Business trust over business size

A Redditor asks, “How do I look bigger than I am?” with some context:

I own a startup that provides a service to organizations. I’m about 6 months in and I’ve grown monthly revenue to about 4k. I am the only employee (like most startups) and I’m finding as I move upstream, I’m getting asked more and more “is this just you?” Or “how many people are on your team?”. Maybe there’s something I’m doing that is giving off the image of a startup, but I’m curious if there are any tips for appearing larger so those questions don’t come and larger organizations won’t have concerns about my ability to handle their volume. Thank you.

A business’s size is really just a proxy for trust. Purely as a signal, size conveys:

  • Competence, because enough customers have paid for your service and your team members trust you with their livelihood
  • Stability, it’s more likely you’ve understood your process and less likely you’ll just go out of business (or in the case of a solo freelancer, get sick)
  • Expensiveness, because you need to pay the bills and you’re competent and provide stability

As any good entrepreneur or client will know, size matters in client acquisition usually as a signal. It’s useful in the perception it creates.

Perception is a significant factor of whether services businesses succeed, perhaps even moreso than it is in product businesses. If I’m your client, and I trust you and believe in your services company, then I take you seriously, I also take our work more seriously and prioritize it, which leads to the success of the project and a good case study at the very least, or a referral to other folks I know who have the same problem and referrals into other divisions in my company. It could contribute to a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, to build a good relationship and perception:

First and foremost, don’t lie. Getting to know someone is not the time to fake it till you make it.

There’s a ton of good advice in the Reddit thread, like buying an office address, using “We” instead of “I,” and building out a website with at least 10 pages. Here are some additional places you could start, in no order:

  • If you think an international or global image matters, buy a desk or space at a co-working space and put the address up at your website. I never did this, I saw some peers doing it though to mixed results.
  • Build a good website. You’ll be surprised how far a portfolio theme at Webflow will take you. Unless you’ve signed an explicit NDA, or they’ve emphasized confidentiality, or it’s a security risk to the client, display client logos and case studies—ask permission, not forgiveness. I’ve worked with a services company that put up a client logo and only took it down after the client brought it up as a concern.
  • Your team is who you work with. I’ve seen leaders say “team of 25,” even when none of them—including the founder—are working on the business full-time. You don’t have to beat around the bush, Optimist does a good job of framing here. I know of another agency that puts forth their network of hundreds of professional freelancers, the starting point of which means they got hundreds of people to fill out a form that connects to Airtable. 
  • The loudest way to scream that you are a small team is to call yourself a founder or C-suite. I gave myself a director-level job title. It might imply that there’s a C-suite, probably some managers, etc. Don’t give yourself an unusual job title, save your creativity to express in another part of the business. Give yourself a conventional job title and brand your role as that.
  • Make onboarding clients smooth, especially during the client acquisition process when relationships are fragile. I hired a small accounting firm sometime ago, and they had a great onboarding process, which made a great first impression. I felt confident about their work, which made their job a lot easier. 
  • Price clearly. Different solutions should be packaged separately, set with different prices. Do you have different rates for different types of work? Or different types of expertise (e.g., partner rate, associate rate, etc.)? You can change it as you go, just make sure you keep it clear and simple.
  • Implement more structure. At least know the same words and job descriptions in the larger versions of your business—e.g., “Discovery,” “Development,” “Design,” in product development. 
  • Invest in design. Decks help convey trust in the company too. A thoughtful deck is the result of a lot of consideration.

Ultimately this is a good exercise too, because it forces an entrepreneur to think about their business as separate from them. They work on the business, not in it.

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