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Guide

An introduction to building a network to support your business

Building a professional network can feel like a minefield. This guide will help you develop your network and advise you how to get the best out of it.

Building a network allows business leaders to learn from the experiences of others and find guidance during critical moments.

Whether it’s a mentor or peer, many leaders find it useful to have someone to speak to when making key decisions. It’s not just about getting reassurance that your decision is the right one – getting a new perspective helps minimise risks and identify opportunities.

Around 27 per cent of business decision makers turn to people they know for advice and mentoring. If that’s the case in your business, it’s important to make sure those people are well-placed to offer you the best support. That means continually working on building your network and developing relationships.

This guide will help you understand the benefits of building a professional network, highlight common mistakes and share small, productive steps you can take today to build your professional network.

The next step will be to use our action plan to direct your change and improvement.

What factors influence network building?

The need to avoid common business pitfalls

When you’re facing a specific challenge or opportunity, having people you trust who can share their experience of a similar situation is invaluable. They’ll be able to alert you to any red flags, provide ideas and highlight opportunities.

You might be unsure of how to improve employee training or whether to launch a new partnership. It makes sense to speak to other business owners who’ve done something similar and find out what they learnt from the process.

You want to grow your business

Business owners have reported that not only does their professional network help them make individual decisions, but getting regular advice from peers led to growth.

Additionally, studies show that small businesses which actively network and take advice from other business owners are more likely to have hired in the past six months and be optimistic about the economy.

Realising that networking can be informal

Building a network doesn’t have to be formal. While you might still attend traditional face-to-face networking events, it’s not the only way to develop your network.

Meeting up with other business leaders over coffee or going on a long walk is an equally useful way to start building your network. Many business owners compare their network to confiding with a group of friends – activities like this will make you feel relaxed and comfortable enough to start opening up.

Heather Bendle

Heather Bendle (left) benefitted from reaching out to businesses in different sectors

“I’ve been looking to learn from other businesses who I know are successful at marketing. I visited two businesses in very different sectors from us and learned a lot about free advertising and using SEO to target our audience and increase sales. The bonus is that the exchange of ideas benefits us both. We’re now talking about setting up a marketing group that meets quarterly.”

Heather Bendle, marketing supervisor at Thomas Graham & Sons

The cold hard facts

Advancements in modern technology mean it’s easier than ever to connect with people on a global scale. However, if given the choice, face-to-face meetings may give you a wider range of potential networks with 68 per cent of professionals reporting they prefer it over online networking.

Common mistakes when building your network

Thinking you don’t have the time

Believing you don’t have the time to network is a common occurrence among SME business owners.

However, setting aside time for network building is critical to getting the advice you need. Whether it’s attending an event one morning or spending ten minutes connecting with peers on LinkedIn, any time you spend on your network has the potential to make an impact.

Worried about communicating with competitors

Business owners may be wary of revealing business sensitive information or performance results to competitors. However, most business owners who have built a network with “competitors” don’t feel that it’s a negative. In fact, they’ve been able to create new relationships that have helped each other’s businesses grow.

Sharing information with other business leaders can enable you to recognise your niche and how different you are from each other and how you can support each other. Try to fully understand someone’s offering before discounting a potential relationship.

Want access to more resources on building your network? Our dedicated hub has everything from useful action plans to real business stories.

Visit the resource hub now

Not establishing what you want from your network

It’s crucial to know what you want to gain from your network of peers and mentors. Without understanding your objectives, you could end up joining a network that doesn’t benefit you or your business needs.

Goals you might want to achieve from your network could be:

  • Identify sales opportunities and get referrals
  • Get advice on business processes
  • Learn more about potential opportunities
  • Recruitment
  • Emotional support

Different networks and contacts will be able to support different goals, so knowing what you want to get out of the process will help point you in the right direction.

You don’t meet regularly enough

Ensuring particular networks, such as peer groups, meet regularly is crucial to maintaining momentum and enthusiasm.

Figure out what frequency and format works best for meetups and get it in the diary. If you’re meeting people in your network on an ad hoc basis, settle on the date for the next conversation at the end of your current meeting, even if it’s provisional.

Clare Bond, Lanhydrock Hotel

Clare Bond (left) has a support network of other Cornwall business owners

“I’ve got this little support network for business, it’s like chatting to my girlfriends about their kids or dogs. I’ve been really impressed by how warm, helpful and supportive people in hospitality are. We know we’ve all got something unique in Cornwall, so we don’t feel threatened.”

Clare Bond, director of Lanhydrock Hotel

The cold hard facts

Mentoring can be great for your mental health. Harvard Business Review found people who had mentored someone experienced lower levels of anxiety. Offering advice based on your experience and knowledge can also serve as a great confidence boost.

Quick wins for building a network to support your business

Get online and find groups

You may find that there’s an existing network you can join on social media. Each platform is popular with different industries and many of the most helpful groups are private, so do your research and ask for recommendations.

Pick up the phone

The easiest way you can start your professional network is by being proactive and picking up the phone. If there’s a business or a business owner you look up to, find their details and ask if they’d be willing to meet for a coffee or have a quick video call. The worst they can do is say no.

Start with a small ask

When approaching potential contacts, make sure you tell them why you want their help and make it easy for them to provide advice. Starting with a simple question about something they’re passionate about is a great way to start a conversation. But also think about what you might be able to provide in return.

Build on your existing networks

Business owners often already have a great network of peers around them. For example, your suppliers might be business owners that can offer you fresh advice and give you a new perspective on a challenge you’re facing.

Research other businesses

If you’re thinking about how to further develop your network, have a look at businesses that have achieved the growth you’re aiming for. Reaching out to these business owners can often help you avoid business pitfalls and provide inspiration.

Rob O'Donovan, CharlieHR

Rob O'Donovan encourages business leaders to be open about their difficulties and challenges

“It’s much more powerful to start sharing difficulties and challenges you’re facing, No one has it all sorted, no matter who they are or what stage of the business they’re at. It’s easier to solve a problem when you start talking about what’s going on.”

Rob O’Donovan, co-founder of CharlieHR

The cold hard facts

Not only can your network and mentors support difficult decisions, it can actually help your business thrive and grow. Sage research reported that 70 per cent of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs.

Now you’ve learnt about the factors that can influence how you build a network, use our action plan to direct your improvement efforts.