Each month, we speak with expert contributors who have accumulated years of business experience and know-how, either by operating a small business themselves or helping some of Britain’s biggest firms take care of their own. Covering a broad range of topics, from improving your presenting skills to scaling up your business in periods of change; we aim to provide a useful resource for your business, offering practical 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.
Read on for the full interview with Joanne below.
How important do you think support networks are for small businesses, and what kind of benefits can individuals expect from joining such initiatives?
So 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. Not only can this be a really lonely experience but 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.
For start-ups and small businesses interested in joining a support network, where is the best place to start? And, 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.
Some of the largest UK business support networks offer perks like legal protection and financial health checks. Do you think these schemes are worth joining, even if they incur an annual subscription fee?
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 up 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?
In technological terms, there’s arguably never been a better time to run a small business. But, do you think our reliance on technology has had a negative impact on the way business professionals network and build strong, lasting 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.
Technology has provided a basis for parents to have the best of both worlds, 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 you never spoke to anyone and soon email becomes your go-to method of communication. Networking is a really useful tool for maintaining and developing your interpersonal skills.
As I mentioned earlier, networking is also how I develop my support network/tribe/gang. I need these key people to, basically, 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.
Some entrepreneurs must find it difficult to find networking groups that are tailored to their specific niche. 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 to me that not only did I want to talk to other small business owners like me, I also wanted to learn things too.
There wasn't anything tailored to my situation as a parent, with children under 5 (who therefore weren't at school). I couldn't go to 7am breakfasts and I didn't have the energy at 7pm 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.
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For businesses which struggle to find the time for regular face-to-face networking, which online resources would you recommend people use to begin building quality relationships?
Twitter is a great resource, particularly for the local business hours I mentioned above. It's 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. These are a fantastic forum 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.
Some business leaders may be sceptical about the real-world benefits of joining their local support network. How can professionals use these meetings to advance and strengthen their business, and 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 the rest of the Q&As in our Business Basics series. You can do so using the following links:
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