Do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door, and then keep your foot on the gas pedal if you want to compete in a big market.
Had I known in 1995 what I know now, I wonder if I would have started my own company; in any event, I made the right choice.
Government work in NYC was pretty much out of the question for a one- to two-, then five-person firm. Set-asides for minorities and women were quite high and the big firms used the MBE/WBE/DBEs for their subs. Whenever I approached a prime to team the answer I got back was the same. “We’d love to include you but we need to fulfill our set-aside goals so there’s no room for you.” Clearly I needed a business plan that did not count on the public sector.
Private sector work has no such requirements. To break into that market I built on my history as an NYC traffic commissioner and chief engineer. I emphasized my know-how, know-who, and know-what to do to expedite the process mainly for developers. Twenty years in the government sector gave me an edge.
My second selling point was that the client would get the CEO in attendance, not a staffer, for agency meetings, legislative hearings, and community outreach. For the first few years I billed 40-60 hours per week to projects and another 20 or so to marketing and administration.
Thirdly, to get my foot in the door, I guaranteed my fee would be at or lower than the competition’s. Private clients will often let you know if your fees are a bit high if they want to work with you. You must be willing to negotiate. I also took on “lost leaders” where I did not make a profit and even took a loss to build my firm’s résumé.
But, all that was not enough to make a big enough splash. NYC was and is a media capital. In 1995 newspapers and television ruled the day. At one point I wrote columns for four newspapers for very low fees. Depending on the paper I was Gridlock Sam, Transit Sam, the Queens Traffic Guru, and Gridlock Shmuel. I made myself available to comment on transportation matters for television and radio. The public has a tendency to think if he’s on TV he must be good. Many clients came forward wanting Gridlock Sam on their team.
A decade later my firm reached a mass of 50 people and we found it easier to team up for government work with the “big guys.” Today, we are 115 people and are able to serve as prime on some jobs.
We are also no longer Sam the ex-commissioner and his students (I was a professor at Cooper Union when I started). Yes, if the client needs to see or hear from the CEO, they will. But, for the vast majority of jobs it is the other 114 people who lead the charge, deliver the product, and make the profit. I’m just 25 percent billable and I like it that way. But the ethos never changed: a satisfied client is considered the low bar; a happy, successful client ready to bring us onto the next job is our goal. We accomplish this with ingenuity, accessibility, and integrity (which also happens to be our tag line).
Samuel I. Schwartz is president and CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering. He is the author of Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars. He can be reached at email@example.com.