Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Collaboration brings harmony to start-ups

By Marc Verter, director of Salon Musical

As a creative business, especially one that relies on a niche audience, Salon Musical faced a difficult task to differentiate in a crowded, well-served market.  The vision was to recreate social gatherings like those that took place in Paris during the 19th Century for modern audiences at homes and art galleries across the UK.  But getting from a vision to a sustainable business takes more than effort.  It’s the approach that you take that is going to speed up or slow down the point you break even.  And the people you collaborate with, who ultimately impact that approach, make all the difference.

In 2015, I joined the Creative Entrepreneurs business incubator programme run by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Cause4.  As a classical pianist with a specialism in 19th century song and poetry, I needed business skills to balance my creative ideas.  I learned some vital business best practice while there including budgeting, planning and marketing.  However, looking back, it is the network I made through the business incubator, and the connections I pursued while there that was the turning point for my business.

Partnerships need to deliver.  But how do you find the right collaborators and how do you keep them working to your mutual benefit?  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Look for expertise that complements your own

Small organisations can move mountains and, if you draw in expertise, insight and contacts from outside your own network, you can reach far and wide. It’s important to forge relationships outside your own social circle.  Be clever with how you network to find introductions to individuals that might be able to help you and link to industries that could be interested in what you’re selling.

2. Collaboration – it’s got to work for everyone

Working together can enable small businesses to achieve economies of scale that are usually the reserve of big business. But it’s got to work all ways.  When collaborating with another entrepreneur, small business or consultant it should be mutually beneficial.  Someone offering support when they don’t get a good deal will soon tire of the effort they need to make on your behalf.  It’s not always about money.  I’ve been amazed at the cultural venues, museums and colleges that have offered to collaborate with us because they support what we do and how it links to their own objectives.  Be open about how you can help your collaborators meet their goals, while they’re helping you reach yours

3. Toughen up to criticism

As an independent entrepreneur you can become isolated and, when you first work with a collaborator, their feedback might sting. You need a collaborator who is honest about your company’s strengths and weaknesses, if they spot them.  You need to develop a thicker skin as an entrepreneur.  This helps in all areas of your business and in particular when collaborating. You don’t have to agree, but if you’ve bought someone in to work with you, it’s worth listening without being defensive.

4. Learn to share appropriately

A successful collaboration means shared success – but you should be careful about exactly what it is you’re sharing. Not only are there data protection laws that you need to be wary of, but it’s important for you to keep control of your business assets.  That might be your ideas, your colleagues or your contacts.

5. Avoid conflict

Even the best partnerships and collaborations might hit a few hurdles. A written agreement is helpful at the start to outline who has control, each company’s role, and each partner’s duties and obligations.  I’ve really learned to step away from conflict unless something that’s happening could damage the business.  In the worst-case scenario when discussions are getting tense, referring to an original agreement can simplify discussions.  I do my best to appease any situation.  We don’t want to create enemies or build a reputation for being difficult.

The audience’s experience is the most important thing for us.  The best shows are the ones where the audiences react well, have travelled far and are totally engaged with the show.  That’s the ultimate achievement.  But we couldn’t get to the point of delivering a unique cultural event if we didn’t have the business running smoothly.  And to do that, we need to collaborate.