Staying Just Slightly Ahead of Our Customers: How We Survived Tough Times

My three-person web development company is celebrating. We’ve survived 2009 — a very tough year — thanks to some good planning, and a bit of luck.

As I look back, I realize that our success was based not just on our technical skills. After all, anything technical can be done, and done well, by lots of people. Our products and services aren’t that different than those offered by our competitors. So what did we do right?

  • We listened to our customers, so we could tailor our offerings to their current and near-future needs. We don’t speculate about technologies in decades to come, but we do keep up with the latest technologies, products and services that are available today. Our informal slogan (with apologies to the old Panasonic commercials) is: “Just slightly ahead of our customers.”
  • We were flexible. We were able to change our pricing structure, create new packages of products and services, and experiment with special deals, quickly and easily. My friends in marketing would be horrified at the lack of research we did before embarking on some of these changes, but we didn’t have the time or the money. Since we spent zero dollars on advertising, though, any success went straight to the bottom line, and unsuccessful experiments cost only our time.
  • We took advantage of our reputation. After almost 25 years in business, our customers knew that we could provide creative solutions and personal service. In tough times, people were much more willing to do business with folks they knew and trusted, which put us in an excellent position to meet their needs.
  • We could afford to be selective about the projects we took on. Even in tough times, we’ve learned that it’s just not worth the hassle of working with customers with whom we don’t see eye to eye.
  • We minimized our overhead. As WWD readers know well, there are tons of products and services available to let small businesses work from home (or anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection) easily, and just as effectively as businesses with expensive office space. I’ve worked from home since 1991, and thanks to the latest technologies, it’s never been easier than it was this past year.
  • Networking was more important than ever, and social network sites like LinkedIn and Facebook expanded who I could reach easily. Such sites didn’t create new friends, but they made it easy to keep in contact, and reconnect, with old friends. In 2009, I actually did business with an old high-school friend who I hadn’t heard from in many years, as well as my very first client from 1985. Of course, I didn’t give up networking locally; I acquired several clients who got to know me through professional and community groups.
  • We maintained a diverse customer base. We’ve all heard the stories about car parts manufacturers who were dependent on one client, like GM or Ford. When the auto companies crashed, the parts companies did, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on one customer, one sector, or one type of business. It’s a mistake I’ve made in the past, too, but my company now has a customer base that’s about evenly divided between small businesses, medium-sized businesses, and nonprofit organizations. And while many of our customers are in the Northwest, we have lots of clients elsewhere, as the Seattle area tends to be tied to a couple of large employers that have their own booms and busts.
  • We did everything necessary to retain a strong team. I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented people over the years, but my current colleagues are the best. We’ve developed a skill set that makes our small company competitive with much larger organizations. When we reorganized the company in 2001 as an LLC, we agreed that our first priority was to have fun and make a living doing so. It was sometimes tough to do that this year, but we managed it most of the time.

In 2010, my company will mark its 25th anniversary. I’m already working on planning the party. Let’s hope 2010 will be a better year for everyone. In the meantime, best wishes to you for a prosperous new year!

What techniques did you use to survive 2009?

Photo credit: stock.xchng user gtrfrkbob