How Does A Small Company Make A Big Company Successful?

Every single day I have multiple conversations and emails from CEOs and people at companies I work with about how to work with Big Tech Companies. You know – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, SAP, LinkedIn, Cisco, Yahoo, HP, AT&T, Verizon, Icouldkeepgoingforalongtime.

But this conversation is not limited to just the gigantic tech companies. They include all the up and comers andtheabunchmoreyouprobablydontthinkarethatbigbutare, including a long list of newly public companies or still private but mega-funded companies.

This conversation comes from two different directions.

– BigCo reaches out to LittleCo and has a classic “happy ears meeting” where BigCo talks a great game about all the great things the two companies can do together and how it’s going to be awesome and LittleCo hears what they want to hear, not what has been actually said. And then the giant black time suck hole of the “let’s work together dance” begins. In the typical case, this goes one for months and months without any resolution or action. Eventually everyone gets tired of each other.

– LittleCo reaches out to me and says “Hey – I really think we could be strategic to BigCo. Can you make an introduction.”

My response to each of these is NO NO NO NO NO NO. After I say NO a few more times, I state “You are thinking about it wrong.”

Instead of expecting BigCo to react to you in any way, start from the perspective that if you want a relationship with BigCo, your only goal in life should be to help BigCo be successful.

Start by coming up with a hypothesis about what you are going to do to help BigCo be successful. Then, test this hypothesis. The Lean Startup approach is super helpful here. Test, ship, iterate – just keep trying and keep learning. Use what you are creating to get the attention of BigCo. Don’t spend six months developing a business development relationship. Don’t spend months trying to get the decision maker on the phone before you’ve done anything. Don’t wine and dine endlessly the people you know, or get connected to. And never, ever go single threaded with one person at BigCo, or one BigCo, hoping something good will happen.

Simply go do some shit for BigCo. Be precise. Execute well. Communicate it to the people you know at BigCo. Do it without any formal arrangement. Show BigCo why they care and why you are the one that will move the meter for them.

Then you can start having the business conversation.

As a bonus, this works for sales also. But you probably figured that out already.

  • Lovely post indeed.

    We just shared a post sharing our troubles with the Real Leaders project (thank you for interviewing with us, Brad) and a teammate mentioned that people she knew had said the post was very negative – And, of course, we didn’t feel anywhere close to the pain Nikki felt as we were strictly a weekend project.

    It’s amazing how failure is so taboo.


    “especially when you look around and feel like you are the only failure”
    If anyone is feeling like they are the only failure. They can get in touch with me. I fail at one thing or another every day. BTW… Did I mention I’m selling most of the time?

  • Anthony Giallourakis

    There is great art in being able to connect the right dots. By reaching out to someone in this manner and offering to help pull the lemon-aid stand (with her) you create great art and more. From this vantage point, you have every claim on the phrase “be optimistic” because you exemplify the win-win scenario so well (which helps enable many shared positive futures). Thank you Brad.

  • JCN

    Let’s see….. A teenager graduates from high school halfway around the globe, figures out a way to build an online business in a competitive space, get some media buzz for her company, apply for and get a visa, move to NYC with 4 suitcases, gain some traction but run out of runway. Nikki Durkin has done more in 4 years than most people have done in a lifetime.

  • Nikki Durkin

    Thanks for the lovely post about my post, Brad. I’m seriously humbled and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and sharing of similar stories from other founders. I just shared the post with my friends thinking that would be the end of it, so its really refreshing to hear that its resonating with the community.

    Definitely interested in doing the book. Could you put me in touch with FG Press? Thank you!

    • Awesome – connecting you with Dane McDonald right now.

  • Replace BigCo with “Customer”… repeat

  • Great point Brad. We have the opportunity to meet many people from “BigCo” and the way we win is by doing a free pilot and proving we can make them more successful than they are today.

  • yazinsai

    Loved it! A couple of great examples come to mind .. Epipheo, a video production company, made a video for Google Wave (back in the day) without them asking. It became an overnight sensation, and Google called them up 8 times the next day to ask for their business. The rest, as they say, is history. I managed to dig up the video: and the article here:

    • Superb example.

    • RBC


  • mattblumberg

    Isn’t there another strategy here, which is to do something that annoys BigCo? Or if not annoys, then at least attracts the attention of BigCo’s customers such that they start asking BigCo for the product or an integrated version of it?

    • That’s brilliant too. It’s the reverse polarity to Brad’s advice. BTW, I find your CEO book to be very comprehensive and useful, thank you.

      • mattblumberg

        Thanks so much, Mario – glad you got some value out of it!

    • Well said. This is the inverse approach. I don’t like this approach as much at the beginning – I think it’s a lot harder to execute well, especially if you are a LittleCo. Once you get bigger (?MediumCo?) it can be pretty powerful, especially if you can’t get BigCo’s attention.

  • …then there is Apple…one too big They listen to no one. Internally one department does not know what the other is doing. How does one work with that?

    • It’s really really hard. As most people who have tried to work with Apple over the years have discovered. In my experience, focus on ONE department – whichever team is relevant to you. That’s in. Treat that time like a LittleCo and work closely to enhance their world.

      • Thanks. I’ve tried but they are hopeless. I produce tour apps for the iPad ( I would not recommend anyone make apps other than perhaps games or productivity. Apple has filled the store with free junk ad apps that crowd out the good apps. I personally know a few competitors who have gone broke over the store mess. I didn’t love them as competitors but they were producing quality apps. Tiz a shame.


    “As a bonus, this works for sales also. But you probably figured that out already.”
    Nice! Good point.
    One thing I learned is you must be doing things people can understand. When I did my EHR system I was at the end of my ability to get excited about programming. I couldn’t bring myself to write code no matter what the project was. Then I thought “What if the project was way out innovative and far into the future.” That sparked my interest. So I started by telling myself I’ll create a system that doesn’t take any of today’s restrictions into account and instead I’ll just create what I think is the best system for the problem domain.
    It worked… My interest was enough that I could code again and I created a great system. But that system was so far into the future, with things like live objects and full system copies that run locally but are also still a small part of the whole, it made it impossible for prospects to understand. Hence no sales!
    I created my EHR system about 5 years ago. I’m just now starting to see other products advertising new features that my system had in version one all those years ago. Some systems are still not even close on most of their features.

  • The key is “clients make partners”

  • buzzbruggeman

    We have lots of big company customers. We routinely start with an individual, then a small team, then a bigger group. We recently went from a 26 person team to a 500 seat license. But it is a long, slow process. Your support and responsiveness need to be extraordinary. You need to almost never fail in responding to every request, from the BigCo, notwithstanding how stupid it might be. I’m frankly shocked at what little training and internal support seems to exist at lots of BigCos for their employees. But it is really gratifying to see your product migrate from a single user to a very large team. This stuff is largely not magic, just very hard work.

    • Great great approach.

  • AndyGCook

    Great post, Brad. This aligns with a presentation I saw Jason Cohen of WPEngine give at WordCamp Austin this past April. He basically said all these people in the WordPress ecosystem come to WPEngine offering to give them 20% of the new product sales if WPEngine emails their clients about Company X’s offering. To WPEngine, a one time shot of a couple hundred or thousand dollar isn’t worth losing customer’s trust by spamming them with offers.

    Instead, Jason suggested a much better approach is to contact WPEngine and show them that your product can help bring in new WPEngine sign ups, which gives WPEngine a much more predictable revenue stream from the partnership.

    This about sums up the entire strategy and thanks for sharing:

    “Simply go do some shit for BigCo. Be precise. Execute well. Communicate it to the people you know at BigCo. Do it without any formal arrangement. Show BigCo why they care and why you are the one that will move the meter for them.”

  • Great post! Thank you. Definitely a conversation we’ve been having lately at my LittleCo.

  • Replace “Big Co” with “government agency” and its still mostly relevant.

    • GovAgency is even worse!

  • Timing matters. Skate to where the company is going in 6-9 months. The 3 little bears sweet spot.

    • Yes, but if you are too far ahead of BigCo, you are also wasting your time. So focus on the future, but with a tight link to the current.

  • Watch out for the valley of death. Getting through the CEO of Big Co is just the first step. CEOs are optimists, VP are pessimists.

    • Yup. And you can quickly generalize to “Execs are optimistics, people who work for them are pessimists.” Basically, there is so much motivation in a BigCo not to do new work (since it’s just more stuff to do) that there is sand in the gear at many points. LittleCo needs to just start from that frame of reference and keep going after it.

  • Kelly Nyland-Zachos

    I believe, regardless of size, there has to be an equal “paring” between company/brand partnerships. (Ask yourself: Does BigCo “get it?”)

    The best partnerships are built on mutual respect and enthusiasm around common goals. Exploration first. Followed by “no” or “not now” is ok. If BigCo doesn’t get it, don’t force it. Stay the course. If there is genuine interst, you’ll find a way to make it mutally beneficial.

    Example: BigCo game company approaches LittleCo at marketing level. Opportunity grows to discussion about custom product at major retailer and sales, forecasting custom product. Licensing department gets involved, asking 15% on sales. Margins don’t make sense for LittleCo. Marketing leaders regroup and plan social media / youtube campaign for Black Friday.

    FINAL: BigCo gets access to LittleCo’s tech geek crowd, cool marketing video and custom painted product for fan giveaway contest. LittleCo gets access to BigCo’s game audience and 1.2MM views on ToonTV in one week. #totalwin
    RESULT: Relationship grows for the next year. Both companies win.

  • Harold Hoffman

    I agree it is definitely hard to break into getting the big company’s to work with you. Try an up and coming search engine the future of non tracking search engines. the more we read about the NSA and spying the more this company will thrive.

  • yes they are great companies to work with spirit and very high responsibility with my job and I also want to be a member of their. |

  • Klever

    Brad, spot on. Too easy to hear what you want to hear rather than listen. Improv comedy is a good way to practice this.

  • EllaWLemmons

    They include all the up and comers andtheabunchmoreyouprobablydontthinkarethatbigbutare, including a long list of newly public companies or still private but mega-funded companies.