As an entrepreneur, building your network should be an essential part of your marketing and sales strategy for growth of your business; your network also provides a way of learning, gaining inspiration, and support from fellow small business leaders. Regularly meeting and discussing with others facing the same challenges and issues as you is a great way to share wins and discuss problems and meet people who often open up opportunities that can set you on the path to business success.
Joining a small business association or business networking group is a great way to build your network. It’s helpful as a venue to discuss ideas, learn, establish relationships with potential customers or investors, and talk about your business. You’ll gain insight from other business owners, exchange contacts with potential business partners, gain referrals, and you might even find that you win customers as a result of these meetings.
There are plenty of small business associations and networking groups across the UK, from regional business support groups, national associations and even local networking groups for angel investors to meet startups. Here’s our selection of ten great places to start.
Top 10 small business associations and networking groups in the UK
1. Business Networking International (BNI)
BNI is a global networking group with over 200,000 members, of which about 15,000 are in the UK. Due to the large number, the organisation operates through local cells, and members meet once weekly to share opportunities and establish mutually beneficial connections. Speaking of mutually-beneficial relations, the group works majorly through sharing business referrals (not mere leads) within the cell.
Arguably, BNI’s most significant selling point of BNI is her business referral approach. Therefore, if you must make the most of your membership, you need to refer businesses, as the record of your activities is closely monitored. The people you facilitate referrals for, in turn, reciprocate the gesture. This way, everybody wins. In 2021, BNI UK garnered about $500 million worth of business through this structure. Mind you, this group may not be the best for you if you are outside the traditional niches: real estate, insurance, hospitality, what have you. Another downside is the expensive membership fee which goes as high as $1000, especially in the first year. Overall, if you are ready to put in work and have no problem going to weekly meetings and with the fees, you and your business are in for a swell time.
2. Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
The FSB is another non-profit organisation with one goal: to make its members succeed in their entrepreneurial journey. For the last 48 years, the Federation of Small Businesses has specifically seen to this as a convener of SMEs across the UK. One factor that sets the FSB apart is that you do not need a business to become a member. Even as an aspiring entrepreneur, you are most welcome here, and the association makes it its duty to help you achieve your dream from day one.
With a more modern approach to business, entrepreneurs within niches like cyber security, Information Technology, digital marketing, etc., will get as much value as traditional ones. The membership fee starts from $147 to $1010+ per year, depending on your company’s workforce size. With this fee, you enjoy a slew of benefits, including free and discounted healthcare, insurance products, legal aid, tax investigation protection, etc. Interestingly, registering as a Membership Advisor earns a commission on every business referral you facilitate.
3. British Chambers of Commerce (BCC)
With over 160 years in operation, the British Chambers of Commerce is one of, if not the oldest, on this list. It is also the most popular and respectable networking group in the UK, with hundreds of thousands of members. The BCC operates through 53 “accredited chambers of commerce,” serving as the connecting points of the entire network. These chambers bring together entrepreneurs, facilitate business relations, and provide on-the-ground support.
The BCC is open to all businesses, regardless of size and sector. However, joining this association benefits more traditional B2B businesses and product-based SMEs. As a well-established organisation, it can take your business internationally at the stroke of a pen. As a matter of fact, the British Chambers of Commerce oversaw $16 billion worth of international trade in 2021. Also, unlike newer associations, you may find the BCC setting more formal, traditional, and, in fact, boring. If that does not sound like an issue, check out this list to find a chamber close to you.
4. Small Business Britain
Drawing an inference from the name, this association solely targets small businesses to help them thrive in such trying times. Founded by Michelle Ovens CBE in 2016, she set out to make Britain the most suitable location for SMEs. SMB’s niche is providing support to inspire and foster the business growth of its members through mentorship and regular training. The self-acclaimed champion of small businesses seeks to support all 5,000,000+ SMEs across the UK despite sector, location, and goals. In fact, SMB has just launched its free Sustainability Basics Programme in partnership with Oxford Brookes Business School. You will also find the association’s podcast featuring high-end entrepreneurs quite intellectual and profound. Also, if you want to give back to society by mentoring young entrepreneurs, you may sign up to become a mentor here.
SMB runs four main campaigns for a more targeted audience.
- d:Entrepreneur – to support and celebrate the success of businesses of entrepreneurs with disabilities
- f:Entrepreneur – to promote businesswomen (“f” as in “female”)
- i:Entrepreneur – to showcase businesses by immigrants
- The Small Awards UK – a celebration of great but under-recognised small businesses
5. The Association of Independent Professionals & the Self-Employed (IPSE)
IPSE was founded in 1999 for one reason: to create an enabling environment for the self-employed in the UK. This category has broadened to include freelancers in recent years. The organisation’s mission is to connect, empower, and protect its members, setting them up for success. These three pillars serve as the framework for helping you build a sustainable business career. With as low as $9.50/month, you can join the network of 16,000 other freelancers, contractors, and consultants.
Once you sign up on the website, you automatically become a part of the fold. You enjoy free access to staff and professionals ready to answer your questions and support you. Besides the online community, IPSE runs over 100 other webinars and real-life events yearly, which is more than enough room to network. As an association keen on creating a working business environment for all, they regularly engage policymakers on your behalf. Through her Policy and External Affairs department, for instance, the organisation is particularly famous for its anti-IR35 campaign. Also, the association is intentional about sourcing industry professionals and facilitating business collaborations for you.
6. The Yorkshire Mafia
The Yorkshire Mafia is a large networking circle of over 22,000 members. According to available details, a whopping 86% of that sum are decision-makers in their respective businesses. This club undoubtedly holds tremendous value for youngsters seeking partnership and funding. Mind you, only a convincing presentation can earn you this, so ensure you do your homework extensively. It is also a platform for learning firsthand from more experienced entrepreneurs.
The group also helps promote and amplify your brand voice through her in-house network, website, and social media. On the official website, for instance, is a list of members’ businesses, company contact information, and portfolio for wider visibility. This way, members and visitors alike can reach out directly when they need your services. Interestingly, the website garners well over 300,000 unique visits yearly. Additionally, the Yorkshire Mafia currently has a social media following of over 100,000 across all platforms. All these boost your chances of business referrals.
Membership application is via LinkedIn, and approval follows a rigorous vetting process. Therefore, by optimising your LinkedIn page and presenting a compelling resume, you will be doing yourself a great deal of good. Your chances of being accepted shoot up considerably, even better if you reside or have an existing business in the northern England County.
7. Institute of Directors (IoD)
Established in 1903, IoD is easily one of the longest-standing business networking groups in the UK. As the name suggests, it is a community of Directors. The organisation aims to promote entrepreneurialism, business professionalism, and good governance in the UK. Beyond connecting with people, it is also a platform to develop yourself through her Chartered Director Programme and other professional courses. It is also a place for you to amplify your voice and be heard even by the government.
What’s more, members have the opportunity to register their businesses in Pall Mall – the institute’s business hub. Doing this helps promote your business presence, as signing up earns you a virtual office, a telephone line, and an SW1 postcode. In other words, you can establish your business in a top-choice location for investments and business without paying high rent costs. Pall Mall is a great place to network as thousands of members meet to celebrate, discuss, eat, and work. IoD members also enjoy discounts on various services and products, including logistics, insurance, and cyberattack protection.
8. Women Mean Biz (WMB)
If you are a woman looking for an all-women business networking group, check out this one. Women Mean Biz is the brainchild of an astute business developer and networking expert, Philippa Constable, who is passionate about helping women build business stature. The group is open to all women entrepreneurs across all sectors, regardless of race and business size.
To become a bonafide member, you must subscribe to a membership plan, after which you are added to the club’s social network platform. You get your profile page, meet other members and do everything you can expect from a regular social network. That aside, the society meets once monthly for a two-hour training session and luncheon.
WMB has witnessed considerable expansion in recent years, and this growth has spilled into creating a subsidiary organisation – We Mean Biz. Both organisations follow a similar structure; however, the difference is that We Mean Biz allows for male membership. Interestingly, you can network with members of We Mean Biz without being a direct member. All you need to do is upgrade your Women Mean Biz membership level to Community WMB to enjoy the best of two worlds.
9. National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (NACUE)
NACUE is an organisation for young individuals in Universities and Colleges. It started with 12 student entrepreneurs who were enterprise society presidents at the time. After years of achieving notable feats at their individual institutions, it was time to take on bigger challenges. The idea of creating something bigger came to fruition in 2008 at the instance of Victoria Lennox, assisted by Matt Smith and Cyprian Szalankiewicz. They named it “National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs.” Following serious expansion in 2011, it became imperative to reinvent the one-time voluntary organisation to a charitable one. That same year, it was renamed “National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs,” which is today one of the UK’s leading societies for student entrepreneurs.
That said, if you are a student or wish to associate with student entrepreneurs, this is your go-to option. This organisation will help you bolster your confidence, nurture your dreams, and open you up to funding and streams of opportunities. NACUE receives support from some of the biggest business names globally, including TATA, PayPal, Lloyds Banking Group, IGNITE, and Capital Enterprise.
10. Avon Business Club
Avon Business Club is a networking group exclusively for small, independent business persons. It is the club’s mission to help its members improve their products, services, and profits every step of the way. At ABC, you “learn, team up, and grow.” Therefore, if you are in Bristol or its environs, looking for a group without a large crowd but with high-end entrepreneurs, you should consider Avon Business Club.
ABC holds two monthly meetings at the Cowshed at Clifton to foster quality relationships and idea sharing. Interestingly, unlike several other networking groups, you can skip paying immediately after registration to become a member. In fact, you can attend two ABC meetings for free to get a glimpse of what you stand to gain. Beyond business referrals, opportunities, and quality training, you will enjoy far quality companionship.
Small business associations and networking groups are a great resource hub for entrepreneurs. You’ll very likely benefit from business referrals, partnerships, discounted services, professional advice, and timely information about trends. You also get to meet the others facing similar business challenges, have the opportunity to pitch your ideas, and, importantly, build your network.
Of course, not every business owner enjoys or can benefit from a networking group. Consider your business and its relevance to the group you want to join: if your niche is unconventional or internet-based, you should ask the oganiser about what you might gain, so as not to waste your time. Also, networking groups and business organisations generally mostly favour people who prioritise group meetings and events. So, if you have no free time, it might not be a good fit for you!
If you find a group or association that works for you and your business topic, you’ll be joining a group of like-minded people who can help you start, grow and succeed in your venture.