Why some business owners fail to collaborate

While some research indicates that SMEs have changed the way they work and are showing a willingness to collaborate with others, I have found that many business owners are still reluctant to do so.

On 9th March, I co-hosted the London Mums and Work Your Way annual International Women’s Day Conference at London’s City Hall, with a brief opening address by both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of London.

The theme this year was “Nurturing female entrepreneurship through the power of collaboration”, which we felt was a fitting theme given that both Monica (the founder of London Mums) and I have successfully collaborated together on a number of projects over the years.

While speaking to some of the delegates on the day, however, we found some raised questions about the effectiveness of business collaboration in general and whether it is really worth the effort.

Here’s what we found out.

Where do I find someone to collaborate with?

Probably the most popular question raised was, “How do I find that ideal person to collaborate with?” closely followed by “How do I know I can trust them?”, or “How do I know they won’t run off with my ideas?

It’s not surprising that these questions arise together.

Being in business can feel a lonely business. If you haven’t yet made your millions, even your closest family members or friends might not get why, years later, you’re still slogging away at it (aren’t all entrepreneurs millionaires?). You might feel that you can’t find a likely collaborator in those particular quarters.

And then there’s that natural protectiveness that you feel about your business, which can act as an unwitting barrier to your own success. Inviting someone in on this prized project of yours that you’ve ploughed all your time, effort and resources into, almost feels tantamount to relinquishing the reigns.

Yet working for yourself needn’t mean working by yourself. A successful collaboration can be extremely powerful in helping you build your business, whether in extending your network and diversifying into new markets, or simply bringing on board additional talent and expertise.

Knowing who to trust and where to find them are, of course, closely related. Your professional networks, such as Linkedin or Google+ could be a good starting point. These aren’t simply another means of racking up an impressive number of followers, as some people seem to have treated their social media accounts, but are the perfect place to form meaningful professional connections. Why not start by joining or forming a Linkedin Group, or Google+ group. Take part in the group discussions, seek the advice of others and offer your own expertise whenever you can. This is an ideal opportunity to test out the collaborative process in practice and see where it might lead you.

Or venture out further – quite literally – offline and join a local Work Hub or ‘Jelly’ Working Group. Both are designed with the modern freelancer / micro-biz owner in mind. There will be a modest pay-as-you-go fee associated with your local Work Hub, and your local Jelly organiser might ask for a small donation to go towards refreshments. But otherwise, you just turn up on the day, laptop to the ready and work alongside other like-minded individuals. You don’t have the hard sell of networking events – these are far more relaxed, designed to encourage informal collaboration among you.

Obviously, the issues of trust and transparency shouldn’t be taken lightly. You should always take sensible precautions to protect both yourself and your business partner, such as drawing up an appropriate agreement between you, once a collaborative project gets underway. But when you do find a successful partner, the benefits are well worth the effort.

Which brings me nicely to one of the other questions raised on the day.

Is it worth the effort?

I think that not understanding the true power of collaboration is possibly the main reason why more business owners are wary of trying it.

Here are just some of the benefits I have experienced over the years, through collaborating with others:

• Bring on board additional expertise: If you lack certain skills, you can benefit from your partners’ expertise and they in turn, benefit from yours.

• Reduce costs: Share the workload between you and you can halve the costs.

• Share business contacts: A boon for anyone in business – it’s often who you know, that counts.

• Peer mentoring: I’ve written about peer mentoring in a previous blog, on obtaining support for your business. If you have a long-term collaborative partner, mentoring can become a welcome by-product of the partnership.

• Increase your network: Look beyond the obvious collaboration across different sectors, such as for example, a web designer who collaborates with a copywriter or an SEO expert. Collaborating with your competitors can work equally as well if you offer slightly different services to the same target market.

• Diversification of markets: You may have set out to sell to, or target a particular audience, but collaborate with someone in a different market to your own and this obviously opens up an excitingly new market that you can explore.

This is by no mean an exhaustive list of the potential benefits you can glean from collaborating with others. But even taking just one of these items is a powerful incentive to at least give it a try, wouldn’t you say?

What has been your personal experience – care to share with us how your own collaborative efforts have fared?

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