How to Build a Support Network for Your Business
Many of us start our own businesses for the same reasons: to have more flexibility, to make a difference, to be rewarded for all the hard work we put in and maybe to look after ourselves better. These were the reasons I went into self-employment in 2015; following a cancer diagnosis and finally getting the ‘all-clear’.
I started with good intentions. I was going to take more time for myself and have at least one day off a week. But it never happened. I was at full work capacity within 3 months, then I became pregnant. It was crazy!
Here is how I grew and sustained the support network that keeps me sane.
Remember your vision
I have found a number of ways to look after myself, but the most important has been the support network that I have built around me. It includes my family and friends, but my peers play the most vital role.
These are professional contacts, mainly business owners, who I can speak openly to and learn from. I’ve learned things like time management, prioritisation, good leadership and how to not take things personally.
One huge lesson for me has been to keep revisiting why you started up and what is important to you. Remind yourself of these facts over and over… especially when you’re having a tough day.
Keep loving what you do
Occasionally, I meet and work with business owners who have stopped enjoying what they do. They might even hate it! I love being one of the people that can help them turn it around again. It makes my job so rewarding as a consultant.
Because I come across these people, I always think “I never want that to be me”. I don’t want to get to a point in my business where I’m not enjoying what I’m doing. My support network helps me to keep loving every minute and remind me of why I’m doing it.
Find your best friend in business
I’ve built a support group by meeting new people and building relationships. This has now culminated in running a networking group called Business Connect UK with my friend and colleague, Catriona Stevenson.
We originally met through a mutual business contact and we hit it off straight away. We speak every day now, even on weekends. Our husbands and some clients call us “the work wives” – it’s become a running joke!
Working for yourself can be very lonely. In a team, you can bounce ideas off each other, or have someone read a proposal before you send it to a client. Building a network gives you that support from people who want you to succeed.
Network with other business owners
When I’m at networking events or engaging on LinkedIn, I often ask business owners if we can meet for a follow-up coffee. I know that they’re likely to be going through the same things I’m experiencing as a business owner. You don’t have to always be selling to someone.
I want to learn from these people, and in turn, they often want to know more about my business. I realise that they are not always going to need or want my service offering but, nonetheless, I always try and help them somehow, maybe with an introduction or some useful intel.
Gradually, the relationship starts to build. So, whilst I don’t have an official mentor, in reality, I have many unofficial mentors. Actively going to people and saying, “Look, I’m stuck here, can you help me?” can be difficult, but it is a powerful thing.
If you are a business owner, connect with other business owners. If you work alone, force yourself to get out and meet people.
Form a routine to meet and follow up with new contacts
One networking platform that helped me when I started was ABN Contact Builder. It forced me to get out and meet a couple of new people each month.
I never knew who I was going to meet because Andrew Smith would send me an email with the names of the new contacts to follow up with. It could be anybody – IT, Telecoms, Retail, Charity, Oil & Gas etc. If the meeting went well, I’d usually say, “Why don’t we catch up again in 3 months?”. Usually, you can schedule something there and then.
But here’s a small caveat. You sometimes need more than one meeting to ‘click’ and feel comfortable with the person, before they become part of your peer support group.
Manage your time wisely
When I first started my business, I wasn’t a mum, so I had way more time on my hands. But I was still doing crazy hours. Every day, I’m working with clients, doing my own business development and maintaining a network – that’s more than a full-time job all by itself.
The hardest thing is to get that balance. My network is very important for what I do – and it’s not just my network, it’s my clients’ network too.
To manage time, I sometimes have Skype calls instead of face-to-face meetings. If you live outside the city and you are travelling in for an hour-long meeting, it turns into 3 hours of your time by the time you add on the commute.
Skype is not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. But try suggesting it next time you meet someone. Say, “Why don’t we have a call on Skype next time?”. Slowly, they will become comfortable with it. And you’ll both get time back.
But be careful…
It might sound horrible, but pick and choose who you include in your network. Some people simply want to squeeze as much information from you as possible. They don’t give anything back. Keep this in mind as you meet people. You’ll learn who is out there to use you. Avoid learning the hard way like I did!
Running your business is more enjoyable when you have a support network that you can learn from, gain support from and trust. Don’t struggle on your own. Access networking groups and follow up with people that you click with. Who knows? You might even find a ‘business best friend’, save lots of time and watch your business thrive.
A version of this blog was published on sarahdownsltd.com