Taking the fear out of digitizing
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