Critical Mass: Lay it on the line

Written by Jack Kohane

All startups crave big-name clients right out of the gate. Among other things, a marquee-client list creates instant credibility. Calgary-based website developer Critical Mass was no different. Right after opening the firm in 1995, president Thelton McMillian sped over to Mercedes Benz USA and managed to snag the high-end automotive giant as its first customer. Plucky move for a startup, and it worked. How did McMillian do it?

The entrepreneur’s original vision for the firm was to develop promotional CD-ROMs for companies to distribute at golf tournaments and corporate events. Critical Mass approached Mercedes-Benz USA with this product, but it wasn’t interested. However, says McMillian, it happened to be looking for a firm to improve its website. Although Critical Mass had never produced websites before, it offered to take on the project.

At first, Mercedes Benz was reluctant. To sweeten the deal, Critical Mass offered to build the website on spec in 90 days. “If they didn’t like it, they did not have to buy it,” explains McMillian. It was a no-nonsense, risk-free approach the carmaker couldn’t pass up.

The Critical Mass team worked 24/7 for three months to create the site. “In the end, Mercedes Benz loved it,” declares McMillian. Now, the automotive firm calls McMillian whenever talk turns to launching new Internet marketing initiatives.

The firm began with an export and has remained consistent. In fact, 100% of Critical Mass’s sales come from exports to the U.S. and U.K. Once it scored Mercedes, its strategy was to grow by working with the world’s most prominent brands. With offices across the U.S. and in Stockholm, the company’s sales, marketing and relationship management teams are where it targets present and potential clients.

McMillian’s advice to young firms: take risks. Critical Mass was so convinced that it could build a top-of-the-line website for Mercedes Benz that it hired new people and built the site without any guarantees of payment. Today, the firm has credibility in the industry. “On the strength of our first single account,” says McMillian, “we can now bend the ear of the right people at Dell, Procter & Gamble, Smirnoff and AT&T Wireless.”

Of course, risks require confidence — something that has nurtured Critical Mass from its genesis. Says McMillian: “It’s one of those essential ingredients that keeps ink flowing onto new contracts.”

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© 2003 Jack Kohane

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com