A large and important part of becoming a successful entrepreneur is making connections with other people, from potential customers and suppliers to employees and investors. And while digital communication has made life a lot easier, there remains a great deal of value in going out and meeting people face to face.
For Charlotte Moore, of food industry communications company Smoothie PR, networking has been a hugely important part of growing her business. ‘The food and drink industry is a close-knit community where people often recommend each other,’ she says. Moore has approached networking in three different ways, both free and paid, and all have brought her different levels of success.
In the free category, Moore is part of many food industry Facebook groups, which means she can pop in and out whenever she has time, while offering advice to small brands as she makes a connection with them. ‘It’s also a great way for those providing services to be recommended by others; once your name is regularly bounced about as the go-to person in your industry, it will naturally make other people curious to find out more about you,’ she adds.
For the low-cost bracket, she is a regular at specialist food and drink social events and B2B/B2C food shows, mainly based in London. ‘Tickets are usually free or up to £10, so this plus train fare makes it a regularly accessible way to network in person with potential clients, industry speakers and influencers.’
The importance of calculated marketing investment
Her biggest networking investment so far has been exhibiting at Bread & Butter Fest, the UK’s first food founders’ festival in Oct 2016. ‘As a small business, it was a huge financial investment but a calculated risk in regard to the potential payoff.’
The event was beneficial for Moore in many ways; she met more than 100 start-up foodies at various stages of their business, companies she saw as her ideal clients. She also got to know other industry experts who were exhibiting who agreed to be guest bloggers. Overall she had the chance to establish the brand amongst her ‘ideal tribe’ – improving her company’s visibility.
‘Networking is accessible for small businesses at any stage and size, as it’s one piece of business strategy that can fit everyone’s budget when it comes to time and money,’ she says.
Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant platform Time etc, says that, rather than building a network of people that he ‘uses’ for advice, he’s found that by making genuine personal connections with people, he ends up benefiting from their advice and knowledge very naturally. ‘This has happened almost by accident. If you build a network for your personal gain alone, the relationships can feel somewhat shallow,’ he adds.
‘I think being open has served me well. I’m happy to speak to anyone who asks for help and I’m open to the ideas of people who are more experienced than me in certain areas. Likewise, I do think you have to be prepared to give without the expectation of getting anything back. You get what you give when it comes to advice and assistance – so be willing to offer your help to whoever asks for it.’
The power of the right exhibition
Exhibitions can be a great way to make a connection with the right people. Richard LeCount, managing director at USB Makers, says the best (and most profitable) networking experience that his company has had was exhibiting at photographic shows both in the UK and the USA. ‘They were costly events, but the ROI has been exponential and allowed us to actually break into the American market successfully.
‘We met with other industry professionals who gave us insights into the local markets, and also critiqued our marketing strategy ideas, and we got feedback from photographers on our products. We had a lot of orders placed with us at the show, but also the individuals that we spoke to went on to recommend us and word of mouth has been a major factor to our success, especially in the US markets.’
Making a meaningful connection can also mean collaborating with other businesses. Steven Donald of sportswear business Excell-Sports says the support that the company has gained through working with other local businesses has been invaluable, from sourcing last minute help from another supplier when your own has failed to deliver, to developing long term relationships to the extent that they become an initial point of business.
‘As a sportswear company, we’ve been lucky enough to benefit from positive business deals that grew from us building relationships with others in the industry. Although it does take time to build up trust and a solid working relationship, the outcomes are worth taking the time over.’
Gaining a picture of your industry
Excell-Sports works closely with other buying groups and organisations that open up opportunities to communicate regularly with other businesses in the same industry, from all parts of the country. ‘On several occasions these relationships have opened the door to new suppliers and discovering better trade or payments terms,’ Donald adds.
‘It’s also helped shape our internal processes, as we discover better working practices that can help boost efficiency and reduce costs over time.’
It’s important to stay up to date with what is happening in your industry, especially the challenges you may encounter and opportunities that are available to you, he adds.
‘Our participation in industry organisations has ensured that we can discuss changes to our retail environment, compare horror stories and find solutions to potential roadblocks, while helping others in the industry overcome theirs.’
In a competitive industry, there is always an element of caution when working with other businesses or groups, however strong business relationships that are ultimately mutually beneficial, are the key to ensuring your place within the business community, Donald says.
‘As a business owner, my advice is to take advantage of the resource available in your industry. Speak to suppliers, attend networking events and take every opportunity to be in the same room as people who work in your industry, if you start building your relationships early, your business will reap the rewards in long run.’
This article was produced in association with Vistaprint, the leading provider of customisable printed and digital marketing materials, enabling millions of UK micro businesses of any kind and at any stage to market themselves professionally and affordably.
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