By David Landsman

In today’s fiercely competitive global business environment, corporate giants are increasingly being challenged by smaller upstarts that are disrupting entire industries. Think Uber. Airbnb. Baidu. WeChat. Going head-to-head with the big boys may be daunting. But it’s not impossible.

Take Next Day Plus, a suburban-Chicago-based imaging equipment, office supplies and services company. With just 22 employees, this modern-day David battles with Goliaths such as Office Depot (and its recently acquired subsidiary OfficeMax) and Staples in an incredibly competitive market. But competing was never a problem for the company: The challenge was getting the opportunity to do so.

“We’re in a very competitive industry,” says Jonathan Fiala, director of operations at Next Day Plus. “And when it came to gaining visibility with corporate buyers, we often found ourselves standing in the shadows of our larger rivals.”

So the company decided to look at things in a different light.

Moving From Bricks to Clicks

Like many companies, Next Day Plus relied on traditional advertising and lead generation programs to drive new business. But as a small enterprise, it was tough to keep pace with the large-scale efforts of established retailers that were positioning their products in the same space.

In addition, such methods were extremely time and resource intensive, with the company devoting countless hours to finding and qualifying opportunities. “We wanted to streamline this process so we could focus on serving customers as opposed to chasing them,” Fiala says.

So Next Day Plus decided to abandon its traditional, manual methods in favor of more efficient, digital ones.

The company began searching for ways in which it could discover and connect with profitable customers who were ready to buy online. And it found plenty of sites where it could list its products and services. But it wanted more. “We needed a way to outline our unique capabilities and separate ourselves from the rest of the pack,” Fiala says.

It also wanted be able to connect directly with customers and prospects as opposed to working through a third party. As Fiala explains, “Our ultimate goal is to get closer to our customers and improve the speed and efficiency with which we fulfill their needs.”

Taking a Page from the Consumer Playbook

Enter business networks. Every day, billions of consumers use online sites to find and buy the things they want and need. With increasing frequency, companies are starting to do the same. Buyers, for instance, are tapping into business networks to create intelligent connections with millions of suppliers and build a dynamic, healthy supply chain. And savvy sellers are using them to establish profitable connections with customers and more efficiently manage both their sales cycle and cash flow.

Next Day Plus, for instance, joined the Ariba® Network, a digital marketplace where more than 2 million companies in 190 countries do more than $2.5 billion in commerce every day,

Leveling the Playing Field

And Next Day Plus quickly saw results. After responding to a posting on Ariba Discovery, a network service that automatically matches buyer needs with seller capabilities, Next Day Plus was shortlisted for a $70,000 project to deliver toner equipment to 40 locations for a large enterprise. After participating in a Request for Proposal (RFP), it acquired several leads and converted them into multiple opportunities. And when a major brand learned that Next Day Plus was already serving several of its local offices, the company was invited to compete for a national contract.

“Once we were on the network, people discovered us,” Fiala explains. “Then when we were given the chance to compete and won, people realized we were legitimate players.”

By their very nature, networks break down silos. Social networks, for instance, allow people to shop, share and consume more efficiently than ever before. Business networks enable companies to connect in new and innovative ways that lead to profitable partnerships and business growth. And in embracing them, companies can run in a simple, more connected way that transforms their operations and the way that business is done.

David Landsman is the global director of Ariba Discovery at SAP.