biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: Asking For Business Help

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Biz Ladies veteran Lauren Venell. Lauren is an independent designer, artist and small business consultant in San Francisco and will be teaching small business workshops at the Craftcation Conference this month and at WorkshopSF in April. Today she offers her insights on reaching out to other established business owners for advice and help when first starting out. Thanks, Lauren, for another wonderful post! — Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump . . .

I’ve been asked this question before, but since it continues to pop up, I think it bears revisiting: If you’re just starting out with a new small business, what is the best way to approach established business owners for advice?

Let me start by saying that most small business owners are very kind people who are nearly always willing to help a newbie because we all remember what a struggle it was for us when we were starting out. Even if you go about it completely the wrong way, you might still get the answers to most of your questions. But if you want to build lasting relationships that will bring you and your business long-term benefits, there are a few simple rules of etiquette that can help get you there:

1. Do your research. This should go without saying, but make sure you know something about the business you are approaching. Small business owners are extremely busy and will move an impersonal message to the bottom of the pile. If it’s clear that you didn’t take the time to learn about their business, why would they take the time to help yours? Make it clear when you approach them that you are reaching out because you admire something about their business and be specific. Do you share their commitment to sustainability, minimalist design or customer feedback? Let them know that you have made yourself familiar with their business and appreciate the way they run it.

2. Do your research. Nope, that’s not a typo. In addition to researching the business you hope to approach, you also need to show that you have done your due diligence in researching your own questions first. For example, if you don’t know what a reasonable lease rate would be for a storefront in your town, explain first that you called various commercial realtors and landlords but were quoted wildly different prices for spaces on the same street. You might then be directed to a helpful website where you can compare properties.

3. Approach parallel businesses, not competitors, for advice about products, sales or marketing. This is especially important when it comes to sourcing, which is the topic that new businesses ask about the most. What do I mean by a parallel business? Let’s say that you make beautiful hand-cut necklaces out of felt, but you’d like to start using a laser-cutting service so you can expand. Don’t ask the guy who makes laser-cut acrylic earrings where he goes for cutting. Even though it’s not exactly the same product, you’re both courting customers (and retailers) searching for funky, affordable jewelry, so helping your business ramp up production could hurt his. To avoid making him choose between appearing selfish and harming his own livelihood, ask the woman who uses a laser cutter to make wooden jigsaw puzzles instead. Though she may use similar processes, she’s aiming for a totally different market than you are, so your businesses can succeed parallel to each other, without one ever interfering with the other.

That said, there are non-product/sales/marketing questions you can ask of competitors, provided you have a good relationship with them and you ask nicely. You can ask them which bookkeeping system they like to use, or if they have a good way of organizing materials at home. Using the example above, another jewelry maker would be the best person to answer these questions, since they have the same inventory and storage needs as you. Helping you with organization and accounting also doesn’t influence whether customers buy from you (except in the most abstract sense), so it doesn’t affect their own income.

4. Give before you take. This was the hardest lesson for me to figure out because I didn’t think that, as a newbie, I had anything to offer a successful business. I thought that if I could get someone to help me first, I could send them customers later on, or at least pay the favor forward to another new business once I got established. But there are actually lots of things you can do to establish good will right off the bat: Support the business you want to approach by purchasing their product or service, by following them on Twitter or Facebook, commenting on their blog, writing a good review for them on another website like Yelp or Amazon or posting about them on your own blog or social media page. It’s very likely that they will recognize your name and will be happy to repay the favor. You can also simply send a note letting them know that they have been an inspiration to you.

5. Ask for one or two pieces of advice ONLY. Though it’s tempting to try to get all of your answers from just one business you admire, spread the love around. Asking a busy person for advice on five or six topics at once is both overwhelming and presumptuous and is likely to get your message moved to the bottom of the pile, if not deleted completely. It’s equally annoying to answer one or two questions, only to receive a string of additional messages containing more questions. Pick just one or two questions to send to each person you approach, and make them specific and easy to answer. For example, instead of asking, “How do you get new customers?” ask, “Have you ever found print advertising to be cost-effective?” or “What’s your favorite social media tool?” The faster and easier it is to craft a response, the more likely that you’ll receive one.

6. Send a thank you. A hand-written one if you can, maybe even with a sample of what you make or some other small touch. I’m continually amazed by the number of people who will respond to several paragraphs of carefully crafted advice with an e-mail that simply says, “Thanks!” If my effort and consideration is only worth two seconds of typing, you will not get help from me again, nor will I recommend you to others. On the other hand, the thank yous I have received that were made with care and heart have become cherished keepsakes. I will often follow up with the person who sent it and offer further advice or promote their business to others.

As with most questions of etiquette, stick to the Golden Rule and you’ll be fine. Depending on the kindness of strangers may work in the movies, but in the real world, it’s best to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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  • Thanks so much for this wonderful post! I’m still in the early stages of my stationery business and I’ve frequently wondered about reaching out to other business owners. The advice about parallel businesses was great. I’ve wanted to talk to other stationery owners, but I don’t want to make them nervous talking to a competitor. I will have to brainstorm some ideas of good parallel businesses that might be able to answer some of my questions.

  • This is a great post. We are all subject to being quite thoughtless sometimes, even when we have the best intentions. Thanks for pointing out some of these important considerations.

  • Thank you very much for your thorough and well thought out advice. I don’t own my own business but have often wondered whether I have what it takes. To read what you have to say reminds me of just how much us gals have to offer one another!

  • I relate the most to #4. As a freelance musician starting out, I feel like I don’t have anything tangible to offer immediately. I’ll be sure to remember that my social networking can be a good offer to a business/venue, too. Thanks for the insight!

  • Excellent advice. God I love these Biz Ladies posts!

    These posts deserve a book all of their own. A Biz Ladies book… now I would totally buy that.

  • Jen mentioned MercyCorps (I did Business Foundations, too!), and one of its initiatives is MicroMentor, an online business-advice matchmaker of sorts. Basically, you decide what you want to learn about, and folks with experience to share can agree to mentor you. You have to be specific in your ask, but it’s not the same as doing what Lauren so helpfully outlines here. That is, with MicroMentor you may not be able to contact that business you’ve been eyeing for years. But you might find help from unexpected places. http://www.micromentor.org/

  • I have just started my own Textile Design Business. This is such valuable advice. I will print it out, so I don’t forget any of it. Thank you.

  • Brilliant advice, thank you! I often agonise how to approach people in more established businesses than mine and this post has made me feel more confident. I have found that people are often willing to help, and it makes me feel really good to be able to pay it forward and do the same for others. I’ve helped a number of social media shy business owners set up their Twitter and get going with it for example – completely unrelated to my interior design work but in my experience such a great tool. I learned about Twitter from another business owner and never looked back, so it makes me really happy to get others going on it : )

  • How am I just finding out about this website? I’m overwhelmed by the wealth of information! I’m in the very beginning of launching my interior design business that specializes in small business owners such as myself! I’ve been in heavy research mode and I’m happy to add this series to my list! Love how you gave clear examples too:)