SBM #10 - Onbench at 10 employees

Some companies are easy to start but harder to scale. 

‘Small Business Mentor' exists to tell insightful, interesting stories about initially successful small businesses that faced obstacles and somehow found a way to overcome them through whatever means necessary. 

Last week, we looked at Malcolm Marshall and his business POOL-ology, and the importance of changing your team to suit your business’s next steps.

Today, I want to talk about the balance of building out existing clients and winning new business.  

📓 The Overview:

  • Business: Onbench

  • Barrier: 10 employees

  • Learning: Starting is easy but scaling is a lot more difficult

📓 The Story:

Onbench is a two-year-old professional services company that provides IT team augmentation and managed services. 

Onbench is the business you call if you need good tech talent fast.

Do you need a web developer? 

They’ll find them. 

Do you need a contract game engine developer? 

They’ll find them.

The co-founder, Dylan, had originally honed his craft as a tech worker in the entertainment industry. 

But he and a partner decided to take a leap of faith and venture into business ownership. 

Onbench was a complete bootstrap startup at the back end of 2021. 

If you’ve ever started a professional services business from scratch like that, you know it can be easy to get that first bit of revenue but very hard to grow beyond it.

The first set of clients come straight from the contacts you’ve already been working with.

Dylan was working in product development and his business partner had 10 years of experience working in professional services.

That original network gives you a huge boost in professional services but once the easy fruit is picked, new firms have to try a different playbook.

As I told Dylan, we were able to grow Corner Alliance to $1m in about 8 months.

We got to $2-3m a year or two after that but then we hit a wall.

What happened? 

We ran out of potential clients we knew who needed our work.

So, what do you do?

First, you try a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work: cold outreach, throwing in proposals on work you don’t know about, online marketing tactics, etc.

In my experience, none of that works.

What does work?

I think two things, both of which Dylan is now doing. 

The first is just doing good work for existing clients. 

That allows you to focus on current account expansion.

If your client gets a bigger budget and you’re doing well they’ll give you more work. 

Simple. 

Along with that is looking up, down, right, and left of your current clients. 

Those offices, projects, programs, and divisions are your likeliest extension points. 

Once an organization is working with you, you have a great customer reference. 

The second tactic is to focus on warm outreach. 

Dylan began reaching out to contacts he already had on LinkedIn. 

People he had previously worked with and people he had studied with.

At first, he felt uncomfortable about being “salesy,” but when you don’t grow, you are forced to become comfortable a lot faster.

Of course, it’s not always an easy thing to ask your friends, contacts, & acquaintances for work or introductions to key potential clients. 

But when you think about it, why wouldn’t you do that? 

These people know you and know how you operate. 

You provide a good service so why wouldn’t they want to know about it?

The downside of this tactic is that it takes a long time and a lot of persistence to produce results.

Getting a new client to throw you more work can happen quickly.

You already have the relationships, contracts in place, and people on the ground.

Building new relationships, even from warm leads, is a long-term project.

But it’s working. 

Focusing on these two key tactics, Onbench doubled its revenue in a year from only a few clients. 

And that’s during one of the worst years for tech in over a decade.

Impressive. 

Most of this has come from existing account expansion rather than new accounts and while it’s tempting to not do the hard work of nurturing new leads, it’s essential.

Clients change jobs. 

Budgets get cut. 

Priorities change.

So you’ve always got to be watering the next field while harvesting the current one.

Dylan’s also trying some of those marketing tactics that didn’t work for me. 

They are hiring a company to cold call potential customers to try to set up meetings.

Color me doubtful but there are some lessons owners need to learn themselves and I hope to be proved wrong. 

We’ll check in with Dylan in a few months and see how it’s going.

🧑‍🎓 The Lessons: 

  1. Professional services companies are easy to set up and hard to scale.

  1. Nurturing leads requires patience and persistence. 

  1. The right marketing approach is difficult to find. As John Wanamaker said over a century ago, “Half my advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” 

📅 Next Week:

Stay tuned, because next week we jump into another small business story learning how complex yet important it is to figure out a growth formula. 

Keep growing,

Alan

P.S. 

I just launched my Small Business Mentor Podcast where you can learn more about overcoming adversity in your small business. 

Check it out here: 

P.P.S. 

Do you have a small business growth story and want to be featured? Ping me on X @apentz, or submit at http://www.fame.so/sbp-story

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