‘No man is an island’ wrote the 17th century English poet John Donne. If asked he might have been moved to extend his metaphor to small businesses as a way of emphasising the importance of collaboration with other small businesses.
It’s a philosophy that NIMA’s Nicky Hayer endorses given the demands of a typical client brief. ‘Some of the projects we take on are all encompassing. It’s never just a new website for example – clients often need new copy and new photography – and we can’t do all of it. So being able to go to a client and saying you need these different elements but we have the right contacts, meaning we can then deliver a seamless service, is really important for us.’
Laying a new sales pipeline
Last year NIMA – which itself represents the merger of Hayer’s marketing agency and a web and graphic design business run by Mark Bewick – started to collaborate with Olivia Brabbs Photography, and Ink Gardener Copywriting and Social Media. The value of such a relationship has not been lost on Olivia Brabbs: ‘That designer/marketing agency collaboration is a really key one for me. On the commercial front a good number of clients, particularly high end commissions, come through that route. It wasn’t something I went for when I first started out and I have learnt along the way how valuable it can be.’
For many small businesses, that additional pipeline of business is crucial. ‘As a small operation, you have to be the salesperson for your company,’ says Helen Reynolds from Ink Gardener. One cost-free way of building up your sales force is to work with other small businesses and mutually sell each other’s services.
But what are the key factors that underpin successful collaboration between small businesses?
It’s a trust thing
Having a high level of trust with the supplier you’re about to let loose on your client comes top of the agenda when it comes to collaboration says NIMA’s Hayer: ‘It always has to be someone where I can ring my client and say you’re going to really love working with them. As well as knowing that the service will be delivered quickly and efficiently.’
A good brief and good communication
Good communication is also really important says Brabbs: ‘The key thing is receiving a really good brief with a clear brand message. The more information you have about the client’s expectations and needs from their photography, then the end results will be so much more effective.’
In turn this needs to be underpinned by frequent check-ins says Hayer to make sure that everyone stays on the same page. Meeting face to face is also an important part of the process adds Brabbs, who shares space at the Hiscox Business Club with NIMA and Ink Gardener: ‘Email is great but the opportunity to be in the same space and catch up is very powerful.’
It helps if you like each other
Don’t overlook the importance of chemistry either adds Hayer: ‘I think working with suppliers that you like is really important and that you have a natural fit. There will be times when you have friction, but you must be comfortable to challenge each other and vice versa – it’s great that a copywriter can come to us and say actually I think that a design element needs tweaking on the site.’
Get it right though and the benefits can be significant. ‘You want to do your best for every client,’ says Reynolds. ‘I’m always learning from other people and being able to talk through problems or issues with Nicky, Mark and Olivia is very beneficial.’
Bringing it all together for the client
So far the three businesses have collaborated on a number of projects including a full website package involving new photography and copy for Cherrygarth five star holiday cottages in North Yorkshire. As one of NIMA’s clients, how did Hayer feel about letting other suppliers ‘loose’ on her client? ‘I did the initial meeting with the client to show them the design ideas then we booked a follow-up meeting for Olivia and Helen. Even though I’m a control freak, I was very comfortable to let Olivia and Helen meet the client by themselves knowing they’re both so professional.’
Allowing that direct client contact between the client and third party suppliers you’re working with is something that should be encouraged adds Reynolds: ‘Going up on the same day as Olivia was very helpful. I could see what she was trying to achieve visually and in turn I could ask for pictures to illustrate particular areas of copy such as emphasising how dog-friendly the cottages are.’
For Hayer, the end result was a satisfied customer: ‘The next time I went back to the client it was with completed photography, completed copy and a completed website. It was a really nice seamless process and carried off so nicely.’
Best of both worlds
If businesses are closely collaborating, would they be better off setting up a more formal company arrangement? Not necessarily says Reynolds: ‘We approach the projects as professional associates. This leaves us with the variety that comes from doing our own thing. It also provides flexibility to the client, for example if they have already commissioned their web-friendly copy.’ As a small business, collaboration with other small businesses can offer the best of both worlds.