Welcome to the third instalment in our series of blogs that look at all aspects of the challenges facing small businesses. For our third edition, we sat down with Lucy Paine from TechSpark who is leading their Tech Swindon ecosystem development project.
What was your background prior to Tech Swindon?
Very varied, I have worked for Pre IPO start-ups in Silicon Valley, within tech and education companies in sales, partner management and marketing, run my own business and most recently spent almost five years at Sussex Innovation Centre putting all my knowledge, experience and connections into helping other people grow their companies, or take their idea into reality.
Most of my roles have been around people and collaboration looking back but I can’t claim that there was a plan.
How do you help support small businesses in your role?
Tech Swindon is a new initiative focussed upon glueing together all the great tech scene in Swindon to then nurture and develop into a community able to challenge for talent against the shiny lights of cities like Bristol and Brighton.
The support we offer ranges from creating a peer-driven Swindon Founders meet up through to one to one strategy workshops – I’m a resource for the SME tech community and what that looks like is flexible as we evolve the proposition and meet more companies.
What inspires you about working with small businesses?
Helping them progress, as a neutral resource I offer can a sounding board, challenge strategy, help them test assumptions, build a team – we are a not for profit and I am not trying to upsell services. The success of Tech Swindon will be reflected by the growth of our small business community, and I hope some of that will come from the confidence and intelligence of the support delivered.
In your opinion how important is growing your small business network, building relationships and nurturing connections to help grow a business compared to other sales/marketing activities?
There are two angles to this question – firstly running a business can be really hard, lonely and having a network of fellow founders means you can share your issues/ highs and lows with a group of peers who understand and can help.
Secondly, the old cliché of people buying people is still true even in 2020 – and through networking, you’ll meet clients, partners and connectors you’d never build any depth of credible relationship with on LinkedIn. Just be picky with your networking, but when you find a group that works commit, go each month and build meaningful engagement, don’t expect a sale, hope for an interesting conversation and it will be worth your time.
You can also use this networking to support your sales and marketing, get onto social, take a photo of the group, tag the organiser, attendees you met etc and add an intelligent comment that they will all share – again do this with integrity and they’ll start sharing your message.
What are the main challenges you see SMEs face in doing this?
Time v perceived value – I have seen some companies go to every networking event going for two months, then decide none are worth it so don’t leave the office for the rest of the year. Research a meeting, check out the attendee list and if no one there is remotely in your space don’t go – find your tribe but also throw in a random one with an interesting speaker.
I think a lot of people worry about how false networking can be, and the first time is always awkward, but the second time you’ll recognise the faces and the conversations will develop from weather to something more meaningful.
I am avoiding the word useful, just sounds too manipulative – if you only look for useful you’ll miss interesting and genuine connections are more to lead to a referral than useful ones. We’ve all met the person who starts with asking what do you do, and looks over your shoulder as soon as he/she has decided you’re not going to buy what he is selling – don’t be that person.
How do you see small business networking, building relationships and nurturing connections changing in the future? Will Tech play a bigger role?
Tech hasn’t mastered the complexities of an in-person networking connection, LinkedIn is great to keep in touch, and webinars for quick calls or training, but we get so much more done in person.
It’s just like dating, apps and matchmaking platforms all sound great, but you only know when you meet someone if it’s going to work. And while business is a different transaction the trust you build in those first meetings is why you buy/ sell/ recommend/ partner with someone.
What is the most powerful networking event you have been involved with?
Powerful networking to me is a group where I feel comfortable, with familiar faces and new ones, in a non-sales environment where the room wants to hear more about you without judgement and who are themselves well connected and able to help you make connections that impact your business – that’s the utopia of networking and very rare.
In Brighton that was the Brighton Chamber Breakfast and their success was underpinned by the team and the culture of the Chamber – there was the odd salesperson but they didn’t tend to come back, they’d missed the point!
Do you have any final words of advice for small business owners wanting to improve their network and their networking skills?
Make time for networking, research the groups around you and try a few. Prepare your 30 second “What does your business do” reply, make it natural and interesting – and then listen to all the replies you get.
LinkedIn with the people you enjoyed meeting, ignore the invitations of the ones you didn’t and commit to going to the group that has the most relevance for at least 6 months, offer to talk, offer to sponsor a lunch/ charity event and see this time as a business and personal investment.