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When Carol Leaman took over as president and CEO of Axonify, the Waterloo-based e-learning company had exactly one client.

Mind you, that client was not your typical first customer. Most startups start with small businesses, who typically have less complicated and lengthy procurement processes and are more willing to work with unknown partners. By contrast, Axonify’s initial sale was an American automotive parts retailer called Pep Boys, with $2 billion in revenue and a fleet of 20,000 employees.

Leaman admits that signing Pep Boys to Axonify, which develops game- and incentive-based employee training software, took a bit of luck. But once the company was in the Axonify fold, keeping it and finding other giant corporations to partner with was easy. Soon, Leaman was selling her product to Toys R Us, Walmart, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and FedEx, to name just a few.

It’s only now, five years later and with nearly $10 million in annual revenue, that Leaman,who ranked No. 26 on the 2016 W100 Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs, has started focusing on selling to smaller businesses. While the approach—starting with mega clients and working down to the small ones—runs counter to the conventional startup strategy, it’s helped Axonify achieve mass success early on and accelerate quickly.

Here, Leaman offers advice on how to start big and grow small.

Focus on needs, not size

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years and after four companies is [that you need to] pick your sweet spot and drill deep to get a footprint and a repeatable sales story,” says Leaman. After seeing what worked for Pep Boys in the area of health and safety training, Leaman and her team sought out companies with similar needs and sell them on Axonify’s product based on their first client’s experience.

By targeting companies based on their needs rather than their size, Leaman ensured Axonify would have a compelling case to present. “With every big client, it made selling to the next one easier and easier,” Leaman says.

Sell your vision

“With larger companies, there tends to be inertia when it comes to change,” says Leaman. “They’ve invested millions of dollars already into training and it’s hard to see how this one service is going to change the game.”

For a company like Walmart, for example, adopting Axonify’s product meant spending tens of thousands of dollars across several countries to reach 2.3 million employees. “The impact across the organization is so potentially great that they can’t afford to fail,” says Leaman.

That’s why you need to create a vision of what the client could achieve if they worked with you. “You really have to get that person or team you’re selling to excited about the opportunity to transform the business,” says Leaman. “In smaller organizations, people can wrap their heads around it more easily.”

Offer a trial period

Even with a handful of positive testimonials, many FORTUNE 1000 companies weren’t willing to work with a little-known startup claiming to make huge impacts on employee behaviour. “We had to prove ourselves before they’d jump in with both feet,” says Leaman.

Axonify won their trust by offering short-term pilot programs at a reduced rate for three to six months. One such arrangement was with Walmart, which adopted Axonify’s health and safety training for 5,000 employees across eight distribution centres over a six-month period. Walmart’s goal was to reduce the number of occupational health and safety reports by 5%; at the end of six months, the actual reduction was 54%.

“Once we did enough of these pilots and converted them to long-term deals, we didn’t have to do trial offers anymore,” says Leaman. “Our existing customers were happy to talk to prospective customers to validate that our programs work.”

Don’t ignore the value of small deals

In the last few years, “gamified” employee training has become something of a trend, as research suggests ongoing development can yield significant improvements in employee retention and performance, and the bottom line.

Coupled with Axonify’s growing name recognition, this increased interest has helped the company to attract small and medium-sized businesses organically. While these businesses don’t generate nearly as much revenue for Axonify as the multinationals, Leaman says they’re still worth her team’s time, especially if they’re easy to work with. “The benefit to those organizations is that we are often the first and only technology-enabled learning that they employ,” she says. “So we aren’t needing to integrate with other software solutions, or compete with the statement: ‘We’ve already invested in this other thing so how are you different and better?’ It makes the value we provide specific and unique.”

Leaman also notes that many of the small and medium businesses she works with will someday be large companies with more resources and a greater need for services like Axonify’s. Staking a claim with these companies early on could lead to major payoffs down the road—particularly if you’re selling in an increasingly competitive market. “If we feel the smaller companies can grow,” Leaman, “it’s great to get in early and grow with them.”

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