By partnering with large companies, small businesses can enjoy big benefits, including super-sized sales, marketing and networking opportunities. Here's how African-American business owners can open doors within large corporations.
By Matt Alderton
Claude Johnson started his business, Greenwich, Conn.-based Black Fives Inc., in 2003 as a tribute to the history of African-American participation in basketball. The idea was his, the vision was his and the products — basketball jerseys bearing the logos of all-black basketball teams from the early 20th century — were his.
Still, Johnson knew he needed help. Although he started it on his own, he needed collaborators in order to transform Black Fives from a small business into a big deal. He found them in large corporations such as Nike, MTV and BET, not to mention popular individuals, including rappers such as Ludacris and XZibit, all of whom helped him grow his company by endorsing, promoting, licensing and otherwise supporting his brand.
"If you're a small business, you want to appear as big as possible," Johnson says. "If you're building a brand, then, you must have alliances with people that you can leverage to make your brand expand further."
Large companies enjoy capital, brand equity and exposure that small businesses lack. Johnson says by building relationships with them, African-American business owners can gain access to their resources and their endorsements, and can build credibility through their reputations.
Big Companies, Big Opportunities
For small and minority-owned businesses, opportunities abound within large corporations, says Johnson, who has turned big-name brands into valuable customers, contacts and collaborators. Even if they don't buy your products or services, large companies can provide valuable resources, including networking opportunities, marketing vehicles and prospect referrals.
Still, the most valuable opportunities are sales related, says Nancy Michaels, president of GrowYourBusinessNetwork.com, a Concord, Mass.-based marketing company. Author of Perfecting Your Pitch: 10 Proven Strategies for Winning the Clients Everyone Wants, she says big companies often offer lucrative contracts to minority suppliers via diversity departments and minority-supplier programs, which they've created in order to connect with small minority-owned companies.
Even when a company has a diversity program or department, Michaels suggests going straight to the top in order to get noticed. When you speak with upper management and form a relationship with them, they might refer you to the proper people who will help you form a partnership, she says.
Of course, just contacting the CEO doesn't ensure a response. You may have to become friendly with their executive assistant first, or gradually work your way down the corporate ladder until you get a response. The point is to get noticed and build rapport with individuals inside a company who can help you crack its corporate bureaucracy.
Other ways to connect with larger corporations:
- Advertise in publications read by industry leaders.
- Network with decision makers at trade shows and industry events.
- Build credibility and name recognition by writing articles in trade magazines.
- Tap friends, former employers, past co-workers or existing customers for referrals and recommendations.
- Use social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook to meet important people.
Seal the Deal
To increase your chances for success, Michaels recommends the following strategies:
- Do your homework. Make sure you're knowledgeable about a company's products and services.
- Research relationships. Find out whom companies are currently working with, and be prepared to tell them why your company is different and better.
- Be a resource. Approach relationships as a partner, offering not only paid services, but also free advice, introductions and information to help them run their business better.
Most important of all, however, is your value proposition. The easiest and most effective way to get attention from a large company is to persuade its officers that you can either save them money or make them money. "It's all about giving people something of value," Johnson says. "If you can really help them, then they'll be willing to help you."
Access Networking Opportunities
If you want to work with a large company, either as a provider or a partner, consider getting certified by the National Minority Supplier Development Council, which provides networking opportunities with major corporations (most Fortune 500 companies are members), as well as education and training for minority suppliers.
More Information on Being a Supplier