WE KNEW WE WERE DOING SOMEthing right the first time we realized we were competing against staging companies several times our size. Ever since we started our small video staging company, High Performance Images (HPI), two years ago, we always knew we wanted to compete with the “big dogs.” We did not, however, expect it to be so soon. We found ourselves asking a wonderful question; “how could four guys from Chicago be competing for shows against large staging corporations and in some cases actually winning?” We obviously wanted to know exactly what it was we were doing to find ourselves in this position and more importantly, how to stay there.

In order to answer this question we decided it best to start from the beginning. Two years ago, HPI was created when four friends, who at the time were working for a very large staging company, decided to take the plunge and try it on our own. We immediately knew we wanted to set a mission for our new company which would focus on what we considered to be the most important element and driving factor for success in this business; the people factor. To us, this has always been the most critical factor in this industry; the people are truly what make this a fantastic thing to do for a living and we wanted to recognize that.

Since the beginning, HPI has always had a distinct vision of how we would treat our clients, our employees, and even each other. Possibly stemming from the fantasies most employees have from time to time of “if I could do it my way, I would do it like this,” we developed a very simple plan; we promised we would never waiver from the idea of good people and good service. Over the last two years, HPI can credit much of its success to the fact we have stuck to this mission and have consistently developed close personal relationships with our clients and industry colleagues; some of which were actually these larger companies we were lucky enough to find ourselves competing against. Since we have such great respect for the industry as a whole, we genuinely enjoy the people we work with, the people we work for, and even the people we compete against. It almost seemed too simple, but it appears that one key to success in this industry is to stick to what fueled your fires in the beginning and trust your initial feelings of how your business should be run. It is important to remember why you decided to do this in the first place.

The main reason we decided to do this was to reclaim that personal side of this industry we always loved, which seemed to be disappearing. So what was it we were doing to develop these relationships so that clients continued to come to us instead of going to a larger company? The basic answer is that our clients simply like working with us; we do good work and have fun doing it and clients like that because it puts them at ease. The best way to truly appreciate the client's point of view on this matter is to notice the inherent trickle-down effect of this industry. HPI may hire an engineer from California because we like the way he works, we hire a camera operator from Chicago because she never lets us down, we rent projectors from a vendor in Vegas because they take great care of their gear.

Our clients in turn hire us to stage their events because they trust us and therefore trust the people we hire; this trickle-down effect is what leads to the more detailed answer to why our clients come to us, which is the quality factor. Because we are lean, we can afford to direct our attention to quality instead of quantity; the attention we give to our quality equipment and technical staff is crucial. With our inventory, we feel no pressure to purchase 100 widgets merely for the sake of owning 100 widgets, so we are able to look with a critical eye at the equipment we do purchase. With our technical staff we first lean on each other for support, advice, and expertise in order to perfect the advantages of a smaller company.

We then take our clients to the next level by introducing them to the quality network of resources, which help accomplish our goals; we try hard to share these resources, we never hide them. The camera operator in Chicago, the engineer in California are all of the highest quality; we treat them as yet another weapon in our arsenal and as with equipment, nothing makes it through without living up to our expected quality. Our clients come to rely on this attention to detail in our selection of technical staff and equipment and trust they will receive nothing less. We are proud of these resources and our goal is to pass along that pride to our clients. It is actually much easier for a smaller company to maintain its focus on quality people and service, because we need and subsequently welcome others to help us be successful.

After taking a look back, we noticed that beyond our initial mission and our dedication to quality, the final reason we are able to keep up with our larger competitors is also our favorite: the comfort factor. These times when we were competing head-to-head with a larger company and were fortunate enough to be awarded an event, it seemed the consistent reason we were getting these gigs was usually the comfort we provided to our clients. The comfort factor, however, is something which must be earned, it is never a given. A good example of this happened about a year ago when a major pharmaceutical company came to us to bid on their annual “All Employee Meeting.” When we first saw the RFQ, we realized it had many elements that might make it more difficult for us to compete against the larger companies we knew were also bidding on the show. The event had quite a bit of equipment and labor; two things that at the time we did not have.

We looked at the event from a different angle. What were the advantages we had to offer that a larger company could not? We knew the only way to compete in this bidding process was to take it to the personal level; the one thing we were able to do in a way a larger company could not was to spend the time with this client creating a comfort factor. We wanted them to see we were the ones asking the important questions, introducing ideas and suggesting solutions even before we were awarded the show. Instead of avoiding the differences between us and our larger competitors, we decided to emphasize them. By doing this, we hoped to create an environment where the client would be comfortable with us before they made their decision.

Our extra effort to create this comfort ultimately paid off and we were awarded the show. That experience emphasized something we always apply to our clients; don't take anything for granted. Because of this, we continue to treat that client as if they were a brand new client every time we work with them and they are now one of our largest clients. One mistake staging companies tend to make as they grow larger is they sometimes start to take their clients for granted, especially their existing clients. We work very hard to continuously nurture even our oldest clients to make sure they always feel confident and at ease with us. This of course also applies to new clients; with newer clients we reverse the philosophy, making them feel true comfort as if we have been working together for years.

So, how do four guys from Chicago find themselves in a position competing against companies several times their size? We are happy to say it has simply been by maintaining our commitment to the values we appreciated when we first started in this industry. Although we obviously want to grow larger and larger, we are very conscious of the fact we want our growth to always have a consistent theme. Our ultimate goal is that someday when High Performance Images has a large staff and those employees are asked about the company they work for, they will immediately know how to answer, because that answer will be the same then, as it is now, and as it was two years ago when four friends first took a plunge.

Paul George is a partner with Chicago-based High Performance Images.