It is lonely running a business. Even lonelier when you start a small business. Particularly during those early days when, to be honest, no-one really has much of a clue.
I remember the early days in my engineering business. I had bucket loads of enthusiasm, energy, drive and confidence. I had the vision, the mission and the values but the reality was I was now the managing director, sales director, finance director, HR director and technical director, as well as many more things to boot. I was qualified for very few of these roles.
But I had a lucky break. I was taken to a small dinner to hear a speaker who was the owner of a local, top-flight football club. He was not a big football fan but believed in the area and the club and wanted to make it a success. However, he recognised that he needed to learn how to make it work.
So he called up Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and a bunch of other clubs. He was not afraid to ask someone who knew what they were doing how they did it. He took all the points on board; from how they developed the club’s own academy (so they did not have to compete in spending big bucks to buy established players)through to the importance of managing the brand.
I was inspired, both by the fact he wasn’t afraid to ask others for advice, and that others were prepared to give. While I was not in the game to call up the big boys, I found chatting with my peers and other business leaders enormously useful. I shared my problems and challenges and amazingly others were prepared to give their opinion, help and guidance.
On one occasion, for example, our company had a bad run with staff leaving after we had spent a large amount of money on specific (expensive) industry training for them. Off they went to a competitor who did not spend on training like us, but clearly enjoyed the fruits of our labours. I was describing our plight at an event one day and another attendee advised me how to (contractually) stop this happening. It has served us well – after all, training is intended to benefit both the recipient and indeed everyone within that business. Not to allow another company to steal a march at (and profit from) your expense.
But just as valuable are those times when you want a recommendation for a good and reliable supplier. The more you become involved in the business network, the more you know who you can trust and whose opinion is valuable.
I particularly found this when I started formal training to better understand my director’s duties. While the training was great in terms of the facts, figures and processes, what made taking time out of the business really valuable was the interaction with the other delegates.
As the years have passed, I now find myself on the other side of this conversation. Having developed a wide and extensive network, and now knowing a little bit more about how to run a business, I am pleased I can now give something back.
While the digital world is offering one-click connections and sometimes anonymous advice opportunities, it can still be the casual conversations over coffee or a glass of wine that unfurl some of the most important developments. Invariably the problem is one that the business executive can solve themselves. It is just that they want to chew it through with an independent ear. Through these networks the value of formal mentors, or as the business grows, the value of a non-executive director, can be seen.
Running your own business can be lonely, but it does not have to be. Problems and challenges can only be overcome if you reach out. Networking and becoming involved in business groups will pay dividends over time. It is never a one-hit fix, but with time it is amazing how supportive and helpful they are.
My father gave me some invaluable advice in my early years. “If you do not know the answer to a problem, seek out the man (sic) with the greyest hair. He has surely seen it, and solved it, before”. Today, in this digital fast-moving age, the solution may just as likely come from a young woman as a grey-haired old man. But the principle still holds.