Pause, close your eyes, and think about all your closest friends. Consider how you met them, how long you have known them, and what type of relationship you have. In most cases, you will find that your friends have come from three places; school, work and hobbies.
Catching the bus home from school, chatting over work lunches and marveling at antique cars are all great environments for establishing friendships. These friendships are often organic and grounded in mutual appreciation or experiences that you have developed over time.
Building a large network of business connections is different on the other hand. Whilst it can generate umpteenth amount of benefits and opportunities for your business, where do you start? It’s not as if there is a ‘small business school’ that you can attend to meet likeminded business owners. When building your network it's all about putting yourself out there, it will take time, but it’s well worth the effort.
The best place to start, contrary to what you might expect, is actually online. Nowadays there is an incredible array of online forums, groups, and social media channels that you can tap into to start meeting people with similar business interests. Whatever your business does, or whatever interest areas you have, you will be able to find a group to connect with.
One good place to start is Flying Solo (www.flyingsolo.com.au), which is an excellent community forum for small business owners and solopreneurs. Flying Solo is perfect for business owners no matter what stay they are at. The forum is full of other business owners, all with their own unique skills and experiences. Flying Solo is really easy to sign up with and they do a good job of moderating the conversations to ensure they stay focused on business, and business only.
LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) is an obvious choice. Whilst many small business owners consider the Microsoft owned company to be more suited to corporate employees, LinkedIn provides a variety of useful features for building up your network. Firstly, LinkedIn is a great way to connect with your existing connections. You can post regular updates, or share helpful tools and products that you might have found handy in your day-to-day business activities. In addition, you can also meet new people by signing up to various forums. Look for groups that relate to your specific industry or product and get chatting.
With online groups such as this, you always get out what you put in, so to make the most of it, you need to remain active and engaged in the community. Ask questions, answer questions and share important information. It’s all about the content. Over time you will build up connections with people in the forum that could lead to real world relationships. Online groups are also more efficient in terms of helping you find the right people to connect with. With in-person events they can be hit and miss. You never know who is going to show up. Online, you can pick and choose who to connect with in minutes.
With small businesses being so fundamental to the success of the overall economy, many local councils also run events and activities to engage with business owners. Given these are business owners in your local area, and likely experiencing similar conditions to you, it’s a great way to share and learn in a supportive environment. Councils also use these forums to ‘sound out’ businesses about initiatives they can run to help support your growth. A thriving small business sector is vital for a buzzing neighborhood and it also creates employment opportunities as well.
The Council of Small Business Australia (COSBOA) and Small Business Association of Australia (SBAA) are two excellent bodies that advocate for small businesses at a Federal and State level. Both groups run networking sessions and members can contribute their time to supporting education programs. COSBOA even runs the National Small Business Summit, which is an excellent event for meeting other business owners.
So don’t be shy, get out there, get engaged and build up your business network. People love helping other people out, so you will be surprised by how much support you can get once you put yourself out there. All it takes is a bit of planning, research and communication and you will be able to call on friends in no time to help you out. With networking, you need to commit to it, it won’t happen overnight, but once you build it, it might be one of your most important business assets.