Tak­ing the fear out of dig­i­tiz­ing

Toronto Star - - SMALL BUSINESS WEEK - VAWN HIM­MELS­BACH SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

Em­brace the tech­nol­ogy that can ac­tu­ally im­prove your busi­ness

Small-busi­ness own­ers can be in­tim­i­dated by the vast ar­ray of tech tools avail­able, from mobile to so­cial and cloud. They may not have a ded­i­cated IT staff or the bud­get for ma­jor in­vest­ments, or they may just feel over­whelmed by the con­stant on­slaught of new tech­nolo­gies.

“Even with pres­sures to com­pete on a global stage, a lot of SMBs in Canada re­ally sell in a very lo­cal mar­ket,” said Jim West­cott, re­search man­ager with IDC Canada. “They de­pend on re­peat cus­tomers from a de­fined ge­og­ra­phy.”

That means small-busi­ness own­ers should start with the ba­sics, such as up­dat­ing their web­site. Many SMBs have static web­sites that haven’t been up­dated in years, said West­cott. So they should re­fresh their con­tent, en­able com­merce ca­pa­bil­i­ties and en­sure they have a so­cial pres­ence (such as Twit­ter and Face­book icons) so cus­tomers can con­nect and in­ter­act with the busi­ness in real time.

Tech­nol­ogy is also be­ing used to run the busi­ness, from the sup­ply chain to cus­tomer man­age­ment. The first step is to look at the busi­ness is­sue and then con­sider how that is­sue can be ad­dressed with tech­nol­ogy — rather than buy­ing tech­nol­ogy for tech­nol­ogy’s sake.

IDC is see­ing more SMBs take ad­van­tage of soft­ware-as-a-ser­vice (SaaS), where they pur­chase an ap­pli­ca­tion or soft­ware so­lu­tion as a hosted or on-de­mand ser­vice — sim­i­lar to pay­ing for a monthly mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tion. SaaS falls un­der the broader um­brella of cloud com­put­ing; ex­am­ples of SaaS in­clude Drop­box, Sales­force.com and Quick­Books, as well as Mi­crosoft Of­fice 365.

The ben­e­fit of SaaS is that small busi­ness own­ers don’t have to worry about up­dates or se­cu­rity patches; those are done au­to­mat­i­cally. And many SaaS ven­dors of­fer free trial ver­sions to try be­fore you buy. But SaaS is not a panacea. “Don’t for­get that in­for­ma­tion is still on some­one’s server some­where,” said John Car­son, founder of Herb Communications. “Peo­ple for­get that. The cloud can still fail and can still get hacked.”

Car­son helps com­pa­nies build their brand, but he’s also a small-busi­ness owner and is con­stantly test­ing out tech­nolo­gies. He uses Google Drive to store his files, as well as FreshBooks for cloud-based ac­count­ing, but he also uses ex­ter­nal backup so he’s not com­pletely re­liant on the cloud. “When you’re a small busi­ness, in­for­ma­tion is your life blood,” he said. “You have to pro­tect it.”

While stor­age and backup is crit­i­cal, small busi­nesses don’t have to jump on ev­ery new tech­nol­ogy that comes to mar­ket.

If you’re in manufacturing, you may want a 3D prin­ter for pro­to­typ­ing. “But if you’re in a soft­ware- or ser­vice-based busi­ness, what do you need a 3D prin­ter for? Ab­so­lutely noth­ing,” said Dun­can Stew­art, di­rec­tor of tech­nol­ogy, me­dia and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions re­search for Deloitte Canada.

The same goes for drones. If you’re a farmer who wants to find his cows at night with an in­frared cam­era, a drone might be use­ful. But for many busi­ness own­ers, it’s ir­rel­e­vant.

Where it is worth fo­cus­ing your ef­forts, said Stew­art, is mak­ing sure your cus­tomers can read your web­site on a mobile de­vice. “The num­ber of hours that North Amer­i­cans are spend­ing on their smart­phones is now higher than the hours they spend on a PC,” he said. And they’re mak­ing pur­chases and mov­ing money around on their mobile de­vices.

While SMBs still need a web­site that works on a PC, apps are where it’s at.

“If you’re sell­ing to con­sumers — es­pe­cially young con­sumers — do (you) need an app? Yes, that was yes­ter­day,” said Stew­art. “Do (you) re­ally need Ap­ple and An­droid? Yes, you ac­tu­ally do.” An­droid and iOS make up 85 per cent of the smart- phone mar­ket, so com­pa­nies need an app that will work on both plat­forms.

For busi­ness own­ers who have no idea where to start with app de­vel­op­ment, there are plenty of low-cost op­tions in the on­line world. Fiverr, for ex­am­ple, is an on­line mar­ket­place for a range of ser­vices, and it’s a good place to find free­lance coders to tweak your HTML, said Car­son.

He also sug­gests usertest­ing.com, which pro­vides user feed­back on web­sites, mobile apps and pro­to­types be­fore they’re launched to the gen­eral pub­lic. Other ser­vices such as 99de­signs.ca and Canva can help with graphic de­sign.

“All of this can be done on a low bud­get, es­pe­cially if you’re start­ing up,” said Car­son.

Dig­i­ti­za­tion is chang­ing the way busi­nesses op­er­ate, but it doesn’t have to be scary. “Dig­i­tal” is of­ten com­pared to Godzilla wan­der­ing through Tokyo de­stroy­ing every­thing, said Stew­art. “Dig­i­tal is im­por­tant, dig­i­tal mat­ters, dig­i­tal changes things — but some­times dig­i­tal in­flu­ences only a part of your busi­ness, some­times it de­stroys it and some­times it ac­tu­ally im­proves it.”

“When you’re a small busi­ness, in­for­ma­tion is your life blood. You have to pro­tect it.” JOHN CAR­SON FOUNDER OF HERB COMMUNICATIONS

SHUTTERSTOCK

Ex­perts ad­vise that mak­ing sure your com­pany’s web­site is up-to-date and mobile op­ti­mized for a smart­phone or tablet is crit­i­cal in this dig­i­tal age of busi­ness.

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