Do you tend to view other small businesses as allies or as competition?
The competitor mindset is entrenched in business culture, but it doesn’t always benefit small businesses. When you’re out there trying to gain an edge against well-established businesses with plenty of resources, you need all the connections you can get.
The broader your network, the better. Each business you connect with will help you in different ways, such as:
- Offering and accepting referrals from your customers
- Directing you toward developments and innovations in your market
- Identify solutions to business problems
- Sharing knowledge built through experience
- Becoming patrons of your business
Networking also empowers you to help other businesses in your local market or industry. Here are a few simple ways to start networking with other small businesses.
How to get started with small business networking
The first step in networking is always the same, no matter what industry you’re in. You get out there where your colleagues are, put out feelers, and find out who's interested in connecting.
Join associations and organizations
Small business associations, industry organizations, and your local chamber of commerce will all connect you with companies that are interested in networking.
There are plenty of groups to choose from, so start by talking to other small business owners in your industry and geographic area. Ask them what associations they belong to and how they benefit from being a member.
Do your own research as well. Search for small business associations and associations geared to companies in your industry. Find out what the organization’s goals are and how members can get involved. Once you become a member, start looking at events and meetings you can attend.
Attend industry and small business events
Attending conferences and events are great ways to connect, but they can carry a cost for your business. Experts suggest that you do a cost-benefit analysis before you go, and ask yourself:
- How many people will be there?
- How much does it cost?
- What’s the time commitment?
If an event will take a lot of money and staff hours to attend, consider whether you’ll make enough connections for it to be worth your while. In many cases, you’re better off focusing on local events where your connections will be fewer but easier to maintain after the event. In some cases, you can gain free entry through volunteering.
Host a meet and greet at your business
Hosting a small business networking event can help you present yourself as a leader in the industry and a beneficial ally to other business owners. What’s more, you won’t pay any attendance or travel fees to be there, and the people who show up will be interested in making connections.
To set your business up for success, ask yourself the following questions:
Start by determining who you want to network with. Are you hoping to build a network of businesses in the same industry, similar industries, or a variety thereof? The more specific you can be about your intent, the more effectively you’ll be able to market the event.
Knowing your purpose will also help you decide where you want to host the event. The least costly way is to host on your own premises, but if you have limited space, your guests might be more comfortable if you rent a venue accessible to local businesses.
Make sure you choose a time that will work well for your attendees. Use your industry knowledge and your experience as a small business owner to make your selection. For example, if you’re building a network of local restaurant owners, popular mealtimes and weekends won’t be ideal.
When you promote the event, make it clear how other small businesses will benefit from attending. Don’t mention formal small business networking groups just yet. Instead, focus on the immediate take-away for attendees. Encourage attendees to bring business cards, promotional materials, or even coupons so that you can all promote each other.
How to set up a network with other small businesses
Interested colleagues are step one in a networking strategy. Your next task is to build on your most promising relationships, learning how you can assist each other.
Small business financing resource Fundera recommends that when you meet small business owners you’d like to add to your network, you get back in touch within 48 hours of that first meeting.
When you reach out, focus on what you have to offer. Think about what you discussed at your first meeting and how your business might benefit theirs. When you do something for their company first, they'll be more open to suggestions of networking or a partner relationship.
Promote each other
Cross-promotions allow you to solidify your business relationships while attracting more customers. You could:
- Offer joint promotions, i.e. Get new windows from us, earn 10% off your roofing job
- Advertise in each other’s newsletters
- Create a coupon book with discounts from businesses in your network
Another option is to host events for one another’s customers. Have a sidewalk sale or group holiday event. If you can’t host an in-person event, consider collaborating on something virtual like a promotional video or an interview with multiple local business owners.
Develop a referral network
A small business network is a powerful source for generating referrals. You just need enough companies in your network that aren’t direct competitors but offer related services.
For example, if you’re a real estate agency, mine your network for mortgage lenders, home stagers, and moving companies. If you do landscaping, connect with roofers, siding companies, and other home repair businesses.
Your referral group can be a formal network diagram, in that you all have a list of opted-in companies and the types of referrals that each can accept. From this diagram, you can draw up lists of businesses that perform certain services. Each company in the network can then hand those lists out to their customers.
You also have the option of creating informal referral networks, where each business keeps a running list of other companies that accept referrals. In that case, make sure you stay at the top of your colleagues’ minds by referring business to them regularly.
Expanding your network: Tips for connecting with small businesses online
Associations and events give you opportunities for face-to-face networking, but you don’t have to stop there. Online business networking expands your scope dramatically, allowing you to build relationships with small business owners from afar.
Follow other small businesses on social media
You can learn a lot from how other small businesses manage their social media accounts. Look for other small businesses in your industry, possibly using your association memberships as a resource, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
Read their posts regularly and comment if you have something insightful to share. Look out for opportunities to share a link to your content, especially if you have that content posted on your Facebook or other social media page. Invite them to comment as well.
Once the relationship has started to blossom, you can reach out directly and point the business owner toward a resource that you think would help them. As with in-person relationships, once you’ve offered value, you can ask them for insights and advice, laying the foundation for a lasting connection.
Pitch guest posts
Guest blogging is a highly effective way to build connections and kick-start business relationships. Start by looking through lists of blogs in your industry that accept guest posts, then do some searching of your own on Google.
Use search commands like “inurl” or “intitle,” plus one of your keywords, to find blogs related to what you do. You can also use those keywords plus phrases like “write for us” or “guest post” to zero in on companies that invite guest posts.
Take some time to examine the quality of the site, then look at what they’ve covered to decide what might be a good post to pitch. Finally, find out who’s in charge of content on the blog and pitch directly to them. Even if the site doesn’t advertise guest post opportunities, that personal touch can make all the difference.
Your guest post, if you write it well and promote it across your social media channels, can help to drive traffic to your site and the host blog. That could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Questions to ask other successful small business owners
Networking is the ideal chance to learn from others’ experiences — successes and failures alike. Host some idea-sharing meetings, in-person or online, where everyone has the chance to ask and answer questions.
- What are some mistakes you’ve learned from?
- What were some of your best ideas?
- How have you handled lean times?
- What are your most successful growth strategies?
- How do you find great staff?
In time, these idea-sharing conversations will start to happen naturally within your network. Just keep the lines of communication open and maintain an atmosphere of collaboration, where everyone is committed to mutual success.
Contributing to your small business network
The more you know about how your company grows and succeeds, the more valuable you will be as a network member. Keep close track of how your business develops — how you market yourself, what campaigns are most successful, and how you build relationships with clients.
Call tracking allows you to build a picture of your business that’s as complete as possible. It tells you which of your marketing campaigns are generating phone calls and what touchpoints people pass through before they make that call.
This is the kind of information that helps you to develop effective marketing strategies and grow faster. Fast growth makes you an in-demand member of any professional network, especially when you can share the secrets to your success.