There’s a classic children’s book, Swimmy, where a school of little fish team up and swim as one big fish to avoid being eaten. I often read this story at bedtime to my children and when I do I often realize the story line is so close to my heart as I consider the challenges facing small businesses and startups today.
Because frankly (and I don’t mean to carry this metaphor too far … ), the small business is swimming in an ocean that’s far more dangerous than ever before.
Accessing business capital and credit has been particularly difficult over the past years. Consumer and business purse strings have been tight. Now we’re facing sky-rocketing fuel prices and worries over potential inflation. And large corporations grow larger and more powerful with every passing day (even “too big to fail” companies just seem to get bigger).
Now more than ever, small businesses need to band together in order to compete with their larger counterparts. It’s only by joining forces that small businesses can achieve economies of scale and have a voice that can compete with larger corporations. There is power in the collective, and businesses can harness the power of community to move forward.
So what does this mean? If you’re a small business, seek out symbiotic and collaborative relationships with other small businesses whenever possible. Whether formally or informally, build a collective co-op of like-minded businesses and individuals. Small businesses need to look at each other as partners, not competitors. Here are just a few tangible examples of how to join forces in the small business market.
1. Join a Local Meetup Group for Entrepreneurs
Whether the plumber recommends a carpenter or the web designer recommends a copywriter, business is driven by referrals and connections. Local groups — which may meet monthly in a café or hotel conference area — aim to tap into the power of collaboration, support, and most importantly, referrals. Use them to develop relationships and share advice with fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners. Check Meetup.com or your local chamber of commerce for a relevant group in your area.
If you’ve built a strong Twitter network, organize a Tweetup in order to parlay that network into an even more powerful experience through face-to-face networking. And if referrals are very important to your business, you can also consider the word of mouth referral group BNI. These groups are more structured (and have a modest fee) where local professionals meet (each chapter allows one person from each profession to join) for the sole purpose of sharing referrals, marketing tips and testimonials.
2. Join a Virtual Community for Startups
Maybe structured, in-person meetups aren’t your thing. Or your business doesn’t necessarily target local customers and clients. You can join a social network or virtual group for like-minded small business owners to exchange advice, get support, build partnerships, find help and more.
For example, Entrepreneur Connect (which is part of the Entrepreneur Network and Entrepreneur.com) bills itself as “a dynamic business-to-business marketplace that will help everyone grow.”
3. Join the Small Business Web
If you’re a software company (and committed to open APIs), consider joining The Small Business Web. This alliance of software companies (most of them small- to mid-sized themselves) is working together to serve small businesses through affordably priced software and easier access and integration of multiple tools. And if you’re a small business looking for an invoicing or e-mail marketing app, take a look at the SBWeb’s directory of companies. They’re all committed to helping the small business thrive.
4. Pay it Forward
Successful networkers understand that networking is a two-way street. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to help fellow small businesses. By consistently bringing value and opportunity to those in your network, you’ll be attracting others to your network. In short, by giving business to others, you will get business in return.
5. Build Informal Alliances with Like-Minded Companies
There’s a multitude of ways for you to reach out to other companies who share your views on customer service, business, product development, etc. This could be as simple as offering to swap guest posts for each company’s blog or introducing a business owner to your own Twitter or Facebook communities. You should think of alliances that could bring value to your own customers, as well as an opportunity for you to expand your visibility to new audiences.
6. Adopt a “Support Small Business” Mindset at Your Own Company
Several coalitions and movements, such as the 3/50 project, encourage consumers to support their local economies by shopping at independently owned brick-and-mortar businesses. On an informal level, you can adopt a similar mindset at your own business. Analyze your current vendors and service providers for opportunities to “downsize.” Are there any places where you could be supporting a small business — virtual or physical — instead? If you’re encouraging others to support small businesses, make sure you’re also heeding your own words. After all, change does begin with you.