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As any start-up or small business owner knows, the ability to be a ‘jack of all trades’ is an essential part of early success. But as a business grows it is vital that, as its leader, you focus more on your own key strengths. This means finding a way of bringing in wide-ranging skills in a cost effective and efficient manner. In this blog we explore some ways of going about this.

When the poet John Donne wrote “no man is an island” it was to highlight the fact that we all need others to help us thrive in life. And, the same is true in business. To be successful, people need to recognise their own skills but equally acknowledge their knowledge gaps and realise that they may benefit from the expertise of others to achieve their ambitions.

The truth is, a start-up business or entrepreneur’s journey will often begin with a great idea, but they then face the challenge of turning that idea into a reality and taking the product or service to market. Removing skills gaps is a vital challenge the entrepreneur must overcome to be successful.

In fact, The Global Business Monitor, which surveys SME owners and decision makers worldwide, found that skills shortages was the biggest challenge facing businesses last year, beating rising overheads and government regulation.

Running a successful business can mean drawing on a range of disciplines, from sales to project management to design, to cater for every aspect of the business. As an entrepreneur just starting out, it’s nigh on impossible to afford this breadth of required talent. But entrepreneurs needn’t view recruitment as the only way of gaining access to the skills that will further their business. Collaborating with other like-minded individuals, experts or organisations to share skills is an alternative approach to consider.

Collaboration opens doors to new skills

In spite of often limited resources, a start-up, entrepreneur or SME will have a wealth of knowledge and skills to share with their peers. From product design through to marketing, branding or sales or tech these skillsets are valuable commodities to others looking to get their own business ideas off the ground.

Working together in collaboration can help fill the skills gaps that many SMEs have. One inspiring example of a start-up collaboration is online homeware outlet A Splash of Colour, and clothing brand Utter Couture. One specialises in online and the other in-store, so the two businesses worked together to share knowledge and expertise and helped each other develop their own channels to market. Given that both channels can attract different people and cater for different buying behaviours, Utter Couture cites a widened customer base thanks to the move.

Sometimes, larger organisations offer ready-made collaboration initiatives that invite SMEs to engage with them. KPMG for example promotes the importance of collaboration in business, and offers SMEs the opportunity to benefit from a structured approach to gaining skills from other disciplines. The professional services firm is looking to build an ecosystem of investors, start-ups and corporations so they can work together and help each other innovate. As a provider of services to many SMEs, it recognises that smaller businesses’ skillsets can be fairly limited and that they would benefit from the expertise and advice that corporates have to offer.

What skills can different organisations offer?

For some SMEs, the challenge is to recognise the specific skills they need and how to access them. As an entrepreneur, start-up or SME just starting its business journey it might seem difficult to persuade other businesses and institutions that you have something worthwhile to offer in return for the skills and knowledge that they can share. However, once you’ve established the skills you need to succeed, you can then make a targeted approach to the organisation who you feel best meets your needs:

  • Fellow SMEs: there’s opportunity for small business owners to become part of a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, for example through online SME communities, and this can enable all parties to directly exchange skills. Every SME owner will have its own areas of expertise and learning from each other can build a well-rounded skillset for all. Skills needn’t only lie in one area – as STEAMhouse aims to demonstrate by providing workshops, events and a centre to encourage SME collaboration, combining technical and creative skills.
  •  Larger enterprises: while they might seem far removed from where you are as a business now, the advice they could offer around topics such as growth and finance will be invaluable. In return you could become a customer or even agree to develop a service for them once you’re further along in your business journey.
  • Academics: partnering with universities, and therefore lecturers and researchers can give you access to veterans with an abundance of industry experience. Academics can help SME owners shape their approach to business from an expert, sector-specific perspective. And given that universities are full of students keen to gain industry experience, SME owners can reap the benefits of fresh talent from undergraduates whose new ideas and skill sets may be of benefit to you.
  •  University initiatives: Some universities actively encourage and support business collaboration. That’s the idea behind STEAMhouse, which has been designed to help businesses prosper through collaboration with others from a variety of sectors and disciplines. It allows businesses to share skills and learn from each other in a creative and supportive environment. STEAMhouse takes entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs on a journey to help them bring their ideas to life. Uniting a cross-section of talent from the arts, science, tech, engineering and maths – the STEAM sectors, STEAMhouse offers the chance for cross-discipline collaboration, a pathway that most SMEs wouldn’t normally have access to.

Entrepreneurs might think that the very early stages of business means only being able to rely on your own experience and skills to succeed. But to grow and innovate, entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs need to take advantage of the opportunities that exist all around them. Whether this involves directly swapping skills with an organisation similar to yours, working with a larger business that can teach you a new business skill, or working with a university, collaboration with others just may help you take your business idea to the next stage of its evolution.

If you let your business be an island, you risk limiting success only to what your skills can achieve. But by building bridges with like-minded individuals and establishing mutually beneficial relationships, you can build on your skillset and further your business. And those skills gaps – even if you don’t know what they are yet – can soon become a thing of the past.

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