Whether you need help developing your technology, want to improve your skills or are looking for new distribution channels, networking and forging the right alliances can give you the knowhow you need.
There is a range of networking opportunities that can help you share knowledge, as well as government-backed schemes aimed at promoting collaboration between businesses and universities. You may also want to think about establishing a joint venture or drawing on the expertise of a mentor.
Having clear objectives in mind when developing networking relationships can help ensure they benefit your business.
For example, you might be looking for possible investors in your business, new suppliers, potential customers or even employees. Or you might be looking for someone who can help you develop new skills.
You need to communicate these needs clearly to people you meet. But at the same time it is important not to be too 'salesy' in your approach.
Check for networking groups in your area
Some local business support organisations or chambers of commerce run their own networking groups for local businesses. They may also be able to advise you on other networking opportunities.
Local incubation centres and science parks should be able to point you in the direction of networking groups or other knowledge-sharing initiatives.
Look for sector-specific networking opportunities
Your trade association should be able to tell you about suitable networks in your field, while the trade press should also have details.
In certain areas 'clusters' of businesses in a particular industry exist, giving you ready access to networking opportunities and highly relevant sources of knowledge and support.
Ask nearby universities if they run or are involved with any suitable networks
Alumni groups of academic institutions that you attended may also be a useful source of contacts.
Investigate online networks
Some organisations offer online networking opportunities as part of a wider package, while others exist purely as online networking entities.
Online networks can be helpful because users can be more direct, posting messages appealing for help with specific issues. Purely face-to-face networks tend to be more subtle, with relationships being built before favours are traded.
The best-known online business network is LinkedIn.
Decide which networks are likely to be most useful to you
Ask the organisers of networks you are interested in if you can attend their next meeting to see whether you want to join.
Find out about the other people there - what sectors are they in, how friendly do they seem, how often does the network meet and what are the advantages of joining?
Check how many people seem to be pushing their own products and services rather than looking to build long-term valuable business relationships.
Look for testimonials on online networking websites.
2. Help from a mentor
Decide whether you could benefit from mentoring
This involves regular coaching from an experienced business person.
A mentor essentially acts as an external sounding board with whom you can talk through business ideas and concerns.
Mentors can help you develop your idea and get your business on the right track. They could assist you in developing key business or personal skills or in making important decisions.
A mentor should help you solve your own problems, rather than providing ready-made solutions.
Think about whether you are willing to listen and respect another person’s opinion about your firm - even if you do not always follow their advice.
Look for a mentor
Look for someone with experience in your field or with knowledge of the particular challenges you are facing.
A good-quality innovation centre should be able to put you in touch with a suitable mentor.
You can also ask your local business support organisation whether they provide mentoring services.
Some chambers of commerce also provide mentoring services.
Ask trusted advisers or contacts if they can recommend someone suitable.
Make the most of your mentor
Set out an action plan with your mentor, detailing what they are going to help you do and when.
Agree to make contact on a regular basis, whether this is face-to-face, via email or over the telephone.
Do not be afraid to challenge a mentor’s views - they will not always be right or have as good an understanding of your business as you. By discussing a particular issue closely you will get more out of the relationship.
Know how much help and advice your mentor can give
A mentor is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint of your company but cannot be expected to solve all your problems.
3. Joint ventures
Think about whether you might benefit from forming a joint venture
A joint venture lets you collaborate with another business to achieve a common objective. Typically, you form a joint venture with a business with skills or resources that complement your own.
For example, a joint venture might provide you with: additional resources; technical or scientific knowledge to help you develop new products; extra production capacity; access to new markets or established distribution channels.
Decide whether you are willing to share any profits resulting from a particular project. Though you may prefer to avoid this, without the expertise of another partner the idea may never get to market in the first place or get there too late.
Look at corporate venturing
A corporate venturing initiative is where you enter a joint venture with a larger business. You get access to management or technical resources, the big company’s contacts or perhaps its distribution networks.
In return it takes an interest in your company’s future. This may be in the form of an equity stake, but it could equally be the exclusive right to license your technology or the part-ownership of intellectual property you develop.
It is important to get expert advice to help the large company cannot simply take your ideas and then end the relationship.
Examine the possible risks - which can be significant
There is a risk that the other party may not commit the same skills or resources to the project as you, meaning your own knowledge or intellectual property is milked for little return.
You need to be sure that the other party is committed to working for your mutual benefit. Without a relationship based on trust the joint venture is likely to fail.
Failure to set out clear objectives and agree realistic expectations at the outset will undermine the success of a project.
Approach possible partners
Make a list of the types of companies you could approach - you will probably have an idea of the key players in your market. Search the internet, look in the trade press and ask business advisers for ideas.
The European Business & Innovation Centre (BIC) Network can help you find possible partners for work on innovative technologies on a Europe-wide basis.
Never enter into a joint venture without legal advice
You should get an expert to draw up a legal agreement covering areas such as what you will both give to the joint venture, what your responsibilities will be, how liabilities and profits arising will be shared and how the arrangement can be ended.
Make sure your intellectual property (IP) rights are adequately protected. If you don’t have formal IP protection in place you should ask anyone you approach to sign a confidentiality agreement.
4. Alliances with academic institutions
Ask your local university and other academic institutions about ways they can help
Many universities offer low-cost or free academic help to small businesses. This can vary from assistance with writing a business plan, developing a marketing strategy and raising finance to help with technology or science-based projects.
Check whether universities in your area provide services that could help your business.
Many universities and colleges belong to Enterprise Educators UK, a network that encourages the teaching of entrepreneurial skills and the transfer of knowledge and skills between the academic community and businesses.
Find out whether you could benefit from a Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)
KTP is a scheme that lets small businesses benefit from the expertise of a university, college or research organisation with knowledge relevant to their field. It can be a good way of developing knowledge in your business.
A recently qualified individual, such as a graduate or post-graduate, works in your business on a specified project between one and three years.
The aim is to help improve the profitability of your business by providing help to: develop new products; refine existing ones; streamline manufacturing processes; improve logistics processes; develop a marketing strategy.
Projects are part-funded by the Government but you have to fund the rest - typically £35,000 per year for a small and medium-sized enterprise.
Research Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTN)
KTNs help innovative businesses gain better access to useful knowledge and information, such as news on the latest technology and patents.
Networks cover key technology areas and are funded by government grants. They bring together businesses, academic institutions, trade associations and other interested parties to exchange ideas and solve problems.
Think about drawing on the expertise of a university undergraduate
Offering an undergraduate an internship gives you an opportunity to benefit from fresh ideas while addressing issues for which resources may not otherwise have been available.
Typical internships last for a period of between four weeks and 12 months. There are few limits on the projects that students can work on.
Projects might include: market research; setting up IT or accountancy systems; developing a marketing plan; website design and set-up; design of company literature; analysis of production methods; development of new product concepts.
Depending on the circumstances, an intern may have employment rights and be entitled to be paid at least the minimum wage.
You can find candidates directly through a university or through an internship agency, such as the government-backed initiative the Graduate Talent Pool.
Find out whether you could get funding for a particular research project
A range of funding may be available depending on the nature of the project. To qualify for funding, projects must typically be related to designated technologies or sectors.
Sources of funding include the Research Councils, Innovate UK and European funds. Your local university may be able to help you identify funding opportunities.