Business Startup Culture

Welcome to Little Big Inc.

On’s three founders (from left) David Allemann, Caspar Coppetti and Olivier Bernhard. (Photo: Braschler/Fischer)

On’s three founders (from left) David Allemann, Caspar Coppetti and Olivier Bernhard. (Photo: Braschler/Fischer)

Small companies now take on global giants, as tech changes the balance of power.

You’ve got a great idea. You’ve assembled a team of four or five people, all enthusiastic, all raring to go. That’s it. You’re ready to take on the giants.

This is not the familiar story of online start-ups and one-app wonders, where the business model is a quick sell-out to Facebook, Google, or Apple. Instead it’s the story of companies like Jimdo, a small German business that makes it easy to build and run websites—whether you want to run a blog, create a personal site to show off your fly-fishing prowess, or create an online presence for your small business. Jimdo started as the side project of an online marketing team that didn’t like the software available at the time to build websites. So they built their own easy-to-use, browser-based tools.

Today Jimdo is a global company, with a webhosting service rivalling established competitors. It used the power of the cloud to go global. Launched six years ago, run on a shoe string, and driven by passion and weekends of intense coding at a farmhouse in rural Northern Germany, founders Christian Springub, Fridtjof Detzner and Matthias Henze are turning Jimdo into an online powerhouse, with offices in Hamburg, San Francisco, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Jimdo now hosts more than seven million websites, and makes money on a Freemium model: personal websites are free, “pro” and “business” services and functionalities cost extra. The website supports 11 languages.

Jimdo got its start at this farmhouse in Northern Germany

Jimdo got its start at this farmhouse in Northern Germany

So far, so obvious, you’ll say. After all, Jimdo is an online service, that’s what the Internet was made for.

Wrong. For small companies, the

Internet is more than a platform to run web services and reach customers worldwide.

Here is the real power of online: it allows small companies to create a virtual corporate infrastructure that allows them to rival global giants. Technology helps businesses to source and outsource everything – from design to product development to sourcing materials to finance to logistics to customer service.

Take On. This small Swiss firm makes high-end running shoes, competing with the global giants of sports manufacturing. The shoes’ unique selling point is based on an idea by Olivier Bernhard, a six-times Ironman winner: the soles sport circular pieces of a special rubber to combine a cushioned landing while running with the barefoot feeling of a natural push-off. On’s CloudTec shoes are rapidly gaining fans among running enthusiasts, especially triathletes, who are always on the look-out for innovation that provides that little bit of edge.

Technology helped the Swiss team go global quickly. Rapid prototyping was done in China; once the concept was proven to work, and the company wanted to scale (and improve quality), it moved manufacturing to Vietnam. Using technology, just 18 months after launch On had built a virtual global supply chain covering 18 countries across Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America. The days are over when a company had to reach scale in its domestic market first before it could make it big abroad.

It’s a similar story for Bulldog, a British firm making “natural” male grooming products. Founded by a group of friends, the company is thriving in a market dominated by multi-brand giants.

How can Bulldog, with less than a dozen staff, make and distribute its “natural moisturizer,” lemon-scent shower gel, and “anti-aging” wrinkle cream?

Once again, technology allows Bulldog to run a global supply chain that links its outsourced production facilities with premium retailers from the United States to Australia and South Korea.

The product ideas come from the Bulldog team, but are developed under contract in the UK. Ingredients and packaging are sourced online and the supply chain is virtual and global. Heavy use of social media and viral marketing help to create a strong brand identity.

These three firms prove that digital technology is not just about pretty apps. Rather, it gives small companies global power, allows them to enter tough industries and challenge giants. They may be little, but they can act like Big Inc.

Tim Weber is senior vice president at Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm, based in London. A content and social media specialist, he focuses on technology and energy. Until last year he was business and technology editor for BBC News Interactive. On Twitter: @tim_weber

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