By Marc Emmer
I had a conversation with a CEO who was lamenting the disparity between public company valuations and those of privately held concerns. As of July 2011, the S&P was trading at a multiple of 14, while private company multiples remained in the five-to-six range. Investors value public company access to capital, and scalability into large consumer markets. Of the top 10 U.S. companies by size, none are pure-play B2B companies.
Small companies come in all forms; some compete with larger branded companies, and some market directly to them. In the age of confluence, some do both. How can small companies survive in a land of giants?
The primary difference between Fortune 1000 companies and smaller ones is more fundamental than which markets they serve. Intel founder Geoffrey Moore makes a distinction about business architecture — the difference between “complex systems” and “volume operations”[i].
Many smaller B2B companies are built to support specialized and custom solutions, while most Fortune 500 companies are built from the ground up to serve the masses. While customization may command higher prices (per transaction) than generalization, high-volume companies cross a threshold where their infrastructure promotes a lower cost per unit and the experience curve takes full effect. Thus, B2B companies face an inherent profitability disadvantage.
Where Microsoft offers its highly useful suite of Office products at around $400 per license, Apple’s B2C model (which is often utilized by small businesses and micro-businesses such as designers and the like) offers Pages and Numbers at $9.99 each. One offer is based on high intellectual capital value, the other on mass appeal and ease of use.
For smaller B2B companies to reach new levels of profitability, they must find a path to scalability. Of course, not every business wants to be big. Some entrepreneurs prefer a “family culture” and more tempered growth (with less risk).
One way to effect profitable volume is to find a balance, where products and services are “mass customized”. Mass customization is all the rage in consumer products where individuals can even build their own handbags and Nike basketball shoes to their specifications.
Smaller companies (B2B and B2C alike) should seek out solutions that allow for better utilization of existing solutions across more customers. In other words, the provider shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel with each project. Often, optimizing margin requires leverage of a base product or service that can be replicated, at times with features configured to the customer’s individual needs. To configure from a menu of choices is considerably different than satisfying each specific whim, which may offer greater intimacy with the customer, but may also require the business to sacrifice profit. For every feature created for an individual customer, there is a resulting opportunity cost (time, money and energy that could be invested elsewhere).
The other requirement for getting big is a shift towards systems thinking, where management teams make decisions within the framework of their company’s capabilities. For a new initiative to succeed requires careful analysis of the resources required to implement it. The key for smaller companies who aspire to do business with larger ones iS to utilize systems and processes consistent with the expectations of the customers they serve.
Competing against larger companies requires a unique mindset. Often small businesses use concepts like judo (where the larger opponents energy is often used against him) to beat the larger foe at the point of attack. Consider the depth and width of the market you want to serve, and scale your resources accordingly.
[i] Source: Dealing with Darwin — Geoffrey Moore
Marc Emmer is a President of Optimize Inc. a California based management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning. Marc is the author of the book IntendedConsequences. Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published: Sep 5, 2011