Each month, we speak with expert contributors who have accumulated years of business experience and know-how, from operating small businesses themselves to helping some of Britain’s biggest firms take care of their own. Whether it’s improving your presenting skills or scaling up your business in periods of change, we hope to provide practical guidance for your business, offering tips and advice that add genuine value to your operation.
In this edition, we chat to Joanne Dewberry about the importance of support networks for SMEs, and how you can take advantage of local support groups to grow your network and develop your business. Joanne is a UK-based small business blogger and the author of Crafting a Successful Small Business: Making, Marketing and Merchandising. Her blog provides small business advice and support, and she is a Retail Business Expert for Sage. Joanne has previously contributed her expertise to Gazprom Energy as part of our round-up of the 50 best tips for SMEs.
"Within networking," says Joanne, "a business support group is anything that allows business people and entrepreneurs to meet so that they can form professional relationships.”
The reasons for this are many. Joanne herself states that people and organisations join such groups " to recognise, create or act upon business opportunities, which allows them to share information and seek out potential partners for ventures later down the line.”
If you're a small business, doing things on your own or with a small team under you can be tough. These support groups allow you to meet other like-minded individuals, with the potential to provide you with opportunities down the line from which you can really thrive.
While your business may have a specific association that will be worth looking into, there are plenty of broader, more general organisations that can help, each with their own way of joining. Joanne mentions that the most popular ones include:
"Chambers of Commerce can differ dramatically in terms of pricing and benefits depending on your region, so it’s worth investigating those in your local area before deciding. Costs to join vary on the size of your business, but the collaboration they provide can be invaluable.”
Subscriptions to the FSB depend on the number of employees in an organisation and start at £125, plus an administration fee.
The membership to join the IoD is more expensive, coming in at £385 per year, but it affords you some superb benefits, including large drop-in lounges for working, as well as restaurants, bars, meeting spaces, research sessions and access to 3,000 Regus working spaces across the globe.
However, there are many different ways to find business support groups, which we'll delve into below.
Business support groups provide myriad different benefits. For Joanne, it helped her rediscover the benefits of real-life communication after being entrenched in the digital-based connections of working from home for so long: "some days, I don't speak to anyone until I collect the children from school!"
For her, the face-to-face communication was key. "Through networking, I have developed a vital support network for my business," she says, "one that I consult when I need advice, support, training or just someone to rant to.
"And vice versa, my network knows that I’m also there for them. It really enables you to develop important skills, share knowledge and experience, and helps reduce stress and anxiety.”
Through these connections, business support groups can also put you in touch with new talent, help you identify potential customers and suppliers, and boost the reputation of your own business in a positive manner.
"The saying goes ‘it's not what you know, but who’, and I believe this is really important in business," says Joanne. "If you don't network, then you don't build and develop a community – therefore, you never meet those people worth knowing. Those in the first generation of contacts you build might never buy from you or need your services, but they will almost certainly know or meet someone else who does.”
With that said, there's more to simply joining a support group and expecting opportunities to fall in your lap; you need to put in the work to get value out of them. "Personally, I think you have to visit a variety of face-to-face networking groups a couple of times to know which you prefer and works best for you," says Joanne. "Some charge a subscription fee and require you to perform X, Y and Z in order to remain a member. Others are a lot more relaxed, charging on a pay-as-you-go basis, with no real expectation from you as a user.”
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Joanne notes that a good way to find the group that's right for you is by asking other local businesses, particularly those within your industry, where they network. "Also use local hashtag hours on social media (mine is #DorsetHour, used on a Monday evening) – there are likely to be networking groups advertising their events this way.”
What about the schemes mentioned above that incur an annual subscription fee for perks such as legal protection, are these worth joining? On this, Joanne says: "I think these kinds of things are a personal choice and have to be judged by listing the pros and cons. Make sure the scheme is worth joining.
"If you pay to get the freebies but never use the networking group and events – or haven’t made any lasting connections or developed your network – then is it worth the fee?”
A pro-active approach to networking is key to getting value from it, and those who are committed to it can see professional as well as personal relationships blossom. "As I mentioned earlier, networking is also how I develop my own support network," Joanne says, "I need these key people to keep me sane and inspire me to push myself further. Happy, stress-free individuals are hugely conducive to a successful small business
"We buy from people we like, and more importantly, we recommend people we like – so get out there and talk to people. Be liked by others who will go on to say positive things about you to others. You never know, someone you meet this way might have just the connection you need to grow your business further.”
Of course, face-to-face networking isn't necessarily for everyone, and perhaps more than ever in these unprecedented times, the need to network through other avenues is essential. Luckily, Joanne has reaped the benefits of many an online support group over the years. "Twitter is a great way to network with other businesses and get to know people from the safety of your own space. There has also been a huge boom in specialist and subject-specific Facebook groups, which are fantastic forums for connecting with others in your niche.”
Not everyone is the brash, extroverted character we maybe sometimes envisage as the ‘model networker’ in our heads. "For those a little anxious about getting out there and meeting new people", states Joanne, "joining online groups can be a great way to dip a toe in the water. You can make connections and get to know people beforehand, which really helps you to feel more comfortable on your first visit.”
As with networking face-to-face, online networking is more about building relationships than selling to individuals. It requires a genuine interest to not only grow your own business, but to help others out too. Joanne states: "Ensure you don't just link dump to your site then go away; always be offering advice, support, hints, and tips. Start conversations or join in with them – this is the key to successful networking.”
For those struggling to find a suitable group, Joanne's advice is simple: "If there’s no group out there that’s a good fit for you and your business, then go ahead and make one.”
When she started a party supplies business in 2008, Joanne ran into difficulties finding anything suitable to her needs. "There wasn't anything tailored to my situation as a parent, with children under 5 who weren't at school. I couldn't go to 7 am breakfasts and I didn't have the energy at 7 pm to nip out to network. I needed somewhere I could bring the children, so I started a group.”
Joanne sought to create her own business support group, leading her to where she is today. "I currently co-host a group in Poole and we meet every month at a soft play centre. The children can run around and we can network; there is also a monthly business theme and guest speaker. The networking group fulfils my networking needs, and acts as my support framework. What I get from the group business-wise and developmentally makes it well worth attending, even if it is a little noisy!"
If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t forget to read other Q&As in our Business Basics series. You can do so using the following links:
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