As a small business owner you can often feel alone, even when surrounded by many people.
How is this possible? The answer is that many small business owners keep their business challenges to themselves. They don't want employees, or customers, or suppliers, or family and friends for that matter, to know that they have business issues that might be difficult to manage.
If this describes your business environment, consider building a business network to help you manage your challenges and grow your business.
What is a small business network? In this instance it is a network of either similar or dissimilar small businesses that work together to help each other solve their business issues and also to help each other manage and grow their businesses.
Let's examine an example of a small business network for similar businesses.
A group of between eight and twelve business owners in the same industry but in non-competing locations set up a peer business network. They get together (either face-to-face or online) at a regularly scheduled day and time (maybe monthly or quarterly) to discuss their small business strategy and issues and they each ask for, and get, feedback from the rest of the group -- all experienced business owners of similar type businesses.
Some of the discussion might center on human resource issues such as training, hiring, firing, turn-over rates, and comparative wages or salaries. Other discussions might be on common customer centric issues such as turn-around times, over promising and under delivering, quality, service, handling difficult customers. Some sessions might focus on business planning, marketing planning, sales planning or results from plans.
To form this type of group, business owners could meet through national or international industry trade associations. To make this type of network work, the participants must sign confidentiality agreements and non-compete agreements -- even though today the businesses are non-competing, there is no guarantee that tomorrow they won't be competing. It is important that legal advice is obtained at the start of setting up this type of network -- your group will need to know what is allowed or not allowed by government competition acts.
The advantage of this type of network is that all participants already know and understand the industry and can bring that knowledge and expertise to the discussions.
Now, let's examine an example of a small business network for dissimilar businesses.
This type of network would work best in a group of not less than eight and not many more than twelve business owners (too small and the input is weakened; too large and it's hard to have a voice or hear what's going on). This group would get together on a regular basis (likely monthly) and review each business' progress, operations, challenges, or the designated topic of the month. Since this is a network of non-competing, dissimilar businesses, the group could be local and meetings could be face-to-face.
An advantage for local meetings is that the group would be operating in the same economic climate and would have a thorough understanding of what that means to local businesses. It would be relatively easy to form a local group by meeting businesses through local small business associations.
Topics could be selected in advance by month, by quarter, by year and each business owner would attend a network meeting prepared to discuss issues surrounding that topic. For example, one month's topic could be about reducing the cost of financing and sharing tips and tactics. Another month's topic could be about the use of the best and most successful recruiting methods for that local area. Another month's topic could be on creating a business plan and the necessary tools to do so.
In this type of network it is also important to have confidentiality agreements and non-compete agreements at the start of the network meetings. You will want to have the assurance that if someone leaves the group that they won't share confidential information with others.
The advantage of this type of network is that you can more easily set this group up in your local market so that face-to-face meetings would not be difficult and that you might actually get more out-of-the-box thinking from business owners outside of the industry who are not constrained by past practices.
For both types of networks, use an outside facilitator to ensure that the group stays on track and that each member gets out of the network what it needs (its reason for joining). The concept of a business network is to provide small business owners with a small business advisory group to test solutions, find answers, change old ways of doing things, and more. In large businesses, that type of network support typically comes from other departments or management. In small businesses, a strong small business network is part of an overall business community that becomes part of the infrastructure for your business' success.