Small business networking and skills-sharing

  • 20 Apr 2022
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Running a small business is tough and can at times feel isolating. What's more, finding money to invest in growing or evolving your business – from web design to legal advice, consulting services and content creation – can be an unwelcome additional expense.

However, there are a growing number of small business networking hubs and forums that enable small business owners to obtain support, share ideas and swap strategies - or exchange skills and resources. This episode explores the value of these sites and how they can help small businesses grow.

Speakers/Featuring:

Rupert Lane, Founder, Probo.co

 

 

 

Kelly Baynes, C-founder, Nurture Network.

 

Transcript

Jon Watkins 0:15 Welcome to this latest edition of the first voice podcasts brought to you by First Voice magazine, the official flagship magazine of the Federation of Small Businesses, and the go to podcast for news tips and important information for small businesses and the self employed. In this episode, we will be discussing the benefits of networking groups. As well as ways you can obtain services you might need to grow your small business by exchanging skills rather than paying for them. Running a small business is tough and can at times, feel isolating. What's more, finding money to invest in growing or evolving your business; from web design to legal advice, consulting services, and content creation can be an unwelcome additional expense. However, there are a growing number of small business networking hubs and forums that enable small business owners and sole traders to obtain support share ideas, and swap strategies, and a number of other sites that allow small business owners and entrepreneurs to exchange skills and resources, all of which provide opportunities to professionalise, develop and grow. In this episode, I'm joined by two guests to discuss the benefits of joining networks and paying it forward as it were, when it comes to skills. They are Kelly Baynes who founded the Nurture Network for entrepreneurial women in business, and Rupert Lane, founder of Probo.co. A platform through which small businesses and the self employed can swap skills and services with one at one another. Thanks for joining us today. Kelly, I'll kick off with you if I may. Give us a quick overview, if you will of Nurture Network and exactly what it does. Kelly Baynes 2:02 Sure. Hi John. Yeah, thanks so much for having me today. I'm really delighted to be here and excited for today's discussion. So in my day job, I'm the co-founder of a content consultancy, Lemon Quarters. And we focus mainly on helping tech and financial services brands, really have conversations on the things that matter to the people that matter most to them, so many of their clients. And, you know, in that back end, we have lots and lots of conversations with founders and business leaders about their working lives and how much they miss interacting with peers and sharing the experiences and meeting new people. So myself and my co founder Marie-Claire (Frederick), we were inspired to set up Nurture Network - probably about six months ago now, so Autumn 2021 - and Nurture Network is an online networking hub for women in business, regardless of their age, the sector that they work in, the job role, or the location within the UK, we wanted to do was bring together women just to share their experiences to mentor them informally and learn from each other. So participants will meet through a series of online and hopefully, in the future offline roundtable events. They're closed events, we usually have about eight, people or so completely off the record and very free-flowing conversations. And we also create some supporting content and other online resources really designed to help just to inform, inspire, and entertain. We run a podcast series, and we interview members on their career journey, the standout moments and words of advice. So we've just over 500 women in the network now. And we've just been really amazed at how quickly it's grown and how much the events and the content have sort of touched and resonated with people. I think it shows that there's a real demand and interest for more informal ways for people to get together. And, we're obviously both, you know, completely delighted at these first steps. And we're now on the second stage. And we're speaking with some five companies about partnering with Nurture Network and how we can support their employer brand and highlight their support for more diversity and representation. So really, the aim of Nurture Network is to help get more women in business a seat at the table. Yes, great. Jon Watkins 4:16 And you know, that demand that you touched upon there is reflected in the fact that there's all sorts of networking groups now and they seem to be gathering even more momentum. Why is that? What is the value that they add to members? Kelly Baynes 4:29 Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think principally, really, we are just a social people. And, you know, we've been two plus years of working from home and I think that's really sort of, you know, brought that to the forefront the lack of of opportunities for people from different walks of life to meet and share experiences, you know, that that classic watercooler moment of, you know, conversations that aren't necessarily 100% work related, but are professional in nature, and I think particularly for small businesses and entrepreneurs you know, it can be it can be a lonely place and I think having a network or, or a tribe where you can share your experiences, you know, get advice and, and simply be heard, it's a powerful thing. And the way that we work is changing. And I think that the increase in networking groups and having a greater focus on building and being part of a community is a response to that change. You asked about the value that networking groups can add to their members; when we ask all of our members their feedback, I think the most common response we get is around the idea that our events are sort of a safe space, where where people can be open and have the ability to talk openly about pressing issues with other like-minded women. And now first, we want to celebrate and promote the fantastic women that, you know, often are overlooked in business and entrepreneurship, and we want to provide a platform and give voice to share their story. So I think it's those those values of sort of finding your own people is really ought to lead to, I suppose the the increase in networking groups. Jon Watkins 6:08 Yeah. And you touched on the COVID period that we've been through, and that period where people couldn't quite have that face to face connectivity, as that made these types of networking groups, all the more important, as people have been seeking, you know, support, guidance and advice from their peers. Kelly Baynes 6:24 Yeah, certainly. I mean, that's definitely the response that we get, I think we're still slowly getting back to the office, but it's certainly still not full time. And it's still, I think, I think that this is the way the world has changed, and it is definitely still with us. So COVID has sort of thrown into relief the need for the meeting people across different with different experiences, and should have sharing that experience. Definitely. Jon Watkins 6:55 And you also mentioned, Kelly, that, you know, your your group is for women from from all backgrounds. But you know, amid this sort of growing awareness around the importance of equality and equal opportunities, just how important and networks like Nurture Network, to give in specific groups the support they need to succeed, and just how do you do that? Kelly Baynes 7:16 Yeah, first, it was really important that we wanted to create a space that was, open to all women, regardless of their background and location, and that all of the networking and contact aspects that we do, were free of charge, you know this, there's loads of networks, there's loads of groups that maybe might be limited to a particular type of profile, you know, the similar job level or similar location. And a lot of times these are paid for, which we sort of felt that there was space for for another network that was was the opposite of that and wasn't excluding sort of the very people that might most benefit from networking. You know, we're a network run by women, for women. And, it's really great to see how how our members are able to support and lift each other. And, as I said before, I think particularly for an entrepreneurs, it's just really important to have that sense that you're not alone, and that there's others who can relate to your experiences and share perspectives and advice. And, we know that men and women in particular network differently, there's, been plenty of studies. So there was one from the National Academy of Science that found that men benefit most from building quite broad networks. But more successful women have a broad network, but also a smaller inner network of women that they're close with. So we know that there's a need for the women's networks that are crucial for equality, because they provide that close connection to other women who might encounter sort of similar struggles, while they're still diverse enough for for personal and professional growth. And also, I mean, there's plenty of stats that I'm sure all of our listeners will know well, around the skills gap and the lack of diversity and inclusivity, particularly within entrepreneurship, you know, 17% of business owners are women. But female founders raised only 3% of VC funding in last year in 2021. And, you know, black female entrepreneurs, chips got even less they got 0.2% of funding. So, you know, we know the support and spaces needed to help women and other groups and in particular, female entrepreneurs succeed and to inspire and also be inspired. Jon Watkins 9:23 Yeah, great. And you've touched on some of the the obvious benefits, you know, around sort of support and network and so on. If I'm a female, small business owner, and I'm thinking of joining a group like yours, you know, how's it going to support me on a practical level? What sort of things might I take away at a practical level that are going to help me with my business? Kelly Baynes 9:41 Yeah, good question. I think the power of sort of informal networking is that people are apt to get to be - our members in particular have been - super candid and shared so much of who they are in themselves and their experiences. We've had things like job offers. You know, we use hailer business advice, business deals, we've had some tears, we've had a lot of laughter during our events as well, and the members are able to bounce ideas off each other and know that, you know, we don't record these events. And everything that's said in them is said in confidence. I think I mean, without giving too much information away, we had a recent event where one of our members was explaining a challenge that she was having with some stakeholders at a company. And she was wondering whether she should or could confront them around some everyday sexism that she was experiencing. And the participants around the table, they all had really different takes, and we use different experiences and ideas as to what she could or should do. And, you know, that which, which they were happy to share. And it made for a really rich and nuanced discussion around around a topic that, you know, is quite sensitive. And I think that balancing of ideas, it's only really possible when you're in a room with with like minded people, and whose only sort of agendas is really to help and share. Now, we know that people have quite limited time in the calendar for career development. So I think making those genuine connections with people who, you know, are obviously of a like mind and using their experiences really kind of helps to fast track that. Jon Watkins 11:09 Yeah, great. And just finally, on networking, Kelly, I mean, yeah, we mentioned at the top that there's a lot more of these kinds of networks, sprouting now, if I'm a small business owner, or an entrepreneur, I want to go about sort of finding the right one for me, are there things that I should consider, or things that I can do in advance of joining? That'll help me get the most out of them? Perhaps? Kelly Baynes 11:29 Yeah, I think, great question. And I think the one that's, I mean, it's probably really unique to each business owner situation, I mean, some general tips and ideas, I think, you know, first sort of start off by looking at, you know, what's missing in your business or your own personal development? You know, is it making a connection? Is it to learn new things? Is it to meet new people, and then I think on the flip side, think about, you know, the time and the cost commitment, so the network like ours is low time, no cost, which is great, you know, to build up connections and meet women across, you know, in our case, different levels of seniority and experience. And then there's many, many other networking groups that might focus more on learning and business growth, and then they have a higher costs and higher time commitment. So it's sort of about addressing, I guess, internally first, where you know, where you get the most benefit from and where they're made is a great way to find your tribe, and you know, those people that will lift you up. So as colleagues, partners, you know, social media, I love a good Facebook group. And there's, you know, there's a Facebook group for everything now. And, and hey, if you don't find one that suits maybe just even consider creating your own one. Jon Watkins 12:35 That's a brilliant message. Thanks, Kelly. Yes, really, really interesting report, I'll come across to you if I'm a big part of networks is sharing ideas. And a big part of networking is sharing ideas and making connections. Probo is a slightly different type of site, isn't it? Tell us how it works? And what inspired you to set that up? Rupert Lane 12:54 Hi, John. Well, yeah, firstly, thanks very much for having me on. So yeah, the I mean, the inspiration for setting Probo up in the first place actually came from from personal experience. I found myself setting up my own small business during the depths the pandemic. And actually, I come from a corporate background, and what's, you know, what struck me really, really hard when dealing with this was that there's so many areas of running a small business with that you can't be an expert, and you slightly have to make it up as you go along. And this, this obviously, you know, creates quite a high level of risk. And, you know, the risk of getting it wrong can have quite big implications for your business along the line. So, when I was doing this, like, you know, I found myself reaching out to my network. And I was really overwhelmed by the levels of help and goodwill that I received. And what I realised through doing this was actually a lot of the goodwill that we were all experiencing in everyday life, particularly during the pandemic, was now spilling over into the into the business world as well. The problem I had with that was that, you know, that the help I was getting was, was limited to my own network. And I guess, you know, we, we all have our own, you know, professional networks, through through social media, but very often, the people that we're connected to will actually have quite similar skills and experience to our own, which is not necessarily what you need when you're trying to run your own small business. So I thought about this in the context of the sharing economy, and so you know, how it's changed how we travel and how we buy and, and ultimately, you know, where we stay. And I thought, Well, why couldn't this couldn't the sharing economy be used to help businesses on a kind of b2b level as well. So what I decided to do was to create an environment where that business goodwill could be could be managed constructively across the board. Ultimately, creating a free professional peer to peer help, you know, whenever you need it. Jon Watkins 14:51 Okay, you know, a lot like networking sites, there's plenty of these sorts of sites and forums sprouting up that allow businesses to post needs skills and services, and to sort of put a call out for help. When you were setting up Probo, you know, did you see there was real demand for these types of sites right now? Are they really essential to helping small businesses grow and develop? Rupert Lane 15:13 Yeah, I think so, small businesses drive the UK economy. So they're absolutely critical because cash flow often prevents small businesses from accessing the help that they need, and that ultimately risks their own success. And this isn't because they lack talent or drive. It's because no one can be an expert in everything it takes to start and run a small business. So I felt that, you know, there are a lot of existing channels out there. But I personally felt that these often have been challenges themselves. There are a lot of forums out there where you know, questions get posed on a business level. And these often get followed by, you know, multiple answers in the same thread. And these often kind of can become quite contradictory. And unfortunately, in some cases, they become confrontational, which is, unfortunately, the nature of social media. They also often become environments where businesses ultimately try and sell their products and services. And I think, a small business owner, when you know, when you are a bit cash strapped, that's sort of not what you're looking for. What I found was that the most help, the most useful help I received was when it was on a one to one basis, where I was able to engage for a few minutes with someone who had the exact skills and experience, I needed to answer the questions that that I, you know, that I had. And so, you know, what I want to do is create, you know, a much more personalised environment where people can engage on a much more direct basis with each other. Jon Watkins 16:41 Yeah, and I guess, you know, sort of skills and service exchange sites often require someone to give something up in return for what they're receiving from from somebody else, a small business is going to have to commit to giving up their own valuable time or, or services to, to leverage skills and services from others. How exactly does that work on Probo? Unknown Speaker 17:01 Yeah, you're absolutely right, you know that, that idea of having to give up too much time is a challenge for any business. And so the idea of Probo is never to replace paid work. But it's to fill the gap where businesses need a few key pointers, but don't have the cash flow to pay for it. And if you're looking for someone to help you - an expert in whatever field, on the question you're asking, it just requires, you know, a couple of minutes of their time to make sure that the recipient is working along the right lines, and not making simple but often very costly mistakes. So you know, when I relate this back to Probo, how it works is anybody who's registered on the site, and it's a simple registration process, can post a question, and we call these question probate requests. And then anyone who thinks that they're well placed to help can post an answer, you know, simple answer. But unlike many of the business forums out there, the answer doesn't immediately become public. As you know, there may be more than one person who offers to answer. And then the recipient can choose who they feel is best placed to engage with, and either simply accept the answer, which can then be made public if they choose, or alternatively, continue that conversation on a one to one basis through Probos internal messenger system. Then, at the end of the process, at the end of the conversation, members have a chance to rate the experience, which will then contribute to each user's overall profile, which will then be detailed on their own personal profile pages. And then others can use that information to decide whether they're the best person to engage with in the future. So you know, taking it back a step, I think, as a society, we're seeing a really dramatic increase in desire for people to give something back, ultimately, by paying it forward across all aspects of life. So as well as providing users with, you know, the vital help and expertise for their own businesses, what it's doing is it's enabled them in enabling them the opportunity to do this and to give it back and truly meaningful way. Jon Watkins 18:59 Thanks for we've all we've talked about small businesses helping one another through these sites. But what about the role of big businesses? Do they have a role to play here in helping smaller businesses to develop? How can smaller businesses leverage the experience of those that are bigger than them? Rupert Lane 19:17 Yeah, I think that's absolutely the case. Increasingly, larger businesses are making commitments within their CSR and ESG policies that they want to support small business. But I think the question is, you know, what, does this actually mean in practical terms, so it's not just a sort of woolly commitment that doesn't mean anything? How do they keep it on an even playing field? And then ultimately, how do small businesses access this help? So our aim at Probo is to is to encourage larger businesses to work with us to provide members with certain levels of help and support across their own various departments. And that could be anything you know, finance, marketing, HR, IT whatever, and in doing so help them to fulfil their CSR commitment they've made in a really meaningful way, and really tangible way, and in a way that can genuinely make a difference to the entrepreneurial and small business community. Jon Watkins 20:10 Fantastic. And just finally, on this route, but you know, how do you see this type of skills and services sharing activity playing out as we move forward? Is it the type of thing that's likely to grow in popularity? Will we see more of it? Rupert Lane 20:24 I think it's absolutely inevitable that we will, we're currently in and I think, you know, entering more so into a really, really tough business environment, the high levels of inflation we're seeing at the moment, you know, are potentially going to get higher, margins are going to get tightened. And, and so it's inevitable that small businesses and SMEs are going to be looking increasingly for ways to make themselves more efficient, without increasing costs. And I think, you know, getting help from others as a way in which that's going to happen, but I think technology has also got a really big part to play here. You know, whereas in the past, you might have had, say, for example, an HR specialist who set up their own consultancy and is in desperate need of few hints and tips about the best way to grow their business. Or you might have a business development specialist elsewhere who had exactly the skills they needed to help them, but it's unlikely they'd have ever had the opportunity to find each other. What Probo is doing is using that technology, alongside the sharing economy, to make sure that those connections can happen and that small businesses can have, you know, the best chances they need to succeed. Jon Watkins 21:27 Brilliant thanks for and Thanks, Kelly, as well for that brilliant walk through how small businesses and the self employed can harness advice, confidence and skills from networks and exchange sites. That was really interesting. Thank you all. So to our audience for listening while I have your attention, I would just like to remind you that you can subscribe to the First Voice podcasts to receive regular updates and guidance on the big issues affecting small businesses. And do please also remember that you can find a whole host of additional webinars, podcasts and other content on the First Voice website at first voice.fsb.org.uk Many thanks.

 

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