Networking and Your Small Business
Building strong relationships through networking is a vital part of growing a successful business. Find out how to do it here
Networking with other businesses, customers and peers is an invaluable part of running a successful business; you won’t get very far if you go it alone. However, many businesses shirk the concept of ‘networking’ due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the concept. Networking can take many different forms, from participation in online forums all the way to international trade missions, and can take place for an almost limitless variety of purposes.
This article is intended to shine a light into the murky concept of networking – explaining exactly what it is, the different forms it can take, and how you and your business can network successfully.
How does networking work?
At its heart, networking is just the process of building mutually beneficial personal relationships. Good networking involves sharing ideas and performing mutual favours for business contacts who can offer you something.
Different kinds of networking include group-based events, whereby organised or informal groups meet periodically to exchange ideas and develop relationships within a sector. These can be conducted in person or entirely online.
There’s also exhibitions and events such as trade shows, conferences, debates and talks are a great way to learn about issues affecting your industry whilst meeting like-minded people from similar sectors. Conducting or taking part in surveys and research are also a type of networking as by participating in studies affecting your sector, you are networking in a sense, as your input will (hopefully) lead to valuable conclusions all firms in your field of business could learn from.
When looking to join a network, there’s a few things you should consider in order to maximum results. For instance, identify who I need to network with whether it be customers, suppliers, or even direct competitors, different kinds of networking will bring you different benefits.
Also figure out what you want to gain from networking. Some areas you might focus on include are development, training and recruitment, retaining and managing key people, international markets, impending legislation and regulation affecting your sector or developments in the market including new products.
You must also think about how committed you are willing to be. Networking is a two-way process. If you don’t have enough time or inclination to put in as much as you take out, consider joining a network that requires less active or physical participation, such as an online or email-based network.
What are some of the benefits of networking?
Networking can bring many benefits, and the below is certainly not an exhaustive list. Benefits of networking include:
You can establish benchmarking partnerships to compare the efficiency of your processes with competitors or comparable businesses.
By talking with others about their experiences, you can grow your own skillset and learn to avoid common mistakes without going about it the hard way. You can also discuss developments, changes and traditions within your sector with peers and work out solutions collaboratively.
You could join up with other companies in your sector to organise a joint training programme for your staff, which could save all of you money.
If you join a trade association or business network, they may be able to provide non-executive directors to provide an objective insight into how your business is doing, or experts to help with specific projects. Similarly, you could send a trainee to a supplier you network with to learn more about the process.
Exposure for your company
If you throw yourself into as many networking groups as possible, your own business will become well-known, raising your profile.
Grow your business contacts
More generally, networking can create a wide base of contacts, which could be of potential use in all sorts of situations.
Help increase international presence
If you take a global approach to networking, you can gain an inside view of markets around the world, potentially forming business partnerships or laying the ground for international expansion.
How important is it to participate actively in networks?
Networking is a process of give and take. If you expect to get all the benefits of networking without putting any effort in, think again.
One of the top ways to get results from networking is to make sure to reciprocate. If someone offers you help, advice or assistance, give them a benefit in kind, either now or in the future. Favours will quickly dry up once people realise you are not committed to a two-way process.
Also try to recommend others. If you have had a good experience with a networking partner, recommend them to other businesses that might benefit from a similar experience. This should benefit all parties, and generate invaluable goodwill towards you as a business.
At events make sure to participate. If you have something positive to offer, such as experience or skills, throw your hat into the ring by offering to speak at a conference or similar. This will boost your business’ profile and espouse your corporate values.
What different kinds of networks are there?
There are many different types networks you can get involved in, from industry focused ones to more general business events. You have to identify what ones will work best for your business as you cannot go to everything.
One type of networking you can get involved in is business interest groups. These are networks that represent businesses and the interests of enterprise generally. The CBI is the overall organisation representing the interests of UK businesses of all sizes. there’s also employer interest groups which represent the interests of employers at different levels. If you are a small business, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) represents the interests of small employers and small business generally. The Regional Chambers of Commerce is another important network to be aware of. These provide support to businesses at a local or geographical level. Visit the British Chambers of Commerce website to find your local organisation.
Social or community networks are a great way of networking when you don’t have a lot of time or you’re located in an isolated place. There are many networks that allow businesses to give something back to charity or the local community through their work – this can be an excellent way to boost your profile whilst achieving valuable social good. Business In the Community is the nationwide programme that interacts with local efforts up and down the country.
Education and learning networks may also be worth looking at. These can provide businesses with information and support tailored to their sector or area of business. Recently-launched government initiative Business is GREAT provides free support and networking for business looking to grow and export to other countries.
Finally check general business and strategy networks. The Institute of Directors (IoD) is the largest and oldest membership organisation for directors and professional leaders, with more than 34,500 members across the UK. It can provide advice, support and guidance, as well as a host of other membership benefits.
What forms can networking take?
Just like there are many different types of networking, there are also different ways of doing it with benefits to each. For instance networking in a formal or structured setting, like at meetings, can allow you to build a wide base of contacts at once. There’s also online discourse informal social events and informal events such as drinks receptions will allow you to mingle with peers and business contacts in a relaxed setting, forging valuable social bonds.
If you’re rurally located or have difficulty finding time to go to different events, then participating in online discussion can open you up to a potentially limitless network of contacts, although the connections you forge are unlikely to be as strong as those generated by face-to-face contact.
If it’s international markets that you are after, then export initiatives sometimes run group trade missions to overseas markets, in which you can create relationships with other businesses looking to trade internationally in addition to businesses within that country.
How do I find partners to network with?
Many networking partnerships can arise organically, in the course of day-to-day business life; perhaps you have an old school friend on the board of a competing company, or you have built a strong relationship with a long-term supplier. These naturally-generated partnerships are often the strongest.
Aside from this, it is often worth contacting the kind of organisation you wish to join and ask how you can start to network within that organisation. Talk to your local trade association, business support organisation of chamber of commerce about the networking opportunities or events they run. For employer-related issues, Acas operates regular seminars and events for businesses in the UK.
Also try to expand your business education and skills. The Skills Funding Agency should be your first port of call; a successor organisation to the old Learning and Skills Council (LSC), it has links to workforce education and skills providers. Also Sector Skills Councils are independent, employer-led UK-wide organisations which aim to develop workforce skills in specific sectors.
What are international networks?
Cross-border and international networks can work for you in a number of ways. If you are looking to export or launch in another country, they can help build you a network of local contacts in order to smooth the whole process and maximise your chances of success. Even if you aren’t going anywhere, you might decide to join an international network to learn from like-minded business’ experience across the world or lobby around issues that affect your industry.
One of the main resources to check out when considering moving abroad is UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). This government department working with businesses in the UK to help them trade internationally. The body provides a range of services, including helping businesses to find international trading opportunities, arranging meetings with trade advisers, and hosting networking events and trade missions for businesses.
Other organisations that host networking events surrounding overseas expansion include Exporting is GREAT which is a UKTI-run initiative which hosts the International Festival for Business between June and July; a programme with more than 150 business-to-business events.
Networking may seem like a waste of valuable time, especially when you’re running a small business with a hundred other operational, employee and cashflow issues to worry about. However many great connections and partnerships are often made whilst networking and it also helps to get your business’ name out there.