How to build your small business network

If your small business has been operating for some time now, you are probably wanting to turn your attention to increasing your sales and your brand reach.

But how do you do that? And how do you do it cost effectively. The first step is surprisingly simple.

One of the most effective things you can do as a business owner is focus on growing your small business network.

Start with a mind map

One starting point is to complete a “small business network map”. Mind Maps unleashed is a brilliant tool for this.

You can start with a blank template and complete it over time, as you get a clearer picture of your network and how it develops. A mind map is a great tool to pin to your wall. You can flag the people that you are going to nurture in any given month, and those you have already approached. You can also use your map to identify people who have skills or connections you could use to help your business.

When you sit down to complete your map, we start with your personal network and then work outwards.

Identify your personal network

Your personal network are the people intimately connected to you, probably by family or friendship ties. They are more likely than a stranger to be invested in your success. You will already have a good working knowledge of what they do for work, and have a feeling about whether they can help you or not.

When completing your own map, consider people you know through the following connections:

  • immediate family

  • extended family

  • network made through your children’s school and kindy

  • sporting and activities network

  • past workplaces network

  • Facebook network

  • your partner’s network

As well as writing the person’s name, and how you are connected, note the skills the person has (that you know about). When you are doing this, take note of any skills that could help you build your small business and put an asterisks next to that person.

Maybe you have a cousin who is a photographer and they might be able to help with head shots for your website? Or maybe you have a friend who has started a small business and knows some suppliers or shortcuts that could help you? Write that down too.

Working outwards

The next steps is to look at who people in your network may know, and could introduce you to. LinkedIn is a good tool to use here if you are looking for professional connections. Another option is to call people from your personal network and ask them if they know anyone who could help you in your small business. You might be surprised by who people know.

Acknowledge any gaps

Next, holding your business idea clearly in the front of your mind, you should think about any clear knowledge or skills gaps that are evident in your network list. Ask yourself the following questions...

  • what is missing from my network?

  • what kind of person do people in my industry work or network with, that I don’t know?

There will be some gaps, don’t worry, but your map will be a work in progress as you look to grow it.

Some examples of gaps you may have:

  • are you a member of a small business networking group (formal or informal?).

  • do you have a small business mentor or coach?

  • are there technical skills you need to learn to build your business?

Next step, nurture your network

The next step is to start engaging with your network.

For most people it' easiest to approach their inner circle first then move on to their outer circle. And, the best place to start is those in your personal circle who you gave an asterix to.

You need to be prepared for each of your engagements, so have a think about what it is you are going to "ask" them, and then what it is you are going to "offer" them.

Your offer may be to pay for their services or it could be skills you have that you can barter for their time and attention. Take a few minutes to look into where this person is at in their life or their business. Do they have a challenge you know about that you could lessen in some way? You may need to think deeply here, and it may be that the only “resource” you have to offer is your gratitude and support of their business. Or buying them lunch or a thank you gift. Don’t discount these kind of offers, good manners really can take you far in life.

Once you have your “ask” and your “offer” clearly in mind, it’s time to start making contact and presenting your “asks” and “offers”. This is definitely the scary bit.

Try motivating yourself by setting yourself some goals. Set yourself the challenge of having three “ask and offer” conversations in a week. It can be having your actual conversation or planning for one. Either way its a good prompt for you to set aside the time to build your small business network.

Start with an email or phone call with the aim of letting people know about your business, see if they are keen to have a coffee catch-up a starting point could be sending an email or making a phone call and just letting the person know about your business. It may be that even people closest to you don’t really know what it is that your business does.

Perhaps you could ask to meet for a coffee and explain that you’re looking to grow your network of business contacts, and that you would be honoured if they’d let you “practice” with them. This can easily be completed in under 10 minutes.

On the other hand, if someone close to you has a skill or connection that you need right now, you can go with a more direct approach of using your 10 minutes to call them and ask for a meeting to start talking about working together. There is nothing wrong with a direct approach, just don’t forget your “offer”.

We'd love to hear how go building your small business network.

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