John Spencer Ellis on Small Business Collaboration

by Brandi-Ann Uyemura

3 min read

John Spencer Ellis (pictured) is a best-selling author, speaker, filmmaker, and coach. He’s the CEO of the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association, Spencer Institute for Life Coaching, International Triathlon Coaching Association, Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Association, and Get America Fit Foundation. With Entrevo managing director Topher Morrison, Ellis recently published Collaboration Economy: Eliminate Competition by Creating Partnership Opportunities

The Intuit Small Business blog interviewed Ellis on what he and Morrison believe makes a successful small business. Here he explains why partnering with others can protect you from being swallowed by big businesses in today’s highly competitive market and shares tips on how to start collaborating.

ISBB: In this video, you say “big business is truly threatened by small businesses.” Why?

Ellis: Because small businesses have realized if they collaborate they can challenge the status quo of big business and, as a result, they have the nimble flexibility of a small business but the economic horsepower of big business. Big business is like a huge tanker and it takes forever to course correct. They are trying to change course. But they have a huge ship already moving in a direction they know themselves isn’t the best path anymore.

Do small-business owners have anything to lose by not collaborating?

As the collaboration age comes into full swing (over the next two to five years), businesses will no longer be able to compete or even survive if they aren’t collaborating with other businesses. So a small-business owner has everything to lose because technology and trade is moving so swiftly now, no one business can possibly keep up with the changing times. But by having connections beyond your target market, you can distribute the challenge of progress evenly among other companies to help bear that burden.

What prevents small businesses from partnering?

The biggest thing is scarcity. They are still operating from the information age, trying to keep their cards close and not share their best thinking with others — and, in fact, trying to sell their knowledge to people before they have access to it. That model doesn’t work anymore. Their greatest obstacle is the unwillingness to micro niche their business. If I am a personal trainer, for example, and I work with anyone, then all personal trainers are my competition. If I am a personal trainer who only works with women over 40 getting a divorce, then 99 percent of all the other personal trainers out their are my allies and referring agents. I’ll send them everyone who isn’t female, over 40, and getting a divorce, and all I will ask in return is referrals to any of their prospects that fit into my micro niche.

Who should small businesses collaborate with, and how do they find  and approach other businesses about partnering?

They should start by using collaborative services for administrative work [such as appointment scheduling, transcribing, blog posting, or customer support] and then progress to marketing services [such as social media communications, press releases, SEO (search engine optimization), etc.]. These are two great sources to get a lot of your work done for a fraction of what it would cost to hire a full-time employee. After that, move into joint venture projects which are short term, and have a start and end date. Before they begin, have metrics in place that allow both partners to determine if it was a good fit. After it’s over, evaluate the results. If it worked, replicate. If it didn’t, adjust the metrics and do it again, or shake hands and part as friends. The only way to ask for a collaborative project, in my opinion, is to approach the individual with a plan already laid out in what you can do for them. The moment you approach someone and ask them to help you, it becomes a chore for them. It should always be a reward.

What advice can you offer small-business owners who want to start partnering?

Start small and simple. Get your feet wet. Try it out and see how it goes. Also, start with collaborative services that let you recruit extra hands for your business without giving up any equity like eLancefiverr, and Odesk.

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