Client testimonial: Competency Plus Ltd

“I would just like to take this opportunity to share my experience with Sarah Downs during our initial consultation workshop. We appointed Sarah Downs (by recommendation) to assist us in increasing our awareness to other organisations within the oil and gas industry, with a view to elevating our exposure and the services we provided. Sarah was extremely approachable and immediately demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of what our needs were as a business. She effortlessly provided direction and constructive feedback as to how we could progress effectively. Her broad network and the ability to make the right introductions benefitted our cause. Her willingness to help only adds to the impressive service that she provides. Sarah Downs comes highly recommended.”
Altaf Shaikh, Managing Director, Competency Plus Ltd

How to Build a Support Network for Your Business

Many of us start our own businesses for the same reasons: to have more flexibility, to make a difference, to be rewarded for all the hard work we put in and maybe to look after ourselves better. These were the reasons I went into self-employment in 2015; following a cancer diagnosis and finally getting the ‘all-clear’.

I started with good intentions. I was going to take more time for myself and have at least one day off a week. But it never happened. I was at full work capacity within 3 months, then I became pregnant. It was crazy!

Here is how I grew and sustained the support network that keeps me sane.

Remember your vision

I have found a number of ways to look after myself, but the most important has been the support network that I have built around me. It includes my family and friends, but my peers play the most vital role.

These are professional contacts, mainly business owners, who I can speak openly to and learn from. I’ve learned things like time management, prioritisation, good leadership and how to not take things personally.

One huge lesson for me has been to keep revisiting why you started up and what is important to you. Remind yourself of these facts over and over… especially when you’re having a tough day.

Keep loving what you do

Occasionally, I meet and work with business owners who have stopped enjoying what they do. They might even hate it! I love being one of the people that can help them turn it around again.  It makes my job so rewarding as a consultant.

Because I come across these people, I always think “I never want that to be me”. I don’t want to get to a point in my business where I’m not enjoying what I’m doing. My support network helps me to keep loving every minute and remind me of why I’m doing it.

Find your best friend in business

I’ve built a support group by meeting new people and building relationships. This has now culminated in running a networking group called Business Connect UK with my friend and colleague, Catriona Stevenson.

We originally met through a mutual business contact and we hit it off straight away. We speak every day now, even on weekends. Our husbands and some clients call us “the work wives” – it’s become a running joke!

Working for yourself can be very lonely. In a team, you can bounce ideas off each other, or have someone read a proposal before you send it to a client. Building a network gives you that support from people who want you to succeed.

Network with other business owners

When I’m at networking events or engaging on LinkedIn, I often ask business owners if we can meet for a follow-up coffee. I know that they’re likely to be going through the same things I’m experiencing as a business owner. You don’t have to always be selling to someone.

I want to learn from these people, and in turn, they often want to know more about my business. I realise that they are not always going to need or want my service offering but, nonetheless, I always try and help them somehow, maybe with an introduction or some useful intel.

Gradually, the relationship starts to build. So, whilst I don’t have an official mentor, in reality, I have many unofficial mentors. Actively going to people and saying, “Look, I’m stuck here, can you help me?” can be difficult, but it is a powerful thing.  

If you are a business owner, connect with other business owners. If you work alone, force yourself to get out and meet people.


how to build a support network for your business


Form a routine to meet and follow up with new contacts

One networking platform that helped me when I started was ABN Contact Builder. It forced me to get out and meet a couple of new people each month.

I never knew who I was going to meet because Andrew Smith would send me an email with the names of the new contacts to follow up with. It could be anybody – IT, Telecoms, Retail, Charity, Oil & Gas etc. If the meeting went well, I’d usually say, “Why don’t we catch up again in 3 months?”. Usually, you can schedule something there and then.

But here’s a small caveat. You sometimes need more than one meeting to ‘click’ and feel comfortable with the person, before they become part of your peer support group.

Manage your time wisely

When I first started my business, I wasn’t a mum, so I had way more time on my hands. But I was still doing crazy hours. Every day, I’m working with clients, doing my own business development and maintaining a network – that’s more than a full-time job all by itself.

The hardest thing is to get that balance. My network is very important for what I do – and it’s not just my network, it’s my clients’ network too.

To manage time, I sometimes have Skype calls instead of face-to-face meetings. If you live outside the city and you are travelling in for an hour-long meeting, it turns into 3 hours of your time by the time you add on the commute.

Skype is not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. But try suggesting it next time you meet someone. Say, “Why don’t we have a call on Skype next time?”. Slowly, they will become comfortable with it. And you’ll both get time back.

But be careful…

It might sound horrible, but pick and choose who you include in your network. Some people simply want to squeeze as much information from you as possible. They don’t give anything back. Keep this in mind as you meet people. You’ll learn who is out there to use you. Avoid learning the hard way like I did!

In summary…

Running your business is more enjoyable when you have a support network that you can learn from, gain support from and trust. Don’t struggle on your own. Access networking groups and follow up with people that you click with. Who knows? You might even find a ‘business best friend’, save lots of time and watch your business thrive.

3 Benefits of Using an External Business Development Consultant

In my last post, I defined business development and the various forms of business development support that an organisation could engage to achieve its goals. Briefly, business development is ‘the process of finding new strategic opportunities that create long-term value’. It is based on building and sustaining the various relationships that a business needs to reach the next level of growth.

Recent trends show a move towards using specialised knowledge in different fields to achieve better results in specific areas. The energy industry (renewables, oil and gas) have engaged with me, with some support from Scottish Enterprise and similar bodies.

As a business development consultant, I have seen an increase in the use of business development professionals and, specifically the use of consultants to focus on strategic growth. However, the benefits of using a consultant over other options are not often clear. Senior execs and managing directors don’t often consider this option in their search for the right set of skills that will get the job done.

Here are three benefits of using a business development consultant within your organisation.

1. Access to relevant and diverse experience

My business development counterparts come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. They are usually highly knowledgeable about one or more industries, where they have a wealth of experience and strong networks. Over time, they will have worked with dozens of organisations, helping them to work through business growth challenges and opportunities.

Therefore, business development consultants come with relevant and diverse experience. They provide a fresh pair of eyes and generate creative ideas that may difficult to see if you have only ever worked in a specific industry or company.

Because of the varied work consultants do, they can benchmark against other parties, to give their clients a true view of how they stack up with their peers and an idea of who they can collaborate within an industry to create further opportunities.

2. Enhanced networking opportunities

Research shows that companies have more confidence in external consultants than in-house ones. The role demands an inquisitive, firm approach and an ability to ask difficult questions. This is not easy for in-house business development staff.

Consultants often have a vast network and can talk on behalf of a client rather than presenting themselves as the client. For instance, their business cards would be that of their own company rather than of the client’s company. This could alleviate some of the barriers that occur when meeting potential customers or partners because it appears less “sales-y”.

Also, due to working in varied businesses and sectors, consultants often have access to several different networking groups/organisations. Many of these are at senior level. Drawing upon this experience, they should be able to advise which events will be most beneficial for your own business.

Many consultants have associate networks and will call upon these when required, to make sure you get the best advice/service possible. This might be needed when working on a diversification strategy into other sectors, for example.


Benefits of using a business development consultant


3. Potential cost savings

Instead of committing to permanent employment, bringing in a consultant can help to keep costs low. For instance, you don’t pay for NIC, holidays, sickness or pension.

I found this cost calculator, which you might find useful: Consultants vs True Cost of Employees.

Consultants know that they have limited time. They work hard from the onset to deliver early wins and showcase successes. Therefore, not only might they cost less, but a good consultant will work hard to be more cost-efficient.

But look out for this…

Before hiring a business development consultant, make sure you meet them in person. It seems simple, but I have come across business owners who have hired consultants (from any function) based on a phone conversation. Even if pressed for time, meet the consultant first, even if it needs to be a Skype call due to being an overseas project etc.

Job applications always require information about past work experience; it is the same for a consultant. If you are bringing external support into your business, ask about their experience in similar roles. What specific activities have they been involved in? What are their key strengths? This information will provide clarity about the consultant’s fit for the business.

And, finally, get recommendations from the consultant’s previous clients. You can get quite detailed feedback and don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about the consultant’s work ethics, attitude to challenge and ability to work with people at all levels of the organisation.

In summary…

There is great value in using an external business development consultant to achieve your business goals. It provides specific experience and increased networking potential, all at reasonable, short-term costs. But be sure to ask the right person before you hire and always get a recommendation!

What Is A Business Development Professional? 3 Types Of Business Development Roles

This is a question I get asked often: what is a business development professional, and what’s the difference between in-house, outsourced and consultant? The variety of terms that are used to describe similar (but not necessarily the same) types of business development roles can be confusing.

Having a clear understanding of these roles and the differences between them will help you to choose the right option for your business, and avoid making a potentially costly mistake.

Let’s start by defining business development itself; here’s my definition (adapted from writer, Scott Pollack):

The process of finding new strategic opportunities that create long-term value for an organisation through developing relationships with customers, markets, sectors, suppliers, partners and other commercial relationships.

Now that we’re on the same page, we can look at what a business development professional actually does.

What does a business development professional do?

A business development professional typically works closely with management, sales and marketing teams to develop a strong understanding of the target audience and business’ end goal.

He/she works towards business growth that requires the development of business relationships. This will not only include customers, but also commercial relationships, such as supply chain and partners.

Resourcing and establishing processes is also a key concern of a business development professional, as they are crucial to driving and sustaining growth. For instance, a start-up oil and gas services company might have a new technology for oil operators. The technology might be patented, but they don’t have their ISO accreditation.

Without this accreditation, they are unlikely to have a tender accepted by an operator. The same thing could happen if they haven’t joined FPAL yet or, depending on the product, perhaps they need a certain type of audit from DNV.

A business development professional will identify any such gaps that exist within the business. He/she is there to ask the right questions to ensure that the business is ready to pitch to the prospect client. These questions might include:

  • Are we targeting the right market?
  • Is this the right product for this market?
  • Do we have the processes and resources to make it a success?


Types of business development roles


Now, let’s explore three types of business development roles that can help you achieve business growth. Remember these are broad groups – job titles and tasks might vary from organisation to organisation and from sector to sector:

3 types of business development roles

In-house business development

An in-house business development professional is likely to work for the organisation on a full-time basis. They will often have deep experience in one area of the business, from working in similar roles/industry for many years.

They’d be looking to develop relationships within their industry, and find where they can build strong rapport that ensures that others are talking about them. Their focus is on clearly communicating key messages that build credibility.

In-house business development professionals will have a single allegiance i.e. the organisation they work for and, hence, could be perceived as having greater loyalty.

Outsourced business development

This is an option that could cut costs. It is one less salary, pension and healthcare cover to worry about and it provides flexibility.

In my conversations with some business owners, they feel that outsourced professionals understand the need to get results quickly and therefore work hard to prove themselves from the start.

Outsourced professionals are often working with several clients and therefore can have quite varied experience. This varied background provides interesting perspectives, and new ideas, hence the money has been well spent to get outsourced support into the business.

Business development consultant

As a consultant, one of the main goals is to teach businesses how to do it themselves. The consultant’s end goal is always to move on. Therefore, some of their time in the organisation is spent teaching and/or training in-house staff to take on the work once the foundation is there.

This can be difficult for a business owner who would prefer a long-term engagement with a consultant that is driving good results. There are no rules on timing, but it certainly shouldn’t be for years on end.

Much of the work I get is from business owners who have a technical background and need to learn how to think commercially. This is a perfect teaching opportunity and a great environment to get the company into a sustainable position. From there, we can create a solid business development-focused presence going forward.

I also work with many business owners who have got stuck in a rut; they have been so busy operationally that they have forgotten, or not had time, to be strategic. I work with these executives monthly to help them get strategic again and start focusing on their business growth and sometimes exit strategy. We focus on specific actions and a simplified plan to fit into their already busy schedule.

In summary…

Business development drives opportunity and growth. It collaborates with sales, marketing and commercial functions to achieve the goals of the business. The expertise could come from within an organisation, as in-house permanent staff. It could also come from working with an outsourced agency or a consultant.

Which option is right for your business depends on your business model, financial circumstances and your goals and objectives.

Client testimonial: Interdive

“Sarah has worked extensively with Interdive Services Ltd for almost a year, across a wide range of consulting assignments. I initially engaged with her (following a recommendation) for support with the business development strategy and overall business focus. Sarah then went on to help with the internal business processes (including triple ISO certification and CRM), client engagement, identifying and engaging with commercial partners and supply chain, market research, assistance with full re-brand, marketing and web development, office relocation and potential government funding. Sarah’s support has been invaluable during a period of significant change and growth within the business and I would fully recommend and endorse her excellent interpersonal skills, breadth of knowledge of the industry and commercial approach”

Craig Sawkins, Managing Director, Interdive Services Ltd

Client testimonial: Blaze Solutions

“I would call Sarah an incredible BD resource to Blaze. Sarah’s ability to swiftly cut through to our needs and to see opportunities for Blaze within her network of contacts meant we went from a standing start right into the heart of a new sector with one email. Diversification has been very important to Blaze and just a conversation with Sarah enabled her to understand where we stood in the market and what sectors were possible for our entry. I would recommend Sarah to anyone with a company of any size looking to diversity, she has worked very hard to create her network and is well respected at every level.”

Ann Johnson, Director, Blaze Manufacturing Solutions Ltd


Please get in touch for an informal chat.