switch approach is quite simple: price the project very low, offering the absolute minimum that a client may need. For clients who are only looking at the price tag, without reading the proposal’s contents, this approach is liquid gold. Once the project begins, and the real needs come into play, you pull out the calculator to add up the extras. Before you know it, the project has doubled in cost. This, in my mind, is the equivalent of the sleazy used car salesman. I’ll leave it at that.
Buying business is quick and simple. You find the lowest bid price and you beat it. No one wins, and I’m not sure how the vendor can stay in business for any length of time.
The third option is to strategically bid in the local market (pick and bid on only the projects that make sense), then expand the geographical reach of your business development. We chose early last year to shift from a narrow focus (servicing Halifax with Drupal websites), to strategically searching out the right clients, and offering them the right solutions. This can seem a very daunting task, and I’ll admit it’s not easy. But surviving only on a local economy isn’t dissimilar from having a single client. Your eggs are somewhat sitting in one [geographical] basket.
We have successfully worked with clients across the continent, many of whom we’ve never met in person. This may seem weird, but with today’s technology we can start a Google Hangout, or Skype video chat and talk to the client 2-3 times per week. No need to sit in traffic for 60 mins to meet in person, just click a button. The beauty of this is that, through hard work and proving your value, these clients will be sure to spread the word of their experience with you.
Over time, other doors will present themselves. It’s still your job to walk through them and deliver even better results than before, but your chances will come. This isn’t a given, but it’s also a pretty proven recipe. As you start to find either your niche (VERB have done so very well within the hospitality industry), or geography of preference, focus your business development efforts there.
With all of this said, continue focusing a percentage of your efforts on your local market - but don’t be scared to compete on a larger scale.