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.