Are You Hunting Elephants?

Another week is in the books. This week, I want to talk to you about sales. Specifically about the notion of the bigger the budget the better the project's outcome.

My Experience:

While I was growing Greenline Creative, I couldn't wait for the opportunity to work on large budget clients. I wasn't fixated too much on the brand name, because I already had my share of working on Fortune 500 clients. However, I was really searching for a larger budgets to create my best work with.

Like many, our early clients consisted of small photographers, bands and solo-prenuers with the next cool t-shirt idea. We really had a variety. It was a busy time for us and we would often get frustrated by the lack of budget (even though we'd often over deliver anyways) to create great work with. I suppose you could just consider this the portfolio and skill building time for Greenline.

Over a number of years though our needs and desires changed. We decided it was time to go after the larger budgets that would hopefully reward us with the opportunity to create great work and help to put Greenline on the map. In sales terms this approach is known as "elephant hunting," and elephant hunting was what I set out to do. Elephant hunting is where you become focused on the large deals and you don't waste time on the small ones. This is also a little different then shifting your client base to larger paying clients like I've talked about in the past. Elephant hunting is more of a hard sales strategy that often means going after larger clients with more complex projects.

So for nearly a year all I did was focus my attention on going after the larger more complex deals. Yes, we did keep a handful of our core clients, but generally any lead that was not an "elephant" we turned away. We really pushed hard with this strategy, often times sacrificing some great projects for the one really big, fat elephant. So how did this work out for us?

The short answer is, it kind of worked out. We had great wins, and because of the larger wins we could grow and invest more time into processes and contractors that we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. However what I found out was that this process became very taxing on such a small studio. We simply had to wear a number of different hats. Some hats fit well; many didn't. The larger deals often meant longer closing rates and far more complexities across the entire project. Yes, the money was great, but keeping our pipeline full (of these types of clients) became very time consuming for me. It was very risky. I'd spend days on these deals and if any of them fell through (which some did) I was left trying to fill large gaps in our pipeline or making quick sales which often meant doing the work that we would never have done in any other situation.

One of the more frustrating aspects of going after the large budgets was the work unfortunately was nowhere near as enjoyable or rewarding for us as the work we were doing for clients with half the budgets. It was a trade-off for sure. Yes, we had larger budgets, but those budgets became absorbed quickly by the complexities of working with larger organizations and teams. It also meant that we were stuck solving just one portion of the company's problems, compared to directly working with the owner and being given total freedom to work with the entire brand and company in order to solve their problems. I don't think the trade-off was completely worth it. Which is why in recent years I've stopped going directly after the large budgets and instead have shifted my attention to offering as much value as I can to the types of clients that are looking for distinct partnerships. This change didn't mean that I went back to doing work for super small businesses that can't afford us or don't see our value. However, it does mean that I prefer to work with clients with budgets that affords me the luxury of doing my best work for them while maintaining a level of control. There's a difference between working with clients that pay well vs. just going after the large elephants. The elephants tend to be a bit tough to take down without an army behind you. Sure, you may take a few down, but it won't be without some bruising along the way.

What I've Learned about Going after the Elephants:

  • You may get less creative freedom: Working with larger clients and deals doesn't necessarily mean more creative freedom. Generally larger companies mean that you have more restrictions and roadblocks that you have to work with. Keep in mind though that these constraints can be fun to work with. However, don't expect to be able to completely re-develop their brand from the ground up unless you've been asked to do so.
  • It can be far less rewarding: It's generally more rewarding when you get to work directly with your clients and see the impact you've made vs. with a team of people that has been assigned to hire a designer to work on one part of a more larger and complex project. Often times the control, design and creativity gets sucked away. This leaves you with a very contractual and transactional type of project.
  • You can be just another design team: Sometimes you may find yourself being viewed as just a hired hand or another design team, because in many cases you're replaceable by the next design studio who's also been hunting elephants. When you get to working with very, very large companies, you'll find that they base much of their decisions simply on cost with a little bit of value sprinkled in.
  • You generally take on more responsibility: Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about going after these large projects is when you win one. Now you have an enormous responsibility to deliver on your promise. This pressure can trickle down to your whole team. The stakes are much higher the bigger the proposal so be careful what you wish for.
  • You have to keep your pipeline full: When it comes to always chasing after elephants, you must keep your pipeline full because you never know when something may fall through. These types of projects and clients can be finicky from time to time, oftentimes thinking on impulse. One day it's a go, then next day it's on hold.
  • It can take twice as long to accomplish anything: If speed and efficiency is your thing (and who doesn't like efficiency), you may find it a struggle working with a client like this. Many times departments and processes can be so fragmented you're left waiting days or weeks for a response that would take a smaller company a few hours. Know this going in so you can plan other projects accordingly.
  • It can increase your overhead: Large companies and projects can increase your overhead. This is just due to the nature of working with such large companies and projects. It oftentimes simply requires process and investments that are not necessary for smaller projects. And as you grow, those investments become more apparent and honestly not worth it to the big picture of a strong business.
  • It can increase your clout: If you have the ability and think you can handle a large complex project, it may not be bad to give it a try once or twice. The increased clout that you may gain from the client or project can be worth it. Just make sure that you can really deliver on the project with confidence. If you succeed, it's great for you. If you fail, it can be bad for you.

My Takeaway:

Going after large budgets and projects is not a bad thing. I still go after them occasionally. I just do it with a better understanding of my team and company goals. I also ensure that I'm balancing out the pipeline with a healthy percentage of quick-win projects (small retainers), large elephant projects and smaller projects with higher value. I also don't view these elephant projects as huge opportunities for us. It does me no good to take on such a large project with so much pressure for some clout. It's a huge battle for a small studio to overcome and it affects the productivity and morale of everyone. Instead, I'd much rather work for a smaller company who has a more manageable project that will still pay a good deal of money for the value and partnership we can offer them.

If you think your business depends on these types of projects, you're wrong. Take a second to look at some of the most successful small studios. You'll see they do great work without the need to work on large, complex, corporate projects. It's generally in these mid-range projects where you'll find the perfect balance of great budget, value, control and friendship. As a bonus, you'll most likely be able to showcase the great work you created with the world without being asked to sign an NDA.

What's Next?

What I'd love for you to do is take a second to establish what your client goals are for yourself as a designer, freelancer or growing business. Do you want to work on large projects? Why? What does your current pipeline look like today? Do you have a nice spread of projects that are diversified?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and own experiences on this subject. Are you or your company hunting elephants right now? Any pros and cons that I've missed?

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