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The Entrepreneurial Exchange

Contacts Put Icing On The Cake

Contacts put icing on the cake

As the 2008 Sunday Times Bank of Scotland Corporate £35m Entrepreneur Challenge enters its final week, we look at the key challenges facing entrepreneurs today. In the last of four features, Andrew Stone looks at what can be achieved with networking

Fiona Hamilton in the cafe at her latest business, Fifi and Ally

(Stuart Wallace)

Fiona Hamilton in the cafe at her latest business, Fifi and Ally

NETWORKING with fellow entrepreneurs has helped Fiona Hamilton to take some of her most important business decisions. Last year they advised her to accept an offer for the property business she had owned for 19 years.

“I had had offers before but felt that the company was my baby and I was protective of it and of my employees,” said Hamilton. “But speaking to fellow entrepreneurs convinced me that the offer was a good one and it was the right time to sell.”

Hamilton’s network of entrepreneurs also encouraged her to be more ambitious about her latest business, Fifi and Ally, a retail concept that combines fashion, interiors, a bar and a café, which she set up with her cousin Alison Fielding. The company has two stores in Glasgow and is planning to open two more in London this year.

“I’m more cautious and risk-averse than some of the members of the network,” said Hamilton. “Alison and I were thinking about opening one store and stopping there. I found their take on growth and funding very useful. It challenged me to think bigger.”

Hamilton’s network, the Entrepreneurial Exchange in Scotland, is different from many other business networks, she said. “Its members are people who have created their own businesses. They are the risk takers, the people who have been through the pain and the people who have succeeded. There’s a huge value in that.”

Some of the exchange’s most useful events are dinners involving a small group of entrepreneurs talking about their own experiences, said Hamilton. Perhaps its most useful feature, however, is the approachability of its members, even the most successful.

“You can pretty much phone anyone and they will usually be happy to share their experience or offer advice,” she said.

More traditional networking through Chambers of Commerce or professional bodies has its place but may not offer everything growth businesses need, said Hamilton. “A lot of networks can be for people with established businesses to use more as a social network where they go for a glass of wine and a chat. Sometimes you are left wondering what else they take away from it.”

The Entrepreneurial Exchange, which is run for Scottish growth businesses, is a model networking organisation for other regions, according to Gary Gerrard, “head of commercial — Scotland” at Bank of Scotland Corporate.

“It’s the sort of organisation that every ambitious, growth-orientated entrepreneur needs. It’s an amazing place to go for support; you get unrivalled access to people with successful track records,” he said.

“Anyone who attends finds the vision, passion and self-belief of its members stimulating. Bank of Scotland Corporate is the exchange’s sponsor, and attending its events is one of the most rewarding things I do in my work.”

Entrepreneur networks are not the only way to build connections that will help your business, however. Anywhere you find like-minded people can be a useful place to network, said Gerrard.

“One of the simplest ways of networking is spending more time with your clients. It’s a big part of what we do at the bank. It can help you understand them, build stronger relationships and make a better assessment of risk and opportunities in the marketplace. It can also help you find new customers.”

All your interactions are a form of networking, said Hamilton. “Networking can be as simple as being willing to talk to people at any level. That’s important because you never know who you are speaking to. A wee granny who walks into your business can be as important as a flash businessman.”

Being prepared to take the initiative and make an introduction can be a scary prospect but will pay dividends surprisingly often, said Hamilton. “Don’t be in awe of people and don’t be afraid to try. You will get knock-backs but you will also be surprised.

“I remember thinking in the mid-1990s that Sir Terence Conran was top of the pile. I picked up the phone to ask his advice on something. He took my call and we ended up making friends as well as doing business together.”


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