One of the books I really enjoyed reading recently was BAG THE ELEPHANT! by Steve Kaplan (New York Times’, Wall Street Journal’s, USA Today’s, and Business Week’s bestseller list).
In seven years, Steve grew his marketing company SCA from a start up to $250 million in sales with offices in 14 countries. One of the ways Steve achieved this feat was through landing huge clients, also known as bagging elephants (300 of the Fortune 500 companies have been his customers). As a business and success expert, he has appeared on MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Fox Television and has spoken to thousands of college students at various business schools across the country.
Steve is now an elephant himself, having owned 30 businesses across many industries and sold 26 of them. He currently owns businesses including: Steve Kaplan Live, The Difference Maker Inc., and Kaplan Enterprises LLC.
I was fortunate to bag an interview with Steve who generously agreed to share his vast and experienced business advice below:
TRTW: Which aspects of your company SCA do you attribute to its huge success? What were some of the marketing and promotion strategies that worked best?
SK: Success is the culmination of many things, however; I would say that two points stand out over the others: 1) The ability to get big customers and 2) the vision to position my business to meet customer’s current and future needs.
THRTW: What are the most common mistakes that businesses make when trying to find new clients?
SK: All too often business owners make the mistake of believing that once they get the revenues (sales) they will figure out how to execute for their new customer. They end up saying yes to all customer demands to get the sale but unfortunately many times they under deliver and end up losing their customers and tainting their reputation in the process.
TRTW: I really enjoyed your chapter on “Embracing the Bureaucracy”. Could you please share the ways you helped to increase the efficiency, and make life easier, for large companies like Proctor and Gamble?
SK: Once I understood that large companies like P&G live and die with bureaucracy I set out to master processes. I made it my business, for every project to personally visit each link in the bureaucracy chain at my large company clients. I would talk with them about what they need to make their job easier and how I might help. Then I would create processes between my small business and their huge company to facilities these needs. These processes further closed the gap between the companies because we now spoke the same language (process). Many of these processes were adopted by my customers and shared with other suppliers to facilitate their partnerships as well.
TRTW: What is most fundamental to branding oneself in an effort to stand out from the crowd?
SK: People don’t realize that they are already a brand. If they aren’t doing anything to build their brand then that becomes their brand equity… so there is no choice. Whenever I am advising someone on this I tell them that they must stand for something and become a credential. I tell them to write columns in industry publications, draft white papers and put them on their website, and build a well-rounded brand in yourself. Utilize social media and develop a facebook fan page, and a blog if you have the time and populate it with their brand messages. I also think that’s it’s critical that you remember to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to share and be open with your thoughts. Keep your edge or lack of an edge if that’s you because they will come across much more genuinely.
TRTW: What was the best business advice you received from one of your mentors?
SK: Although I really didn’t have any mentors I did receive some valuable advice along the way. Perhaps the best of this was that building a business is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s important to build infrastructure which begins with key employees that over time prove to be loyal. Give these employees more and more responsibility and make millionaires because it almost impossible to do it alone.
TRTW: Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone who thinks bagging elephants is a daunting endeavor? How did you overcome rejection and unexpected obstacles?
SK: Bagging elephants isn’t easy but it is amazingly rewarding and well worth the time and bumpy ride. Learn how they these big companies operate, learn their language, understand that they really do want you as a supplier because you can be a valuable tool for them as you can provide speed to market, which other large company suppliers cannot do. Also do not feel intimidated or inferior to large corporations. I have been on both sides of the table and will tell you that the representatives you will be meeting are just people like you and I, and even though they work in a huge building they have career needs and concerns, kids to raise and issues with their own jobs.
Selling elephants isn’t easy and takes time to build your presence and really understand what your future elephant needs. It took me a whole year selling elephants until I cracked the code and bagged one. It was a small order ($10,000) but it was all I needed as it showed me and my few employees that they would buy. Through the next few years I was able to perfect elephant selling and ended up with over 300 of the fortune 500 as customers.
For more on Steve, check out SteveKaplanLive.com