We've rounded up all the best bits from our live Q&A on how small business owners can get the most out of mentoring, networking and professional advice
Alex Mitchell is head of influencer relations at the Institute of Directors:
Small businesses should make the most of expertise available: Knowledge is power. Build your knowledge where you can and don't go into something with your eyes closed. Brief yourself, get briefed by others and if you still have knowledge gaps, work with people who can fill them.
Reach out and be proactive to find your ideal mentor: I have a number of mentors. I have always had mentors during my professional career. They tell me how it is. They are honest and frank. They will help me but won't take the decisions for me. I think the mentor-mentee relationship is a very personal one and one which has to be worked at. If it is a good one, it is mutually beneficial and can open doors for you and your business.
You have to reach out and be proactive. Good business mentors are busy running their businesses. You have to attend relevant events and may have to attend more than one to meet the right mentor. If you find someone you get on with and respect, never be afraid to ask them.
Understand what networking really is: Networking is a relationship. You can't think of it in any traditional sense, you can't box networking; you can't explain it away using jargon. Networking in its broadest sense is very simple, it's about helping people.
A few quick top tips:
• Help others, you never know who you will meet and who they are networked with.
• Try and work out what type of networker is sitting in front of you.
• Don't go into networking events with the 'what is in it for me' mentality.
• Creating a network takes time and commitment, don't think it will happen overnight.
• Be honest with your answers, if you can't help someone, say so.
• Think dynamically about who you are meeting, if you can't help them, maybe someone in your network can.
• Be engaged, don't be dismissive, remember the person you are speaking to is passionate about their area.
Stephen Pegge is director of SME markets, Lloyds Banking Group Commercial
When times are tough professional advice is valuable: Some of the most innovative and fast growing businesses have started up during recessions, as this is when markets change, existing providers fall out and subsequent recovery can provide a boost to growth. However, economic conditions can be volatile and competitors can be very defensive about their positions, so advice is important. Financial management is critical as the creditworthiness of customers can be unpredictable and when you sell on credit, you need to be sure that you'll get paid. A good accountant can make a big difference and as a bank, we like to see that businesses have sound financial systems and advice.
Think hard about who'll be the best fit for your team: The best bit of advice I ever had was to make sure that you work with a team that complement your skills and attributes. Don't recruit in your own image. That way you compensate for any weaknesses, learn from their approaches and give yourself capacity to play to your strengths. The same applies to a network or mentoring relationship.
Gaining confidence and contacts are the most valuable things in the early stages: At Lloyds TSB and Bank of Scotland, we're seeing record startup numbers at the moment (120k in the last year) coming from a broader range of backgrounds. Traditionally, younger people have been less likely to start a business but that's increased, and even more so among those over 50. I'm chairman of PRIME Cymru, one of The Prince's Charities, and we help people in the older age group get into economic activity through volunteer mentoring. PRIME in the rest of the UK do the same with a focus on enterprise. Often it's giving people the confidence and contacts that are the most valuable things in the early stages.
Stuart Anderson has been advising entrepreneurs for 30 years. He has advised the government on entrepreneurship and is a director the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship and director of Shell LiveWIRE
Boost your confidence by entering awards: The great thing about entering business and entrepreneur awards is that it gives you the chance to practice articulating your business to other business people.
If you are not successful, you can get feedback and make things better – if you win, it is a great endorsement of your business or product and boosts your confidence.
Build good relationships in all areas of business: With my business – I was always upfront with those who owed me money. I told them that as a small business in order to survive, I needed prompt payment. Striking up a good relationship with people paying bills always helps.
Jot down details of people you meet at networking events to avoid confusion: When you go to networking events, if someone gives you a business card – write on it straight away any details you need to remember about the person you met. I think everyone must have been to an event and have a pile of cards that they could not remember what the people on the card were all about. It works wonders for me.
Fay Martin is a young ambassador for the Prince's Trust. Fay is being mentored by Kelly Hoppen and QVC as part of The Prince's Trust Tomorrow campaign.
Social media is a great way of connecting online: As an illustrator I have gained work from meeting people on Twitter. It is a great way to share new product launches and announce important news and offers.
Rosana Mirkovic is head of SME policy at ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)
Make good credit management integral to your business: Cashflow is crucial – as of November 2011, small businesses were owed £33.6bn in overdue payments and had to wait, on average, for about two months to get paid by other businesses. If you sell on credit, you are in effect someone's lender, so think like one. Giving credit is as much a part of your business as getting orders; a profit on paper may quickly turn into a loss after you add to your costs the cost of financing your working capital, chasing up late payments, and absorbing non-payment. Try to always have this big picture in mind. Here is a link to a guide ACCA produced with a number of partners of how to make good credit management integral to your business.
It's not easy making all the decisions on your own: Small business owners need good advice no matter what the economic climate is. We all know that resources are tight and it can also be a lonely experience running a business. With so many decisions to make each day, it's not easy making them on your own. The recession make this all the more acute. Getting the right adviser is a very personal choice. But if you're looking to make big decisions, you need to make sure your adviser has the right experience. Finance is a perfect example. A small ACCA accounting practice has on average some 200 small business clients. Imagine how much experience has been accumulated over the years? But you must make sure that the adviser is right for you and what you want to achieve with your business. In reality, that is often a combination of professional advisers and personal or business mentors.
Neil Munz-Jones is author of The Reluctant Networker and speaker on how to use networking to develop your career
It is a case of quality over quantity: I get so many 'invitations to connect' on LinkedIn from people who have said they are a 'friend' yet I have never met them before... I don't see the value in just adding another connection. Networking is not just a 'numbers' game but also about the 'quality' of the networking relationships.
Source: Guardian Professional
Posted by: The Guardian