If your small business has been operating for over a year, you might be turning your focus towards increasing sales and your brand reach. But, what is one of the most cost-effective ways of promoting our businesses in a marketing-saturated world? It’s simple, and probably not what you think.
A key marketing strategy I recommend to all small business owners is to invest your time in growing your small business network. One starting point is to complete a “small business network map” that looks something like this:
Source: Mind Maps Unleashed
The map is completed over time, as you get a clearer picture of your network and how it develops. It’s a great tool to pin to your wall, as you can flag people that you are going to nurture in any given month, and those you have already approached. We also use the 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.
Why do we start with our personal network?
We start here because it’s easy. These 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, I want you to also note down what 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.
Perhaps you have a cousin who is a photographer and they might be able to help with head shots for your website, or with getting you started in taking images of your products? Do you have a friend who has started a small business and knows some suppliers or shortcuts that could help you? Write that down too.
The next steps is to look at “who” people if 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.
Next, holding your business idea clearly in the front of your mind, I want you to think about any clear knowledge or skills gaps that are evident in your network list. What I mean here is, ask yourself “what is missing from my network?” and “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. We all need to constantly work on improving our small business networks.
In this step, as well as identifying the gaps, we’re going to start researching how we can fill them using simple search tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Google.
Some examples of gaps you may have, and what you can do to close them, are:
- Are you a member of a small business networking group (formal or informal?). If not, I want you to do a search on Facebook or meet-up, or ask some friends if they’d like to form your own networking group.
- Do you have a small business mentor? A mentor is separate from a business coach. They are someone who has built a business in your industry and who is thriving in their business. You will ask your mentor questions specific to your industry and use them as inspiration for your journey.
- Are there technical skills you need to learn to build your business? Start Googling where you can learn these skills by paying a mentor.
Nurture Your Network
By now, if you’ve completed the exercises above, you will have a pretty good understanding of your small business network. The next step is to start engaging with your network.
We’re going to approach this in a way that will feel most comfortable and natural to you, which is working from those in our inner circle first to those in our outer circle. We’ll start with those in your personal network who were marked with an asterisks.
For each of these people, we going to complete an “ask” and “offer” exercise before we contact them. It looks like this:
- The “ask” point is self-evident, what are you going to ask this person for?
- The “offer” point means, what skills or resources do you have that you could offer in exchange for your “ask”?
Your resource may be money to pay for their services. Or it could be skills you have that you can barter for their time and attention.Take 5 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”. I won’t lie, this can be a bit scary at first. So, to help you along, I’m going to ask you to schedule in your diary two “ask and offer” appointments this week. It may not be an actual meeting with anyone, I just want you to block out just 10 minutes of your time to allow you to focus on your network building.
When it comes time to complete your “ask and offer”, 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 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”.
Have you scheduled you 2 x 10min “ask and offer” sessions this week? I’d love to hear how you went building your business network map.