Business Basics: The importance of support networks for small businesses

Support networks offer all manner of business benefits; Joanne Dewberry shows us why a little help from others can make a big difference.

19 November 2019

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.

joanne dewberry crafting successful small business

What is a business support group?

Within networking, a business support group is anything that allows businesspeople and entrepreneurs to meet so that they can form professional relationships in order to recognise, create or act upon business opportunities, share information and seek out potential partners for ventures later down the line.

How to join business support groups

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. The most popular ones include:

  • Chambers of Commerce

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.

networking opportunity

  • Federation of Small Business

Subscriptions to the FSB depend on the number of employees in an organisation and start at £125, plus an administration fee.

  • Institute of Directors

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.

Read on for the full interview with Joanne below.

What kind of benefits can small businesses expect from joining support networks?

Many small businesses are now run by individuals from their homes, meaning that a lot of the time, communication is undertaken digitally – some days, I don't speak to anyone until I collect the children from school! We actually forget how to communicate with real-life people.

Through networking, I have developed a vital support network for my business – 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. Networking in this way enables you to develop important skills, share knowledge and experience, and helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Are there any requirements that businesses are expected to fulfil to join specific networks?

There are a plethora of business support and networking groups out there, and the way that each operates varies dramatically. 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. 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.

Ask other local businesses, especially 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.

sme networking event

Do you think the schemes that incur an annual subscription fee for perks, such as legal protection, are worth joining?

I think these kinds of things are 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?

Has our reliance on technology had a negative impact on the way business professionals network and build contacts?

Technology is a fantastic tool for small businesses, especially time-poor operations. It enables you to run your business from anywhere at the touch of a button, but with this can come some negative aspects. Some days, you don't actually speak to another real-life person. Yes, you might have pitched to some major players or scored a massive order, but without speaking to anyone directly, soon email becomes your go-to method of communication. So, networking is a really useful tool for maintaining and developing your interpersonal skills.

As I mentioned earlier, networking is also how I develop my own support network. I need these key people to keep me sane and inspire me to push myself further. 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.

What advice and tips would you give to business leaders searching for groups in their local area, and are there any online resources that can help with this?

It’s simple: start your own. If there’s no group out there that’s a good fit for you and your business, then go ahead and make one.

When I started my party supplies business Charlie Moo's back in 2008, it soon became obvious that not only did I want to talk to other small business owners like me, I also wanted to learn things too.

 small business owners meeting

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.

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!

Many networking groups will also have Facebook groups. For those a little anxious about getting out there and meeting new people, 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.

For businesses struggling with regular face-to-face networking, which online resources would you recommend people use to begin building quality relationships?

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.

As with networking face-to-face, online networking is more about building relationships than selling to individuals. 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.

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 networking online for small businesses

For sceptical business leaders, how can these meetings be used to ensure their networking endeavours provide genuine value?

The saying goes “it's not what you know, but who”, and I believe this is really important in business. 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.

Having a support network of people to talk through ideas and problems with is essential to my day-to-day, and knowing that these people are there when you need them can help alleviate the loneliness of running a small business on your own. Happy, stress-free individuals are hugely conducive to a successful small business.

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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