Luke Martin: startups should collaborate to grow

We’re big fans of collaboration here at Virgin StartUp. Helping someone else, who’s also benefiting from helping you. It’s a nice way to do business, isn’t it? That’s why we were thrilled when Luke Martin, an entrepreneur who received £5,000 from us to fund his wide fit foot-care business, Wida Feet, asked if he could write a blog on his tips for collaboration. 

Luke Martin

“One of the most common complaints I hear from entrepreneurs is that it’s a lonely journey. Where once you were used to being part of an established company structure, when you start a business the buck stops at you. Your performance appraisal comes in the form of your bottom line, and there is nobody to congratulate you when you succeed. Often early on, it is your passion and confidence alone that carries your idea through to success, but does it have to be this way?

It is true to say that old buzzwords like “networking” send a shiver down the spine of many business professionals. The days of awkward drinks events where you are handing out cards like a Vegas croupier are over. In an economy based on social sharing and collaboration, a new form of networking has emerged that will help you grow your business from day 1.

Collaboration in business has existed in one form or another for centuries. Symbiotic relationships, whereby you each benefit from a relationship or transaction are the basis for most deals, and even exist in nature. The cleaner fish gets an easy meal by feeding peacefully on the parasites of the parrot fish, who gets a free health check by agreeing to work in partnership. The best deals in business too are ones where each side benefits.

We now live in a project based economy, fuelled by a generation of free lancers and a highly mobile workforce who have direct access to information and technology, and this can work to your advantage when starting your small business. Collaboration between skillsets and capabilities is highly efficient, particularly in the early stages of growth. Good collaboration comes from strong leadership and accountability, with shared goals and rewards.

4 ways you can start using collaboration today:

1.    Diversify your offering: We all look to expand our range of products and services to capture new markets and grow, but it’s expensive. Teaming up with other companies and brands in your sector to pool resources can work for both businesses; and it’s highly effective. One example I’ve seen is a fashion start-up who wanted to add shoes to their new range of clothing. There was a problem however, shoes are expensive to produce, you need to carry a large number of sizes of each colour and their time was taken up on their existing collection. The answer was simple, find a hungry shoe start-up with a brand compliments theirs, and offer to team up, and it worked. By adding shoes to the new fashion store the brand captured a whole new market, with none of the start-up costs, and the shoe company got entry to a prominent high street store by filling that gap. Find companies with shared goals, where you grow stronger together than the sum of your parts, working together to create added value for the customer.

2.    Build your Team:Starting up in business can be a lonely process, and having a team around you from which to bounce ideas, hold you to account and work through problems becomes all the more important. This is the basis of the fantastic mentoring provided by Virgin StartUp as part of their start-ups package, and it is not to be undervalued. By engaging and collaborating with agencies and industry professionals you effectively build your own board of advisors, without adding to any staff costs. People are always happy to discuss the industry they are passionate about, share best practice and further common goals. You will get back what you put in, so get involved and work with as many people as possible.

3.    Leverage Skill: We do this all the time, from employing an accountant to getting your car fixed, you are paying for someone else’s skill. However, much like diversifying your product offering, you can use the value created by your business to bring in skills you don’t have. In the early days of my business I would frequently offer references and portfolios in exchange for graphic or web design work from startup designers. I know an artist who partnered with an accountant to launch a gallery, each bringing different skills to the table. Identify the skills you don’t have, and find people and businesses who compliment your weaknesses.

4.    Create value in your sector: Creating an industry specific blog can be a great way of boosting the community around your product, and adding value to your sector. Create a sounding board and invite CEOs, professionals, customers, retailers and distributers to write articles, interviews and advice on the sector. Not only does this boost your SEO when you get your business involved, but it connects you with key players and importantly customers, giving you honest feedback from key stakeholders creating a valuable shared resource that you control.

Strategic collaboration is a valuable tool that can be used to grow your business and create real added value. Networking doesn’t need to be salesy or uncomfortable, by looking for key partners to work together on shared goals you amplify your efforts and strengthen your offering to the customer considerably.