Small vs. Big

A friend ofmine who works inside a large IT department made a comment several months agothat still bugs me. We were talking about Windows NT and “enterprise ready” andhe essentially told me that I could never come close to understanding howanything works in an enterprise because my current one-person operation is toosmall.

Anothertime a few years ago, I was trying to sell the services of my then four-personorganization to a customer. They asked me how big my company was. I said fourpeople. The meeting went downhill from there, ending when one of the keydecision makers said, “good luck” as we left. I hate it when potentialcustomers wish me good luck. That really means “hit the road and don’t botherus again.” True to form, they haven’t returned a phone call since.

So I’vebeen brooding over small vs. big and which one is better. Naturally, I thinksmall is better right now because my one-person organization is about as smallas it gets.

Small isgood because, frankly, we small guys are sharper than the big guys. True,organizations on my scale can’t afford to build networks with thousands ofusers across hundreds of cities in dozens of countries. But people like me, atleast the ones that last a few years, regularly spend our own hard-earned moneyon training, certification, equipment, and other business necessities. We knowfirst-hand how much this stuff costs, the best sources for hardware acquisitionand training, and the best way to make our labor the most productive. We makestrategic decisions every day that the average person in a large IT departmentbarely comprehends.

It’s notthat we’re inherently smarter than the average corporate IT person. We’re justmore creative because we have to be to survive. Financial decisions are realmoney with us, not interdepartmental politics. We can’t blame the department inthe cubicles across the hall for our troubles because we are all those departmentsrolled into one. By necessity, we must know the whole picture and integrate itall because we can’t predict from one day to the next what problems we’ll beasked to solve.

Yet, forsome reason that I have a hard time understanding, when I try to call on anenterprise-sized company, I feel inadequate because I’m a single personoperation. Despite my protests, the comment from my friend in the large ITdepartment remains partially true, and it bothers me.

Here’s thecounter argument to my self-serving sales pitch. A large company can take onprojects that a single person can only dream about. Ten years ago, when Iworked for Digital Equipment Corp., we brought in equipment from all over thecompany and demonstrated our software running across the disparate globalnetworks of a major airline. For a few days, employees of this airline who knewthe codes and passwords booked flights and checked status from equipment we setup deep in a very hot basement in a building near the Twin Cities airport.

No singleperson could have done this job. The demonstration required cooperation amongfield service, sales support, and various engineering and marketing groups allover the company. It also required coordination with several groups within theairline.

Here’sanother example. Several years ago my neighbor rebuilt an old ‘55 Chevy. Afterseveral months and several thousand dollars, he ended up with a classic car andall the responsibility for keeping it running. Meanwhile, General Motors buildshundreds of thousands of cars every year, each costing a fraction of what myneighbor spent rebuilding that Chevy.

It’s amatter of scale. Companies my size don’t have the means to do things at thescale of an enterprise-sized customer.

The mindset is generally different between small and big customers. Where smallcustomers care about acquisition cost and small projects, large customers -- atleast the smart ones -- care more about massive bulk discounts and extremelycomplex projects. So people from small support organizations, used to thinkingabout small projects, tend to focus on issues that big customers rationallyshould not care about.

I’ll betthat’s why big customers rarely even return phone calls from smallorganizations.

So thequestion is, how can a big customer successfully tap all that creativity lockedinside the army of independent consultants out here? And how does a small,independent consulting company earn business from an enterprise-sized potentialcustomer?

Technicalknow-how is no longer good enough, and the enterprise decision makers haveheard all the hype. To earn the right to talk to enterprise-sized customers, wehave to convince the decision makers that we offer something with unique valuebeyond technical expertise. Perhaps as my wife keeps trying to tell me, as itis with meals, the answer is in the presentation. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is chieftechnology officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at

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