Businesswise | Using business networks to grow your enterprise
How will my business benefit from joining a business network or association? Do the membership benefits of business associations justify the annual fee payable? Which business associations should I join now and why?
These are questions I get quite often from entrepreneurs and small business owners searching for opportunities, connections, and resources to develop and expand their enterprises.
In recent times, however, I've noted considerable scepticism among many entrepreneurs about the value of business organisations, whose interest they serve, and whether they deliver value for the money one is required to shell out.
These are very important questions and concerns particularly against the background that: a) many small businesses are undercapitalised and can't afford to squander scarce resources; and b) time is money, so where and how business owners and managers invest their limited time is critical.
My general advice is that being a part of vibrant business networks can significantly enhance an entrepreneur and his or her business in several ways. Let me declare that my enthusiasm for this subject is influenced by my own positive experiences with networks and my expertise as a strategic networking trainer locally and internationally.
With that said, the effectiveness of a network will be determined by many factors, including the mission, leadership, governance, credibility, values, membership, member benefits, vibrancy and growth, among others. Most important is the ability of the business owner to make an assessment of which networks are best for his or her business, have realistic expectations regarding potential advantages and have the skills to network effectively.
GROWING YOUR BUSINESS
The first step in using networks to grow your business is to establish clear, measurable goals that you want to accomplish through your membership and then evaluate which networks can provide the best value based on the goals you have set. Getting referrals and testimonials is essential to this process as word of mouth is highly effective in determining whether a business organisation or network is delivering the benefits it promises. Don't be afraid to review and evaluate their member listings, and cold-call members and ask about their experience. It is worth the effort.
The next step is learning the best means to use the network. One of the top ways they can help grow your business is through the opportunity to connect and build relationships with potential partners, industry leaders, movers and shakers, and like minded individuals.
At the core, business is built on trust and relationships among people. Outside of formal networks, it can be very difficult to meet and build bonds with the people who can help your business. The connections you make can result in lucrative partnerships, new business opportunities, and much more.
Some of the most effective networks are those that are conduits for business growth development programmes and opportunities. Governments, developmental agencies, and others use business associations and networks to identify candidates for small business programmes, to share opportunities, and to understand the challenges being faced by various types of businesses and sectors so as to develop appropriate interventions.
In some cases, just membership in some networks and associations can provide almost instant credibility, particularly where certification is required or the membership process is rigid and requires referral, due diligence, and committee approval.
Another way networks can boost your business is through exposure. Exposure of your business to new audiences, particularly those with buying potential or some amount of power and influence. Your own exposure to others also allows for learning and professional growth with the sharing of information, knowledge and ideas.
Some organisations also provide mentorship in various forms which can help entrepreneurs navigate challenging times and situations, and to develop business, leadership and management skills. This is especially helpful for start-ups, less experienced entrepreneurs, and those who can't afford to hire business advisers and coaches.
Lobbyism is one of the most common ways networks are exploited for business benefits. It is an open secret that some of our foremost business associations are used by many companies and individuals to influence the decisions made by government officials, especially lawmakers, in their favour.
Last, but by no means least, is educating and empowering yourself about how to network effectively. It is so critical to your brand and reputation and is such an important factor for success that I encourage entrepreneurs to get training. The most ineffective networkers are those who are overly aggressive, impatient, and who shamelessly promote their own self-interest without care for others or reciprocation. It is almost impossible to derive any real benefit from a network or association if one can't build relationships with others, communicate effectively, and be seen as helpful, genuine and trustworthy.
Yaneek Page is an entrepreneur and trainer, and creator/executive producer of The Innovators TV series.