When Kevin Plank first launched his now billion-dollar company Under Armour, one of his biggest challenges was conveying a professional image. He didn’t want people to know that he was working out of his grandmother’s basement. So he did everything possible in the beginning to make his small online business appear bigger.
He even carried around multiple business cards so that he could play to whatever audience necessary. Can you can relate?
Are you facing the startup stigma?
As the owner of a startup or small business, there’s a certain stigma that comes with your size and lack of experience in the marketplace. Have you experienced this personally?
Perhaps you resonate with Kevin Plank and Under Armour and are currently working out of a garage or basement while trying to hustle your way to your first few sales. Or maybe you’ve been around for a couple of years, but just can’t seem to get people to listen.
Right or wrong, the problem with being small is that people have been conditioned to think that size is directly correlated to quality/reliability/cost. They assume that, because you don’t have a big office with a full roster of employees, you must not be professional. This impression comes from the thousands of other tiny businesses and small startups that have failed over the years.
Random businesses that were small but appeared bigger
Do you know what Disney, Apple, Lotus Cars, Harley Davidson, Google, Mattel, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Maglite and the Yankee Candle Company all have in common? They were all small companies started in a garage by an entrepreneur with very little business acumen.
The marketplace forgets about stories like these and, as a result, continues to perpetuate the startup stigma. Unfortunately for you, this puts your company behind the proverbial 8-ball.
As you’ve figured out by now, the biggest point of contention in your pursuit of growth is the old chicken and egg dilemma. It’s hard to scale your business without money. The only trouble is that it’s difficult to make money when you don’t have experience. Ironically, you can’t gain experience unless you pick up clients, yet they want to see that you have a large, successful operation before giving you money.
If you don’t figure something out, you’ll end up spinning your wheels forever, never gaining any traction. While an innovative product and a willingness to hustle will take you a long way, it’s important that you tackle your image sooner rather than later. Starting from the bottom may make for a good story in a few years, but right now it could be holding you back.
5 Practical ways to make your online business appear bigger
According to Steven Howard of Howard Marketing Services, corporate image management is built on the idea that, “Everything an organization does, and does not do, affects the perception of that organization and its performance, products and services. These perceptions affect its ability to recruit the financial resources, people and partnerships it needs to attain its goals and objectives.”
While there’s nothing wrong with being a small business — in fact, small businesses are often assumed to have better customer service and considered more trustworthy — you don’t want other people and organizations to confuse your size with a lack of professionalism or potential. That’s why you need to invest in image management.
You need to start thinking about your business from a third party vantage point. If you were looking at your business from the outside, what would your impression be? If you’re being honest, it’s possible that your business might look erratic, unprepared or inexperienced.
The good news is that, as long as you have a good business idea and a willingness to work hard and do whatever it takes to grow, you can fake it until you make it.
It’s never been easier to convey a professional image, while still remaining small and nimble. Let’s take a look at some specific tips, strategies and techniques:
1. Use a virtual office.
Working out of a garage, basement, spare bedroom or cramped office is totally acceptable. If it saves you money and allows you to put all of your resources into building the company, then it’s smart to remain as lean as possible.
But what happens when you get a meeting scheduled with a big-time sales prospect or investor and they want to swing by your office? Giving them your home address isn’t very professional. You need a more sophisticated image.
One solution is to use a virtual office. Depending on where you’re located and what you need, you can usually rent a virtual office for a few hundred dollars or less per month. Some even come with added services.
Take Jay Suites in New York City as an example. When you rent one of their virtual offices, you get a prestigious Manhattan mailing address, a local phone number, the ability to book conference rooms, access to a reception area and break room and an array of portable office services that allow you to work remotely from anywhere.
Depending on the plan you choose, a virtual office costs anywhere from $75 to $499 per month. That’s pretty good bang for your buck!
2. Create a domain-specific email address.
Your website says a lot about your company. But there’s one mistake that entrepreneurs and business owners keep making. Despite having a domain name that aligns with their brand, they continue to use a generic Gmail or Yahoo email address. Not only is this lazy, but it screams “unprofessional.”
For just a few dollars a month, you can create a domain-specific email address. So, instead of telling clients to reach you at Joey39402@gamil.com, you can simply ask them to shoot you an email at Joey@mycompany.com.
3. Pay for professional branding materials.
Even if you don’t have a big marketing budget, you can (and should) invest in some professional branding materials. For your online presence, this means investing in a quality logo, good images and powerful graphics. Offline, basic things like business cards, letterhead, presentation materials, banners and signs can all be purchased at very low prices.
4. Build up your social media following.
When people research your company and try to figure out who you are and what you do, they’re going to check out your social media following. If you have 37 followers, they’re going to be a little skeptical. However, if you have 3,700 followers, then there’s a greater chance they’ll take you seriously.
Building your social media following isn’t easy — however, it’s necessary. There are tons of techniques that people swear by. One of the best is to network with influencers that are involved with your target customer base.
“Pick 3-5 influencers and engage with their content. Write comments, engage in their community, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions,” entrepreneur Bhavik Sarkhed suggests. “By doing this you will put yourself and your profile on the radar of the influencer and their followers. This visibility will land you a bigger following but also put you on a path to become an influencer yourself.”
It’s also important that you remain consistent. You can’t post five times one day and then not share anything for two weeks. Try posting once or twice per day, every day, in addition to regularly interacting with followers and comments.
5. Use the right automation tools.
One of the awesome things about the internet tech boom is that there are lots of powerful automation tools. Many of these tools are free, or extremely affordable. Most give you the ability to handle larger scale responsibilities without committing a ton of resources and time.
If you have a task that needs to be streamlined, chances are, there’s an automation tool available. Common responsibilities that small businesses automate include project management, social media, customer service, employee scheduling, accounting and HR. For a look at some of the top automation tools that companies are currently using, check out this list.
Use the resources you have
The goal here isn’t to lie or be deceitful. If anyone directly asks you about your company and how many employees you have, tell them. Honesty is the best policy when building a business. Remember that growing a business is just as much about branding, market positioning, and image management.
You have access to tons of different tools and resources. The same ones entrepreneurs like Kevin Plank could have only dreamed of when first starting their businesses. Make sure you’re taking advantage of these opportunities and doing everything within your power to boost your image.
Bigger isn’t always better. I’ve found a strong image can get you a long way. Especially in the early days of running a small business or startup.