There’s no denying times are tough for small business. Competition for customers is fierce, overhead costs are rising, and although there is much talk of ‘going global’ the reality is for many small enterprises the costs of breaking in to new markets are often prohibitive.
Yet there is a way for small business to remain competitive, increase capacity, enter new markets and secure new customers with expansion costs being kept to a minimum – collaborate. In its’ simplest form, collaboration involves two or more people working together with a common goal to improve their position. In many cases this will involve sharing knowledge and planning how best to use the joint resources (client lists, technology, networks, investments etc.) to achieve the goal or goals for each party.
Technological developments means your list of potential collaborative partners no longer needs to be restricted geographically, so the opportunity to share the development costs of entering new markets, taking on larger clients, and securing new customers is open for all to take. There are also plenty of ‘tools’ available to assist your collaborative efforts from the simplest of email and telephone, to web conferencing and the increasingly popular document & calendar sharing, social media, and web forums. The majority of these tools cost little or no money to use so the ‘barriers to entry’ for collaborative working are minimal.
My own company actively works in this way with a number of projects on the go with different collaborative partners, some over 300 miles away! We speak regularly, have plans mapped out (Gantt charts can be useful for time sensitive tasks and identifying responsibilities), keep an eye on shared costs, and are clear about what we each want to achieve from the collaborative effort.
Tips for a successful collaboration
- Think carefully about your collaborative partner(s). They may be a company you already have a relationship with, in which case consider whether a collaborative project would enhance or be detrimental to that, but if not then take the time to research who might be suitable. Some basic ‘due diligence’ in terms of trading history, previous successful collaborations, and general reputation is a good idea.
- Consider how the collaboration may be viewed by significant others in your business e.g. customers, suppliers, shareholders if appropriate. If there is any question that this approach will not be positively viewed, have a re-think.
- Be clear and put in writing the objectives of the collaboration, who is responsible for what and when, costs and how these are shared (who pays for what), and crucially be clear about ownership of Intellectual Property.
- Be clear from the start about what you want from the collaboration in terms of furthering your own business objectives and make sure that these are complimentary (they don’t have to be the same) to the company you are partnering with. The whole point of collaboration is to achieve a very specific quantifiable goal (e.g. secure a public sector contract, increase client numbers) rather than just a general mutually agreeable relationship with no clear focus.
I’m a keen advocate of collaborative working and have been doing this myself for many years. I’m not, however, saying you should just hop in to bed with the next business that comes along! Collaboration for collaboration’s sake is unlikely to be successful, but you may be surprised where opportunities arise. Keep an open mind as to whom you could partner with, including those you currently view as competitors, to achieve greater recognition and success.