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GUEST COMMENT Collaboration: the new face of competition

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We are all living and working in a rapidly changing world, where information is king and transparency and openness are vital to ensuring business growth.

As our nation of shoppers become more agile, often more up to speed than industry experts and increasingly savvy in terms of the products they choose to buy, industry can only do its best to keep up.

We all know that consumers have never had so much power – the status quo has well and truly been disrupted and there is no such thing as business as usual.

So what does this mean for business? Where once as a business owner, it might have been sensible to act independently and avoid sharing insights with potential competitors, today that idea has been turned on its head completely and businesses are quickly learning that in order to succeed, they must share knowledge between them.

It is nothing new for business owners to have mentors or establish relationships with other businesses but now, with the speed of change we’re facing, it is becoming increasingly vital.

We are operating in the fastest-growing retail market in Europe. In our industry like no other, the gap between big and small businesses is narrowing. Barriers to entry have never been lower and this unlocks huge opportunities for challenger brands and entrepreneurial businesses.

But it also means that in order to stay ahead, we cannot operate in silos. Running a business can be a lonely game, and you can often be left feeling as there is no-one who can understand the challenges you face.

This is particularly true in the ecommerce industry, which is driven by changing consumer sentiment, rapidly changing technology and growing security concerns. The more information you have, the more your service and your business can improve.

For example, I run my online maternity wear label, Séraphine on Magento, an open source web platform. This means anyone can see our code and copy it – a level of openness that has enabled a huge amount of progress for ecommerce.

More broadly, through collaborative, peer-to-peer learning, I have benefitted from the shared experiences of many business owners, both within the digital retail industry and further afield. This hasn’t just landed on my lap – you have to make a concerted effort to take time away from the day-to-day running of your business, which is something most business owners simply don’t see as a possibility. They’re wrong – the potential value add is enormous.

In the early stages of my business, I established a valuable relationship with Simon Hill-Norton, the co-founder of women’s sportswear label, Sweaty Betty. He was originally my business mentor but since my business has grown we have established a long-standing, open relationship based on sharing expertise, knowledge and insights. We exchange ideas regularly, whether that is on major market changes and strategic decisions or more specific challenges alike; on service providers, technology or HR.

This has allowed me to pinpoint potential issues, both specific to my business and how changes to the market might affect me.

I am also a member of The Supper Club, which is, importantly, a membership organisation made up solely of business owners and CEOs. Everyone I have met in the group so far is interested in sharing, openly and honestly, the experiences and challenges they are facing with their businesses.

It has allowed me to focus my strategy and reconsider my tactics, putting my own challenges into a wider context.

When I was faced with major HR decisions for my business, considering whether part-time or outsourced people would be more appropriate, I was able to call on advice from another Supper Club member, Derek Bishop, who runs the Culture Consultancy to get expert advice on my particular challenge.

I’m also part of a club for women called Business O Feminin, which has a web platform full of content from female entrepreneurs that share their ideas and strategies.

Sharing my business challenges, my warts and all stories about existing problems and future concerns has opened me up to a wealth of knowledge which has been invaluable to the success of my business. Similarly, hearing other people talk about their problems has helped me identify future pitfalls.

More and more small business owners are sharing their insights and experience between them – through formal peer-learning arrangements or by forging strong relationships with other business owners in their industry. This has untold benefits, easing concerns, identifying pitfalls and increasing our agility and ability to stay ahead of the game.

If you’re spending every waking minute building your business, with every sleeping minute agonising over it too, then that doesn’t leave much room for objectivity, for identifying problems or indeed prioritising them.

The reality today is that those who choose to operate without collaborating may well fall behind as their competitors work together to overcome shared challenges and ultimately provide a better service for their customers. Quite simply, in today’s world, you won’t keep up as a lone ranger, so start sharing.

Cecile Reinaud is the founder of maternity clothing label Séraphine

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