Small can be an advantage

Start-ups can’t hope to match established consultancies, but the back-to-basics approach can pay off, says Naomi Turner

It is incredibly difficult to make an impact as a small, new consultancy in a big world. The tendency is to spend approximately three years being used and abused by clients which know full well that you want them on your portfolio and which also know that they don’t want to spend any money on you.

You hit an inevitable period of stalemate, where you need to progress from the period of ‘will work for beans on toast’, but larger clients won’t touch you with a barge pole because you are not big enough and have not been trading for a substantial period. How do you break out of this rut?

Through the friend of a dog’s uncle’s brother’s niece, we once, as a very new consultancy, landed the opportunity to pitch for a job that, if we’d got it, would have been a really big contract for us. We did all the right things, turning on our ‘Pink Sky telephone voice’ and arranging a meeting with the client to assess its requirements. It was at this point that we broke rule number one for ‘making an impact’: if you rent a small shed from the council that has no heating, do not, under any circumstances, allow your client to enter your premises in the middle of winter. The client will try everything it can to ‘come and see your place’, but it is a bad idea.

Picture the scene. The client is sitting in a coat, scarf and hat, breathing steam as he speaks because it is so cold. Half way into the meeting, I have to excuse myself to make some hot chocolate in the office kitchenette, which is only feet away from where the client is delicately balanced on a school chair, astride the cable that runs to the convector heater (‘heater’, in this instance, being a rather generous description).

his culinary decision was not a matter of impulse or greed, but one of life or imminent death from the arctic chill. The picture of Sean Connery in the kitchen area had even steamed up in his frame in disgust.

Two minutes later, the cheap microwave coughed politely, and I looked with horror at the pool of milky chocolate powder that was edging its way across the top of the fridge, about to make its presence felt in the general direction of the floor and, in fact, the client. I leapt up and scooped the milky detritus into a tea towel which I subsequently hid in a cupboard. The client gave me a bewildered and slightly nervous look as I replaced myself upon my chair without the drink that I had excused myself for. When he wasn’t looking, I made throat-cutting motions at my colleague Mark and pointed at the microwave, which translated as ‘under no circumstances may you open the microwave door’. Mark, somewhat perplexed, ended the meeting. The client walked out, now a delicate shade of blue. Needless to say, we didn’t get the job.

We have a motto here at Pink Sky, which is that you should ‘influence the things that you can influence’. If you are a large consultancy, then the things that you can influence are staff, money, skillsets, training, outsourcing work, targeting large clients with some credibility and reputation behind you, and so on. As a small group, your influence is somewhat limited and needs to grow. What you can influence, however, is character and working ethic. If you are reliable, polite and you don’t rip people off, then you have more chance of securing future contracts and thus building your reputation.

It is vitally important that we humanise our work. The vast majority of clients will come to us because they do not know how to do what we do.
Therefore, if we start speaking in a language that they don’t understand, we appear arrogant and intangible. For the clients in that middle bracket, being straightforward and transparent is really key.

There are benefits that, being a new and small consultancy, you can use to sell yourself. If you are able to work with speed and drop everything to deliver a job or meet a client, then this works in your favour in the early days. The client should have easy access to the team which is working on the job, and be communicated with regularly. There are also inevitable financial benefits in working with a smaller consultancy.

If you want to get your foot in the door, be brave (and persistent). If you aim for the sky, you might hit the trees. One day you will hit the sky. Don’t lose heart when people say ‘no’ – just keep trying.

Naomi Turner is co-founder of Pink Sky Design


  • Do everything you can to improve your skills and experience levels. See if a creative director of a bigger consultancy will take you under their wing in a mentoring capacity
  • Talk to people. It’s amazing how word-of-mouth recommendation can generate work
  • Respect your superiors. Don’t speak badly of other consultancies. Look up to everyone
  • Be professional from the outset, even if working for friends
  • Smile when you answer the phone
  • Work hard
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