Collaborations can open up new avenues for your business and win you a friend or two along the way, says Nicola Barron
One of the things I miss most about my previous job is having friends at work; being able to share in-jokes with one another, the sense of camaraderie you get from working on projects together and, if you’re having a bad day, it’s nice to have someone who understands what you’re going through and can put your worries into perspective.
I sometimes feel envious of my husband when I note how, upon exchanging work emails with his colleagues, he often laughs. Mine are usually accompanied by a deep inner sigh.
When you’re the owner, your relationship with your employees is always going to be an unequal one. If you make a flippant or sarcastic comment, there’s always the possibility that they’ll take it at face value. Recently, I had a mini-outburst at work about the sense of negativity from my team – it was a momentary thing really, in response to a succession of complaints about tricky customers and reasons why projects were problematic – but I did feel a pang of guilt the next day when I received a carefully composed, very apologetic email from one of my team resolving to take a more positive approach to her work. My comment hadn’t even been directed towards her in the first place and I felt bad that she’d obviously been worrying about it when she got home that night.
And don’t even think about trying to friend them on Facebook, unless they friend you first. We’ve got quite a large team at Homemade London and everyone’s connected on Facebook, except me, of course. I’ve decided not to take this personally – I’ve told them all the story of how I once sacked a nanny after looking up her Myspace page, so they’ve got good reason to keep their permissions settings private.
One of the antidotes to the loneliness of being the boss is to collaborate with other businesses – and, of course, it’s also an important route to commercial growth. At Homemade London, we’ve been collaborating and partnering with compatible companies since day one. Some of the relationships have been incredibly successful and others we’ve had to put down to experience. Each relationship has to be managed of course, but in my mind they fall into three distinct categories and need to be handled in different ways to get the best results.
Collaborations that are mutually beneficial to both parties
These are particularly useful for helping you to build your brand and define your demographic. In the past, we’ve worked on events with female-centred businesses such as the website Domestic Sluttery and pre-loved designer fashion company Buy My Wardrobe. These events are mutually beneficial to both parties and although they don’t make us lots of money in themselves, they’re good for increasing awareness for everyone involved and, in our experience, we’ve gained new business referrals and contacts.
Collaborations where you’re offering something to another party
As a lifestyle business with our own central London venue, we get a lot of requests from individuals or companies with limited budgets wanting to use our brand to help enhance their own. Many of these will be ridiculous. I remember once receiving an email from a crafts events company wanting to use Homemade London as a free photo-shoot location for their rival business.
However, as long as you operate with a sense of caution, these shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. A base for a book launch is fine and will introduce lots of journalists to your venue. Charity and community events are also good as long as they don’t take up vast amounts of time and money and jeopardise you from doing your real job.
Collaborations where you’re essentially a client
This forms a significant amount of our business at Homemade London. As retailers are looking to enhance the experience for shoppers, we find that we’re increasingly approached by them to add a sense of retail theatre.
Recently we’ve opened a craft pop-up in a shopping centre, which has proved incredibly popular with shoppers, and we have others in negotiation for the coming months.
These kinds of collaborations can ultimately be the most profitable but can also carry the largest risk for your business, so the relationship needs to be managed carefully. In the early stages of your business’s life, it may be flattering to receive a partnership offer from another business, but be selective and make sure that there is a good brand fit and commercial rationale.
If another company is using your brand name and values, you need to ensure that you’re comfortable with how this is being represented – you don’t want to devalue your brand or confuse customers and draw them away from your core business. Be clear about what both parties are aiming to get out of the partnership.
Collaborations are therefore good for widening your business circle and getting yourself talked about. If you’re upfront, honest and respectful with your partners, then it will bring rewards and, importantly, friends.