Infiltrating Big Dumb Companies: In Through The Out Door

KramerIn an episode of the popular 1990’s TV sitcom Seinfeld, Kramer, played by Michael Richards, begins “working” at the fictional Brandt - Leland Investment Firm by simply showing up, attending meetings and acting as if he is part of the team.

Although the plot was obviously devised for comic effect, it serves to illustrate that non-conventional methods of infiltrating Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) are often effective. The key is to avoid the adverse fate suffered by Kramer at the conclusion of this particular episode.

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Entrepreneurs constantly have to capture the attention of larger companies. This is usually a challenge, especially if conventional methods, such as approaching through a company’s front door, are deployed. Front doors are where sentinels are placed, in the form of security guards, receptionists and administrative assistants. These people are employed to keep entrepreneurs out, maintain order and reduce disruptions. Front doors are for ATM Operators who do not mind waiting their turns in long lines.

For instance, if you were trying to establish a partnership with a BDC, the front door would be a direct inquiry to the VP of Business Development. You might get lucky and be greeted with open arms. More likely, you will be ignored. Fortunately, every organization has multiple points of entry.

I do not endorse all of the following techniques. The more colorful approaches are listed here for completeness and in the hopes that they will inspire you to think of other, potentially less misleading methods. As noted in Time Wounds All Heels, it is preferable to maintain a strict policy of honesty in your personal and professional relationships. However, everyone has slightly different ethical boundaries. No doubt, some of these approaches will fall outside some readers’ ethical comfort zones.

Escort Services – Make a personal connection with someone willing to escort you through the front door and allow you to pass the corporate sentries unmolested. Such Escorts come in a number of forms, including:

  • Partners - Establish a rapport with a startup that is an existing partner with the targeted BDC. A startup is far more likely to respond to an inquiry, especially if they are in your industry yet are not competitive.

    Your startup Bro may give you insights into the inner workings of the BDC (including the political pecking order), identify the effective champions, and help you avoid ineffectual blowhards. They might also make warm introductions to one or more BDC decision makers, thereby helping you bypass the corporate sentries.

  • Value Added Resellers – Another alternative path of entry to a BDC is via a Value Added Reseller (VAR). Similar to like-minded startups that are partnered with the target BDC, most VARs are fairly accessible and willing to learn about new industry trends and product offerings. If you are able to convince the VAR that your partnership with the BDC is in their best interest, they may be willing to walk you into the BDC with a strong recommendation. For instance, if the BDC were to bundle your solution with one sold via its VARs, such a partnership might result in incremental VAR sales.
  • Customers – Similar to VARs, BDC customers who believe that your solution will add value to a BDC’s offering also make effective Escorts. Even the most ineffective and dysfunctional BDCs tend to listen to their customers.
  • Triangulate – As noted in Jedi Mind Tricks, similarity leads to liking and liking leads to a willingness to help. Thus, find a similarity with a potential Escort before approaching them for help. Review the person’s publicly available information from social media sites. For instance, you might learn that you have a hometown, alma mater or favorite team in common with your potential Escort. Pointing out such points of similarity will facilitate establishing a personal connection and ultimately obtaining “Escort services.”

Press Releases – You can often find the names of BDC contacts from quotes in the company’s press releases. Once you have these names, you can deploy either or both of the following techniques.

  • Errant Dialing – Locate the BDC’s primary telephone number. Call the area code and the prefix number and then randomly dial the last two or three digits (depending on the syntax of the main number). For instance, if you know that the BDC’s main number is 805 966 6600, you might try 805 966 6650

Eventually, you will reach someone at the target company. When they answer, ask for the person mentioned in the press release. When they tell you that you have the wrong extension, apologize and ask them to give you the “correct” extension. Most employees will be only too happy to either transfer you directly or give you the extension for your would-be BDC contact.

  • BCC Email – If a press release includes a company contact’s email address, use the same syntax to email your BDC contact. For instance, if the contact’s email is [email protected], you can enter your contact’s name in the same format.

If no email address is cited in the release, you can attempt to contact your targeted BDC executive via trial and error, by repeatedly guessing the syntax in a series of emails. This process requires you to wait to see if an email bounces before attempting another iteration. To avoid this tedious process, send one email with several variations of the contact’s potential email address in the blind carbon copy (BCC) address line. For instance, you might enter [email protected] in the “To” address, and [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected] as BCC recipients. This maximizes the chance you will identify the correct email address, without making it overly obvious that you are guessing.

Soft Referrals – Door-to-door salespeople have long understood the value of referrals. Whenever they are unable to close a sale, they maximize the impact of the interaction by asking for the name of another prospect.

You can use this same technique when attempting to cold contact someone. For instance, in the first line of your email, note something to the effect of: “I was speaking with John Greathouse, the Former SVP of Strategic Development at Citrix Online, and he thought it might make sense for us to connect regarding my company’s SaaS solution.” The key to obtaining such soft referrals is to ask for them. You may be surprised by the number of people who are willing to give you a fellow-executive’s name, or at the very least, the name of a company that might be able to use your solution.

Caution: do not overplay your hand, as it is generally easy for the BDC employee to check on the validity of such referrals. As such, never claim a referral that is not legitimate.

CIA Hiring Practices

out doorAlthough some BDCs may be miffed by job candidates like Kramer, who attempt unconventional points of entry, startups should welcome such entrepreneurs. In fact, locking the front door is an effect way to assess how wily a startup candidate truly is.

Intelligence agencies have long used the hiring process to determine a candidate’s capabilities. For instance, a common technique is to reserve the candidate a hotel room and tell them that the following morning a car will pick them up at precisely 8:00. They are also told that they must be at the office by 9:00 for their first interview. They are given a phone number and the office address, in the event “anything comes up.”

At the appointed hour, no car arrives and the given phone number continually rolls into voicemail. Candidates who stand around and wait for the never-appearing car are approached by a clandestine observer and are told that the “interview” is over and asked to go home.  

Potential employees who grab a cab and attempt to proceed to the appointed address, soon realize that the address is not valid. The manner in which they then deal with the situation dictates whether or not they are deemed suitable to begin the formal interview process. If they leave a series of whiny voicemail messages to their recruitment contact, they are dismissed. Alternatively, if they remain calm and make clever attempts to arrive at their appointment on time, they pass the first test in the recruitment process.

The logic of this process is obvious. If a potential intelligence operative cannot improvise a suitable plan to arrive to their interview on time, it is unlikely they will be effective when dropped into a foreign country and forced to improvise on a daily basis in order to remain beyond the reach of the local judicial system. Startups should seek similarly wily employees.

When Kramer gets fired, the dialog confirms that his unconventional strategy would have been effective, if he had delivered value to Brandt-Leland. Even though he was totally incompetent, the company considered him to be a member of their team.

Executive: “Well I am sorry, there is just no way we can keep you on.”

Kramer: <after an awkward pause> “I don’t really even work here.”

Executive: “That’s what makes this so difficult.”

If a particular company is unwelcoming to your unconventional approach to job creation, then it is probably not an appropriate opportunity for a highly creative entrepreneur. For additional tips regarding how to create a position for yourself at a startup, see Joining An adVenture.

Kramer’s backdoor employment approach was absurdly executed. However, avoiding a BDC’s front door is anything but absurd in real life. As described in Turn Of The Screw, I began my career at an adVenture by offering to help and not asking for any compensation. Once I proved that I could add value to the team’s efforts, they were happy to pay me a modest salary supplemented by meaningful stock options. Unlike Kramer, I added value after I walked in through the out door. Be sure you do the same.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.


Copyright © 2007-10 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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