Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School has warned SMEs not to try to go it alone and says businesses need to partner up in order to succeed.
Kanter spoke to SmartCompany following her keynote address at the Australian Chambers Business Congress in Melbourne yesterday.
The author of 18 books was ranked by The Times as one of the 50 most powerful women in the world, but Kanter seems weary of the speaking circuit, and wasn’t very impressed with some of our questions.
When asked what special challenges Australian SME’s face, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “business is business everywhere.”
However, once Kanter started talking about the importance of partnerships to business, she began to warm to her subject.
Kanter argues that “everything goes better with partners” and says partners are necessary for small businesses to flourish.
“Small businesses in general often can’t achieve the scale that they want to achieve by themselves so they need partners,” Kanter says.
She believes finding the right partners, whether it is for distribution, common marketing or additional projects, is critical.
“Too many small companies want to go it alone for either lifestyle reasons or they simply don’t know how to find partners,” she says.
“The more they connect and become part of networks they are more likely to flourish; those that simply go it alone are not as good.
“Even retail establishments on a particular street could organise the other retailers on that street to think about how to bring more customers into that shopping area.”
Kanter acknowledges it isn’t an easy task for SMEs to find the right partners and says businesses need to know their own strengths in order to pick the right partner.
“First of all, know what you stand for, what it is you are trying to do, and look for others that share those values and have the same sense of mission,” she says.
“Secondly, you need to know what you are good at and know what strength you need to complement that. Maybe you have a great piece of technology or a great new tool but you need distribution, so connect with someone with distribution.”
Kanter says a partnership won’t work without compatibility and SMEs have to know the areas in which they are the same as and different from their partners.
“You have to be willing to listen, learn from them and feel like you have something to contribute,” she says.
Kanter stresses that support systems and partnerships are important no matter what size your business.
“Some small businesses are lifestyle businesses and content to be small and employ the owner and a few others but some really want growth and don’t intend to be small for ever,” she says.
“Depending on which kind you are, you choose partners that are going to help you achieve those goals.”
Kanter warns there will be times when SMEs will find it all too difficult and feel ready to give up.
“I talk about Kanter’s law, which is that everything can look like a failure in the middle. If you give up just because you hit a road block, by definition, you have failed; if you give up and learn from the mistakes and make changes, then it is much more likely that you will succeed,” she says.
What about businesses who are just struggling to keep their heads above water and feel they don’t have time to seek out partnerships? Kanter says it is exactly those businesses that need to innovate.
“This is exactly the time when everybody else is distracted by survival, so if you can find the courage to make a change, you are likely to steal a march on the competition,” she says.
“Secondly, you can have a big idea waiting in the wings that you are not acting on now that you can continue to develop it.
“Own the idea, trademark it, write about it and talk about it, even if you are not ready to do it yet. “