How small companies can land big contracts

Madison-based Farwell Project Advisors started small but has seen rapid growth thanks to focusing on its core strengths instead of trying to be all things to all clients.

For small, startup companies, growth is not a certainty. The desire to land that first big contract with a client can be overwhelming, not just from the standpoint of the security the contract offers in terms of revenue and regular work, but also because there’s an “I made it” feeling once all parties have signed on the dotted line.

However, landing one or more big contracts when the company is still in its infancy but growing doesn’t mean anything if they’re not with the right clients.

It’s a lesson Jason Potter, CEO of Madison-based Farwell Project Advisors, was faced with a couple years into his young company’s existence.

Farwell, which provides project execution services to help companies navigate complex organizational, process, and systems changes, was recently named to the Inc. 5000 list for the fastest-growing private companies in America, placing No. 655 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list for its 770 percent growth over the last three years.

Jason Potter, CEO, Farwell Project Advisors

Potter started Farwell, which is also the name of the street he lives on, as an independent consultant in the summer of 2012. About a year later, he hired Steve McQuin to help grow the business into a team. “Steve and I had worked together on and off since the early 2000s and we have a great relationship,” Potter says. From 2013 to 2017, the business has grown from $209,000 to $5.1 million in revenue, and the team of two has grown to a team of over 50, with 20 percent growth expected in 2018.

Along the way, Farwell has won contracts with a number of large clients, including Sub-Zero, Fiskars, Lands End, MillerCoors, and WPS.

Regarding the task of getting in the door, the beauty and challenge of the Madison market is its size, notes Potter. “We are one degree away from everyone in Madison, which is great when people know your quality of work and integrity as a business partner. Those business connections lead to conversations that help us understand the types of changes and business strategy our clients are working on.”

According to Potter, smaller companies can differentiate in several ways, but it always comes back to providing more value than a competitor. “Our largest differentiators are with solution flexibility and quality. We have a collaborative delivery model that allows us to meet our customers where they are at, not where we say they should be. On the quality side, our core team exists entirely of people that either our team or a client has worked with directly. It goes back to the one-degree concept — our success rate is very high because our team is made up of known experts.

“If quality or flexibility are not the highest priorities for a company, we are likely not a fit,” continues Potter. “Many companies also may not realize that services you normally expect from an Accenture or Deloitte can be found locally at Farwell. In those cases, our value proposition includes quality, flexibility, and overall cost, as we are much more in line with Midwest pricing. Securing the deal means we are aligned on what is most valuable to our clients.”

In Farwell’s case, regardless of the size of client, the company starts with a “Right-Fit discovery.” This is a no-cost, no-obligation meeting or series of meetings to help Farwell determine the size and complexity of the change and the potential impact on the affected teams and culture. Potter explains this is very different than leading with a prescriptive solution and it is not right for every scenario. “Part of right-fit includes whether Farwell is the right fit as a partner,” he notes. “Most clients appreciate that we can customize solutions based on their needs and priorities.”

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Landing the right whale

“It took us a few years to really focus in on our core offerings,” says Potter. “Like many startups, we had opportunistic deals hit our radar and were aggressive in going after them. We had to learn the discipline of walking away from business that was not our core strength.

“We also learned the lesson of having strong business and financial reporting in place,” Potter continues. “We did not have that in the beginning and if we had more visibility into our financial health early on, we likely would have made better decisions. Once those metrics and reports were developed, we quickly pivoted to what was working and stopped chasing things that did not make sense.”

According to Potter, these are not trivial things — they’re more like existential risks for a professional services firm. As a result of its lessons learned, Farwell now helps other small firms in its space develop their own financial dashboards to avoid some of the mistakes the company made early on.

“Regarding delivery, the big thing comes back to the quality of your team,” Potter adds. “Even when we worked on deals we shouldn’t have gotten into, we delivered at a high level — it just cost us. Now we are much better at knowing what we should or should not be working on.”

Potter says Farwell’s company size and location allows it to respond quickly to its clients changing needs. While smaller than national competitors, Farwell is local and very responsive, which helps set it apart when negotiating for a contract with a large client. “We are also very focused on what we do best, allowing us to continue to add talent that aligns with our values and core capabilities,” says Potter. “This focus also keeps us from trying to be too many things, while still being responsive to our clients. Any request for services outside our core capabilities is considered partner work. In this way, our clients don’t just get Farwell, they get access to our network of other professionals. Sometimes, partner work is just a referral, while other times we partner directly on creative solutions for our clients or our partner’s clients.”

Given Farwell’s approach and core capabilities, Potter believes his company has done a good job of aligning with customers prior to agreeing on an engagement. “We put as much time as we can up front to determine if we will be able to help the client be successful. This costs our clients time, but it prevents delivery problems and cost overruns once projects start. For other smaller firms, we just suggest staying focused on your strengths and not trying to do too much.”

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