- Dr Philippa Crommentuijn-Marsh, Open University
The importance of networks for MSEs
As we emerge from lockdown, there is an increasing desire within society to have physical human contact again, we have collectively rediscovered during the last year that human contact is very important to us all, in a variety of different ways and for a variety of different reasons. Within the Fostering Sustainable Practices project, we’ve explored how initial human contact develops into working relationships, investigating this through research on business networks and collaborative ecosystems. Many of these networks are crucial for fashion micro and small enterprises (MSEs) and whilst working with a selection of MSE’s, we’ve found they often have a diverse range of both formal and informal networks.
Networks play a multitude of roles from moral support, financial backing, suppliers, production, knowledge exchange to mentoring and collaboration. Each network is unique in its composition depending on the location, the nature of the business and the personality of the founder. As each network is very personal, it’s become clear these networks are formed with an assortment of contacts and circumstances, which as a community greatly aide fashion MSEs.
Increasingly networking now exists online through social media, though the importance of initial human contact and connections formed in person isn’t lost in the journeys taken by MSEs to develop their businesses.
Using established contacts to start their own business
Many of the entrepreneurs from a fashion design background, had previously worked in the fashion industry at businesses big and small, but disillusioned by their experiences of ill-treatment of themselves and others, they went on to set up their own businesses. They utilized their existing contacts in the industry, to help develop their own teams, manufacturers, and suppliers.
Entrepreneur Bridge and Stich spoke of the difficulty of finding clothing manufacturers in the UK, noting how some years ago, it was a difficult task to find them online, given so few had an online presence. Proactive in her search, she sought them out through physical exploration – driving up and down the country to find factories, to speak with them. It was this experience from which her business concept grew, due to her discoveries she developed a production company that connects clothing brands with suitable manufacturers. Over the years becoming a successful company with a refined database of manufacturers, in terms of expertise and their capacity.
Bridge and Stich developed good working relationships with many, and she was able to tap into the factories own network, meaning that if a factory was unable to manufacture a particular order, there was often a referral to another suitable manufacturer.
A Major Contact
This network of factories proved useful to Boy Wonder, a designer entrepreneur whose brand produces ethical boys clothing. The business based in the East Midlands, found it was difficult to establish a network to help the business get started, however, a local industry event proved to be the breakthrough the brand needed. A local materials supplier spoke at the event, who later became her supplier and was able to introduce and recommend her to his network of local factories and printers. Whilst also helping her through the manufacturing process, an area where she had little experience. As a small start-up company, she had found it difficult to access local manufacturing as they were often not willing to take a risk on her, though luckily with the support of this supplier who believed in her business, she continued.
Starting a business by yourself can be a lonely and overwhelming experience, and some designer entrepreneurs within our research found that being a part of a shared workspace with other creative businesses, helps enormously. Not only do they provide potential companionship but other methods of support too. Love White Rabbit, initially started her business of small production runs, sampling and pattern-cutting in her spare bedroom but through a client was introduced to a shared workspace for creative businesses. It was here that not only did she find companionship but formed a variety of collaborations.
As a micro-sized business, sometimes there is a skill or knowledge gap due to the wide-ranging multitude of tasks necessary to run a business, from design and clothing production, marketing, to finance, and tax. Within the creative workspace, many of the businesses exchanged services, such as social media skills or website development. This worked to an advantage for all, as rather than payment they utilised their different skillsets to help each other develop their businesses. Whilst also helping to cement friendships, which during the Covid-19 crisis one friendship this proved particularly beneficial. What started as a friendship within a shared space, developed into a working collaboration during the covid lockdown when the other business changed their business model, from selling vintage clothing to producing her own vintage-style garments. This collaboration produced a new clothing line providing a new income stream for both micro businesses.
For Sabinna, collaboration is a key strategy within her business, as a designer entrepreneur, she arrived in London without knowing anyone, and has now developed a network. This network crosses over three different countries, with a focus on and around London where the brand is based. As a female-led conscious lifestyle brand, offering products and clothing, her collaborations range from local charities, and fashion-tech products, through to handcrafted products such as candles. Her philosophy of networking has always centred around a mutual benefit for both parties rather than the traditional view of networking which focuses on what the individual wants from another.
“But [I’m] also willing to give support from my side, so I do think it’s definitely a mutual thing. I think it’s important to hold the balance here, so it’s not that one side takes it all and the other side has to give… and then there are people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say and there is an exchange of things, this is the one that I appreciate the most. ” – Sabinna
Within these four examples, the philosophy supported by Sabinna is very evident, that initial human connections developed into mutually beneficial working relationships. A key aim for the MSEs taking part in this Fostering Sustainable Practices project is to bring sustainability to the forefront of fashion and to educate others about sustainability in practice. For these MSEs, sustainability includes treating people fairly and decently, in line with their value systems. This is a key message that comes across within this business networking and ecosystem collaboration research strand, working together for the common good, brings benefits in a multitude of ways.