Figures from the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy stated that at the start of 2016 the number of small businesses in the UK accounted for 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses; add medium sized businesses into the mix and that bumps the figure up to 99.9 per cent.
However, when looking at annual turnover, SMEs contributed a respectable £1.8 trillion or 47 per cent of all private sector turnover. The other 53 per cent of private sector turnover was generated by the 0.1 per cent. That 0.1 per cent, or 7,200 business behemoths, generated around £2 trillion in turnover. There’s no question that it’s the titans of industry that draw the big headlines, but they are just that – juggernauts, and therefore they lack something that smaller businesses thrive on – agility.
Small businesses are able to adapt, innovate and make use of new technology far quicker than their cumbersome counterparts. It’s no surprise then that larger firms with greater financial resources often look to nimble, fresh-faced businesses to support them with all manner of projects, from emerging tech and creative design, through to expert consultancy and community engagement.
But who are the Davids behind the Goliaths? What kind of relationships can start-up, micro and small businesses cultivate with these ‘galacticos’?
Nestled in the foothills of the south Wales valleys is the vibrant start-up and small business community known as the Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise (Welsh ICE). Several times throughout the year the centre holds its ICE 50, where start-ups and small businesses are invited to apply for a year of funding that includes free desk space and one-to-one mentorship. Many small businesses that have come through the scheme have gone on to cultivate relationships with household names.
Getting a foot in the door
Computer hardware provider Happus has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with telecoms giant TalkTalk. Whilst the spectre of trying to instigate a partnership with a FTSE 250 company might seem daunting to some, managing director of Happus, David Williams said it was simply a question of asking the right person: “Sometimes, if you have an idea that could work with a big company, quite simply you should just ask. We identified TalkTalk as a company that we could potentially partner with on a CSR basis, and for the last three years, we have worked with them to offer affordable, low-cost broadband to digitally excluded communities across the country.
“It sounds simple, but I got in touch with a decision maker at the company, set out our objectives and what I felt we could achieve together, and they said yes. Naturally, that’s when the hard work really started, but it began with just asking the question.”
Emily Hicks, of Emily Hicks Creative Design works to provide illustrations and creative support to the operatic insurance comparison site, GoCompare. Emily works closely with the in-house team and many of her designs have been used in the brand's hugely successful social media output. For Emily, the secret to getting a foot in the door lies in having a strong image: “The story of how I came to work with GoCompare is a fairly basic one really; the company were looking to add some outside expertise to their team, to help keep ideas and creative fresh. There is a fantastic community at ICE and after another member got word, they put me forward. That natural referral system is something that I think is unique to co-working spaces, and is one of the reasons why there is so much collaboration amongst businesses in the area.
“GoCompare took a look at my website and my portfolio and then asked to meet. I think the fact I had such a strong and vibrant website was what solidified the opportunity - if your branding and online presence is strong, companies large and small will feel they can trust you more. Social media plays such a powerful part in today's marketing strategies, you have to project a brand, whether you are a sole trader such as myself, or a limited company with 80 employees.”
What are the differences?
The general oil tanker manoeuvrability of large companies is what creates the gulf for smaller businesses to specialise and capitalise. But this difference in pace can often be a learning curve for smaller businesses.
Emlyn Davies is the founder of creative production company Bomper Studio. The company has worked on award-winning CGI animation for clients such as Carlsberg, Jack Daniels, Nestle, GlaxoSmithKline, Cadbury and Coca-Cola. Emlyn said that as well as speed, the amount of control is another factor in working with household names: “We’ve been fortunate that thanks to our reputation and our 3D credentials, companies tend to find us to work on their projects, be that directly or through larger studios as part of a wider collaboration.
“The amount of control and the speed that jobs go through approval stages are definitely the biggest differences working with larger companies compared to small firms. Smaller companies tend to give you more control of the creative process, perhaps because they tend to have less in-house staff, whereas larger companies have far stricter guidelines that need to be adhered to. This means that jobs can have peaks and troughs in terms of production time, while senior management approves the next stage. This is par for the course and should be seen as an opportunity to really fine tune internal processes - the more efficient you are as a company, the easier it is to demonstrate value.”
What lessons can be learned?
What distinguishes large companies from small - other than employees and bank balances - can be the tried and tested procedures that have been put into practice. The McDonaldisation of processes leads to controlled and repeatable results and is often shaped through years of work and adjustment.
DW Studio is a creative CGI visualisation company that works to promote high-end products and brands across the world. The company has worked directly with several brands that provide luxury items such as superyachts and cars, as well as with Network Rail, to support its public outreach campaigns. The company also has a direct ongoing relationship with technology company Dyson.
Founder of DW Studio, David Wiffen, said the relationship with Dyson has helped shape their business: “Working with Dyson taught us a lot in a very short space of time. They have immaculate attention to detail - which we absolutely love, and this has helped us to streamline and refine our workflow process. Everyone at the studio comes from a design background, meaning we are very creative and fluid, but in order to meet the needs of a large professional company like Dyson, meant we had to streamline and refine our workflow processes. The experience we gained from the professional and astute Dyson team has helped us to become far more efficient across the board.”
So what should small businesses look out for when aiming to work or partner with a large company?
David Williams of Happus says to always be ready to promote yourself: “Always have your elevator pitch on standby as you never know when a chance encounter might lead to an important connection. Be ready to show how a company such as yourselves can add something to a large company, and then go out and find them. Pick up the phone, because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
For Emlyn of Bomper Studio, creating a niche is the way to stand out: “Definitely specialise and fit into the gaps that the larger agencies/companies can’t fill. Life is fast paced in these areas, so you will need to be prepared to invest in the right people, technology and equipment.”
David of DW Studio emphasised the importance of seizing an opportunity: “When an opportunity comes along you have to throw everything at it. Produce the best possible work at a reasonable price and word of mouth will naturally spread. It’s also important to stick to your business plan and don’t always take the easy option, sometimes the riskier opportunities will really pay off and lead to unexpected new directions.”
Finally, for Emily Hicks the best piece of advice is to be brave and embrace collaboration: “Fostering relationships with key people at large companies is vital. Be open-minded and embrace an opportunity to collaborate, whether that’s with an in-house team, or with other small businesses on a project. The work you do with a big client will usually be the flagship experience with which you demonstrate your ability, so enjoy it!”