Any independent contractor working with an early stage startup wants to see their client take off. When you’re lucky enough to sync up with a fast-growing company, your client might have only ten employees when you start out, but hundreds a year later.
Nearly four years ago I was referred to a small startup (i.e. less than half a dozen full-time employees including the founders) who had just arrived in San Francisco from Denmark. Today they’re the leading cloud-based customer service software company with more than 25,000 customers, 300 employees, and an eye towards an IPO.
While hitching a ride on a rocket ship can be a great opportunity to grow your own business, I’ve learned firsthand that you need to make sure your services stay relevant as your clients’ needs evolve.
Below are seven essential guidelines for independent contractors looking to scale their business with fast-growing clients:
1. Identify rising stars.
Not all early stage companies will make it to, or past, their Series A round. As a vendor, you’ll want to develop a discerning eye to determine which startups will make it. The basic criteria for identifying rising stars is simply to track the successes and failures of the founding team and their investment team. Venture capitalists spend their days vetting companies. When an early-stage company secures a top tier firm, it’s a very strong signal.
You can’t stay in the same place and expect to keep pace with a rising star. As you develop new expertise you need to make sure your new skills are applied and made visible to your client. It’s easy for contractors to become pigeonholed into a specific role with no promotion track.
For example, when first hired, you may have been brought on to solve one particular business challenge. Over the next 6-18 months you do a great job of delivering against your initial deliverable, but have developed expertise in other areas. Now you’d like to grow the scope of your work with your client. This is the moment when it’s critical to communicate your expanded value.
You won’t be offered more responsibility or larger projects if you don’t let clients know the full extent of your capabilities. Remember to always position your new expertise in terms of the problem you’re solving.
3. Find your niche.
As a small vendor, you can’t scale in the same way a venture-backed organization does. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have an important place at the table.
In my case, about two years after my client’s arrival in San Francisco, B round funding (a second round of financing) the resources of a larger PR firm were needed. Although they had a new agency of record, I was still valued for my local relationships and company history.
When a startup grows beyond a certain size, it’s only natural that you won’t be able to meet all of their needs. Instead, figure out the unique value you have to offer and carve out your own niche within the framework of the client’s other resources. Other vendors aren’t necessarily competitors.
Sometimes, a small piece of a bigger pie is better than a large piece of a small pie.
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