7 Things Big Dumb Companies Do That
You Can’t Afford (Especially Now)


Not every big company is dumb. There are actually a decent number of big smart companies that do things we can learn from. But big, well-capitalized companies have a mortal enemy: inertia. It’s very hard to change the direction they’re already headed. It’s very hard to fix the cultural mistakes that have been ingrained in the company since its early days. It’s very hard for most big companies to learn.

So if you’re a small company (maybe even a company of one brave, stalwart soul), here are some ideas about how to outsmart and outmaneuver your big competitors. With the economy generally falling down around our ears, this is a great time to get a lot smarter. As Godin said, Small is the New Big. Use that to your advantage.

Here are 7 big-company mistakes not to make.

1. Printing 10,000 Brochures . . .

. . . and then having to dump 9,950 of them. This happens so often it would be funny–if it wasn’t your money getting flushed down the toilet.

Most small businesses don’t need a brochure at all. Brochures are typically “me-me-me” communications that talk about how great your business is. No one cares. They are inherently unremarkable. Brochures are created and printed to satisfy the ego of the business owner–and that’s a big dumb mistake you can’t afford.

If you want a physical piece to give your customers, assemble it more like a media kit. Have some nice-looking folders printed up, then create short inserts on different points of value for your customer.

Each insert needs to speak to something your customers give a damn about.

  • Print up some case studies that show the different kinds of customers you’ve helped.
  • Compile lists of great resources for your customers.
  • Create a buying guide for the type of product you offer. (Will that buying guide frame the question to suggest that you’re the best solution? Gee, ya think?)
  • Create white papers and how-to worksheets that let your customers solve important problems.
  • Offer a free educational series by email (like my marketing tool kit or email marketing class), then create an insert that tells customers how and why to subscribe.

Some of these inserts can be glossy, four-color jobs. That’s optional. Most will be simple black-and-white photocopies. They’ll be organized nicely in your folder, and you’ll include a business card and a personal, handwritten (not a computer handwritten font) note.

The contents of this folder must be intrinsically valuable to your customer. If you can’t imagine a customer tacking any individual insert to her bulletin board and referring to it daily, put some more work into it.

Every page of every insert will have your Web, phone and email contact information printed on it.

Your folders might cost as much to print as those brochures do, but now you have an infinitely flexible, configurable piece that allows you to start a meaningful relationship with that individual customer. Remember to take great care not to put anything on your printed folder (street address, phone number, hours, etc.) that has any chance of changing over the next 5 years. Instead, print that stuff on a professional-looking sticker that you attach neatly to the back.

2. Failing to Double-Opt In your Email Subscribers

Big companies figure they’re so special and their brand is so darned valuable that anyone dumb enough to email them is fair game for follow-up junk.

They can afford to throw away all that good will and email deliverablity. You can’t. Any autoresponder or newsletter-style email (as opposed, of course, to email sent by one individual to one individual) needs to be sent on a double opt-in basis. This means that your customer requests your stuff, then confirms that request.

Short-sighted email marketers think this leaves too many customers out, since invariably you lose a few people in that confirmation step. (For your reference, I lose about 2-3%.) Experienced email marketers know that a) if prospects don’t like and trust you enough to confirm an email subscription, they don’t like and trust you enough to buy your stuff, and b) deliverability on double opt-in email is much, much better, so more messages will end up in in-boxes rather than spam filters.

3. Assuming All Customers are White Guys

Executive management and boards of directors of big companies are mostly white guys. Now there’s nothing wrong with white guys, but when all decisions are being made by them, it gets easy to start thinking that all customers are white guys, too.

In many markets, most buying decisions are made by women or influenced by women. And the degree to which big dumb companies (unless they’re selling diapers or diet soda) just leave women out of the communication equation is genuinely shocking. Some big dumb companies do slightly better with the realization that a good chunk of the population is Latino, Asian or African-American, but there’s plenty of room for improvement there, too.

There are millions of customers out there who don’t look like the typical American corporate executive. Talk to those customers in a personal, relevant way. Respect them. And check your assumptions whenever possible.

4. Lawyering Up

Big companies have a lot to lose. They’re appealing targets for law suits of all kinds, from employment to consumer class action to environmental. They live in terror of pissing off their shareholders with bad publicity. They worry, legitimately, what the New York Times might have to say about their behavior.

They therefore play it safe. Now I won’t say this is stupid–it’s just a limitation that they have by virtue of being big. But it’s an expensive limitation.

Most big companies are very nervous about being straightforward with their customers. They don’t admit when they screw up. They don’t engage in the social media conversation. They don’t let customers post unmoderated feedback for everyone to see.

Big companies have armies of gatekeepers–lawyers, PR people, and the like–whose job it is to make sure the company doesn’t say anything remarkable.

When they do talk to the general public, they sound like . . . well, a big dumb company. They put forth mountains of irrelevant junk on spectacularly useless Web sites, and issue stiff, self-serving press releases no self-respecting reporter would spend more than 3.5 seconds reading. The only time they use conversational language is in TV ads–which most people Tivo past.

A big company has to hire “creatives” to talk to customers like human beings. You just need to be yourself. That’s a pretty significant advantage.

5. Forgetting that “We” Includes the Customer

Steve Yastrow recently had an interesting post on the Tom Peters blog about We relationships. He defined them as when your customer never thinks of you without thinking of both of you.

Pepsi, Microsoft and Nike have identities. They go around the world doing stuff that has nothing to do with us. When Microsoft says “we,” their customers don’t necessarily see themselves as included in that.

But when you think about your accountant, your real estate agent, and your hairdresser, you’re a pretty intimate part of that picture. Of course these people have lives that go on without you, but you don’t really think of them that way. As Steve put it, “When [your customer] can’t think of you without thinking of both of you, you have connected yourself to what she really cares about: herself.”

6. Valuing Systems over the Intangibles

Big companies can almost always make and distribute stuff more cheaply than you can. They get the best prices for raw materials. It’s relatively simple for them to outsource to whatever country is cheapest this month. They can essentially own entire distribution and promotion channels. It’s easy to think that the economies of scale will always make them more competitive than you can be.

But scale is the enemy of mystery. It’s the enemy of creativity. Scale needs robust, unchanging processes or it falls to pieces.

A few big companies include ingredients like delight, gratitude and enthusiasm in their processes. Most don’t. Your competitive advantage lies in the intangible, hard-to-quantify stuff that it would be hard to create a process around.

(Smart big companies do create processes around the intangibles. Fortunately for those of us in little companies, there aren’t too many of those.)

7. Making it Hard to Say ‘Thank You’

The Made to Stick boys had a good column about this in Fast Company this month. Big dumb companies (grudgingly) create ways for customers to complain and maybe get those complaints resolved. But they usually don’t have good mechanisms for customers to express delight.

One of the pleasures of any relationship is being able to express your appreciation. Most giant organizations don’t have good venues for their customers to talk about how much they love being customers. Which not only robs employees of the chance to feel loved, it also robs customers of the chance to feel wonderful by passing some of that love along.

Of course, appreciation needs to go both ways. Expressing your appreciation for your best-loved customers is something that takes a complicated system for most big companies to implement. (There’s that process thing again.) You can just send a warm, personal thank-you note. And maybe some cookies.

(If you subscribe to either of my free e-classes, I’m going to send an interesting idea you can use to send a compelling thank you to your customers–one that gets you a nice whoosh of business, as well as making your customers happy. If a whoosh of business + happy customers sounds good, get signed up today so you don’t miss it.)

How about you? Seen a big, dumb company mistake you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Josh Hohman says:

    Ok, I’ll comment since you asked so nicely via Twitter… I’ve worked for a lot of big dumb companies in my day, and now I have the fortune of being a solopreneur (though I miss the big dumb company paycheck). I agree, and adhere, to the sage advice of most of your ‘thing’, though I tend to lawyer-up on occasion. One of the better written posts I’ve read in a while – I could make some money if I could write like you!

    I’m working with Naomi @IttyBiz on a new project, and I think she is going to hit you up to participate with us in the next week or so (and fyi, I’d still like to hire you to bounce a few ideas off of you, if things have settled down since I emailed a few months back :)

    All the best!

    Josh Hohmans last blog post..Review: 30-Day Challenge

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    The two that come to mind are:
    1. Hiding behind the brand (losing the human side)
    2. Automating stuff that should be done by humans in some cases, and making humans slave to the machines in others

    I think today’s tango is about finding your unique voice and defending your niche … not just any niche, the niche where you are your best, and your differentation stands out — human side and all.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Colleague Won’t Help

  3. Gary says:

    Thanks for these interesting ideas. The big company mistake that comes to my mind is that their main purpose becomes the money, they are no longer solving a problem or pursuing a passion. I think this shows in their decisions, the way they treat their people and customers, and shows through in the points you mentioned.

    Small businesses obviously want to make money, too, but if that becomes the primary motivator then I don’t think you can have the kind of customer relationships that you promote.

    Garys last blog post..25 Words that Connect Us Project

  4. Tom Pick says:

    Sonia –

    Outstanding post, particularly point #5. Doing what’s right for the customer should always be job one. If you focus on making your customers more successful, you’ll achieve the most important part of success — happiness in what you do. That also, incidentally, leads to financial success, because happy customers stay with you and keep buying your products/services.

    Personally, I strive to achieve “we” with every client. When I’m able to tell a client, “I think this is what we should do next” — and they are okay with that phrasing — I know I’ve earned their trust.

    That’s the type of relationship that makes both parties successful over the long term. And it is ultimately a much more profitable, and enjoyable way to do business than trying to squeeze out every short-term nickel and dime.

    Tom Picks last blog post..The 8 Layers of a B2B Web Marketing Plan

  5. Carole says:

    These are all really good tips, but I’m especially glad to read number one: I’ve been meaning to work on making some brochures, but haven’t had time, and now I have something better to work on.


  6. Zoe says:

    So very interesting and useful! Enough to lure me into your newsletter.

    I find working with individuals/small businesses infinitely more appealing than dealing with a faceless corporation. Big companies often seem to actively sever the human aspect in hopes of appearing more professional.

  7. Angel Cuala says:

    Your wonderful article at Copyblogger brought me here, and I am amazed with this great list.

    I confess, I get annoyed when some pretty face gives me a flashy brochure about a product but all I can see is their identification promos instead of what they can really offer.

    But I will be excited to see one that has the handwritten note. I think that’s cool enough.

    Angel Cualas last blog post..6 Heartbreaking Reasons why we are not making Good Money out of Blogging

  8. Sonia -

    Thanks for your insightful interpretation of “We.” You nailed it. Keep in touch!


    Steve Yastrows last blog post..You can’t multi-task

  9. I see you have discovered the very smart and wonderful Steve Yastrow. He’s got a great blog. :)

    I’d love to see a follow-up to this on the dumb things small companies do, too (you know, in case you were wondering where that next post idea was going to come from).

  10. Sonia Simone says:

    I had a nice responsive comment written up a few days ago and lost it to the Internet gods, so I’m chiming in later than I should. Danged Internet gods.

    @Michael, what a cool idea! I will do just that. And yeah, Steve’s blog not only has great content, but it sure does look sharp. ;) (Steve, thanks much for swinging by! We’ll talk more . . .)

    @Josh, I am so glad you found Naomi! And have things gotten less crazy for me? Well, still pretty nuts, but I’ll take out the jaws of life and open up some time in my schedule.

    @Gary, good point–things seem to start to go sour as soon as the duty is to the shareholders/VCs/etc. In fact, that would have made a good #8. Depending too much on OPM (other people’s money) as a small business is a risky game unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Some of us do; most of us don’t. It’s very easy to lose control of the very factors that you need to be successful.

  11. gWallet says:

    Along the lines of #1 – printing anything at all. In today’s day and age, it still amazes me just how much paper flies in and out of offices everyday. Believe it or not, I actually have first hand experience with a boss that used to print every email he received, file them in manila folders according to date and customer, and then store them in massive file cabinets. I don’t even want to KNOW how much that cost, not to mention the environmental irresponsibility of it all.

    gWallets last blog post..World of Warcraft to receive Paid Character Customization

  12. Thomas says:

    It’s a shame that big companies do these stupid kinds of things. In all reality, their mistakes get passed down to us, the customers. Sad, sad sad!

  13. Jon Buscall says:

    The point about companies printing zillions of brochures and junking the majority is spot on.
    It’s very hard to persuade clients that what they really need is a kit rather than a glossy pat on the back. They look around at what others are doing and go: “We’ve gotta get a brochure out.”

    Sometimes it’s about getting customers to understand to need to see the trees, not just the wood.

    Jon Buscalls last blog post..Viral Marketing Comes to Stockholm

  14. Moira says:

    Great post. I wanted to say thank you, since you follow your own advice and give me a place to do it. This is my first time to your blog. I like what I see. (Also, Stumbled you.) I’ll be back!

  15. Hi
    This is a great post and so true! I have a tri-fold brochure which I made and have printed out on a high quality printer which gives information on what I do and who I am.

    After reading your post I think I definitely need to add to this and create the folder you talk about! What a great idea an so much more useful!


  16. John Sternal says:

    Thanks for the great info. I’ll be sure to pass this along to my small business audience, many of whom can take a page from this information and apply directly to their operations.

    John Sternal

  17. Laura Click says:

    Great post! T-Mobile needs to read this after their huge outage last night. I think one of the things that big companies can often be terrible at is crisis communications. T-Mobile’s huge outage last night is a great example. Sure they have a Twitter account, but they barely used it (or any other form of communication) to let frantic and upset customers know what’s going on. When the responded to tweets, it was only to the positive ones. They could have really benefited from engaging with customers last night. But, as you mentioned, big companies have too many systems and processes in the way.

    You’re right – it’s easy for small companies to get discouraged about trying to compete with the big guys. However, I think there are so many advantages to small business – more personable, customer-oriented and nimble. Thanks for highlighting these great tips!

  18. I certainly agree with all the points you mentioned and I must say partly I am guilty with committing some of these mistakes.
    Small Business Competitors´s last [type] ..Aug 19- Who are Your Small Business Competitors

  19. John Freeman says:

    I just discovered this site, and, Sonia, I find your writing refreshingly and consistently crisp, clear, and on point. I am sure that everybody says that. But so often, even on quality sites, the comments quickly become a waste of my time. Not true here. I don’t know how you do it, but the writing of the commenters is consistently top notch as well.

    I’ll come back with a few Things Big Dumb Companies Do as soon as I sort out which ones are at the top of my list. I’ve got to go out and avoid a few Dumb Small Business Mistakes first.


  1. [...] 7 Things Big Dumb Companies Do That You Can’t Afford (Especially Now) It’s very hard to change the direction they’re already headed. It’s very hard to fix the cultural mistakes that have been ingrained in the company since its early days. It’s very hard for most big companies to learn. … [...]

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  4. [...] 7 things big dumb companies do that you can’t afford (especially now) create white papers and how-to worksheets that let your customers solve important problems. offer a free educational series by email (like my marketing tool kit or email marketing class), then create an insert that tells customers how … [...]

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