Power in numbers: 6 Ways to improve your business through partnerships

As a business owner, you need to be self-reliant. After all, it is your decisions and actions that determine the success of your business. But as important as self-reliance is, the last thing you want to be is a lone wolf. To maximize your potential, you need to seek out and join forces with other people and businesses in your community and your industry. Here's how to do it.

1. Learn from more experienced peers

Running a business requires a lot of different skills. You need to know the products or services you're selling, of course. But whether you're opening a bakery or selling accounting services, there's likely to be a lot about running the business that you don't know. When you're just starting out, for instance, you might have questions like these:

  • How can I find customers?
  • What should I put on a business flyer?
  • How much should I spend on advertising?

You can learn some of these things by trial and error, but trial and error is a slow and expensive process. The best way to get answers to these and other questions about running a business is by learning from experienced business people.

Some business owners are fortunate enough to have family members or friends who own businesses and are willing to mentor them. But most don't. Fortunately, startups in the United States can get free mentoring and training (often called technical assistance) from programs available through SCORE and Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) throughout the country.

Another way to gain insights and training is by joining a business incubator (if your business meets the incubator's requirements). For a fee, business incubators provide shared office space, management training and various other business resources. Ask the advisors at your local SCORE and SBDC offices if there are any incubators operating in your area and what types of businesses they accommodate.

2. Increase your visibility

Ann Fry is an executive coach and speaker who returned to Austin, Texas after living and working in New York City for many years. Although she is a highly experienced coach with a background in psychotherapy, finding new coaching clients was difficult when she first moved back. She was no longer well-known in the area, and there were "a gazillion people" promoting themselves as coaches.

To make herself and her qualifications known, she joined networking groups and invited people who did similar work to have coffee to identify possible synergies for working together. She also held networking parties, inviting people who worked in human resources and training fields, and volunteered to help a mentoring group create a curriculum for their program for startups.

The outreach efforts paid off and put her on the radar of three major coaching companies who matched her up to clients and brought in other business. Her volunteer work resulted in meeting a woman who subsequently introduced her to many key people, further helping spread the word about her business.

3. Form strategic alliances

"Forming strategic alliances with other businesses is a powerful way to bring in business you wouldn't get on your own," advises Sandra L. Stein. Sandra, who goes by Sandi, is a principal at Better Leaders, a New York City firm that provides leveraged consulting services to businesses. Sandi has an extensive marketing background and is an expert in identifying strengths and weaknesses within organizations and advising leaders on how to leverage their resources.

"Strategic alliances allow businesses to provide capabilities they can't provide on their own, or don't provide as well," Sandi explains. That helps a small business win bigger jobs than they might have otherwise. Strategic alliances can also bring new work back to you, Sandi adds. "I brought in a wonderful firm that specializes in thought leadership to work on a project. Later, when they needed a marketing consultant for one of their clients, they contacted me."

4. Help ease the feast or famine syndrome

Finding a steady stream of gigs can be tough for solopreneurs and small service providers. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other highly skilled trades can find marketing challenging, particularly in their first few years in business. Buying ads can be expensive, and following up on leads and quoting jobs can take precious time away from doing income-producing work. In addition, small businesses may be ignored because their business seems too small, or because the work they do is just one part of a big project.

Getting to know the owners of bigger or more established companies in your field can help solve this problem. A company in Centereach, New York that specialized in remodeling kitchens regularly subcontracted work out to electricians, carpenters, plumbers and tile installers. Those subcontractors would meet one another on various jobs and call each other when they landed big, unrelated jobs. Those relationships let them continue to bring in business after the kitchen contractor retired and sold his company.

One potential pitfall of subcontracting is conflict over customer "ownership," referrals and direct competition. Before you accept any subcontracting work, be sure to know and understand the general contractor's expectations and your legal obligations.

5. Stay informed

Business networks are key resources for finding and developing relationships that lead to new business. In addition, they help you stay on top of information and trends by bringing in speakers to discuss issues their members are concerned about or to talk about tools to make running their businesses easier.

"There's such a wide range of things you need to know as a business owner," says Sandi. "It's always valuable to go to presentations and conferences. They help you learn about things you haven't heard about before and get ahead of the competition — and the networking opportunities are an added benefit!”

To get the most from business networks, you have to find those that are most aligned with your business needs, and then you should participate in them regularly and make yourself helpful to others in the group. To get leads and referrals, you need to become a resource that others in the network like and trust.

6. Leverage economies of scale

As you get to know more business people in your community or industry, you'll become familiar with some who serve the same market you do, but don't compete directly with you. Talk to them and consider ways your businesses can work together. You might share the cost of a direct mailing, including coupons for both of your businesses. Or you might insert coupons for each other in emails you send to your own mailing lists. Still another possible joint promotion: Buy a product from Store A and get a coupon for a free product from Store B.

The bottom line is that there is power in numbers, and the better you get at building relationships with other businesses, the bigger your bottom line will get.

About the author

Janet Attard is a small business expert, author and the founder of BusinessKnowHow website. To learn more about Janet and access other helpful business tips, visit businessknowhow.com.

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