What Big Data Means to Small Business

Tuesday May 15th 2012 by Pam Baker
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The buzz about Big Data is deafening, but the new trend is more than noise; it's sheet music small businesses can play for profit, but only if played well. Here's the note-by-note breakdown so you can whistle that tune all the way to the bank.

It's hard for a small business to decide what to do with Big Data, if anything, because all the hype is so vague. Typically the description of what Big Data is goes something like this: "it is data with velocity, variety and volume." Well, that's illuminating, isn't it? "It really means data that is too big to manage by traditional means," explains Dustin Snell, CTO of Network Automation.

And that massive data may reside inside your company or out. "The job is to identify value from this growing reservoir of data," explains DataSift's CMO, Tim Barker. "Data that companies used to throw away can now be economically stored and analyzed."

But what does that mean to your small business, you ask? It could mean booming sales or it could mean nothing at all. How you wield the Big Data sword determines which way it cuts.

Big Data is Not Your Problem; It's Your Opportunity

Big Data is actually a problem for big business, not so much for a small one.

"Big Data, as a technology description, refers to the problem or issue created when data becomes too large or too varied for conventional database systems to analyze it," says Scott Kinka, CTO for Evolve IP. "It is a problem that in many cases is unique to larger businesses. Big Data is not measured in Terabytes. It's measured in petabytes and exabytes."

Big Data and Small Business

Small businesses can take advantage of the technology that's being created to deal with Big Data.

See? Extra exabytes of information lying around isn't a problem small businesses actually have. However, big businesses created opportunities for small businesses in the solutions they developed to solve their problems -- not yours.

"In practice, Big Data has come to refer to the tools that are emerging to wrangle this information," explains Kinka. "And while SMBs don't necessarily have a Big Data problem, they can take advantage of the technology that's being created to deal with it. Data mash-ups, Visualization, and cloud-based Business Intelligence (BI) solutions are making it more accessible than ever for small businesses to do something with the data in their business -- not just on a one-to-one basis, but across multiple, disparate data types."

Where Big Data Lives

So, where do you find all this big data that you don't have? Just about anywhere.

"There are much more readily available pieces of big data now than ever," says Gary Bishop, CEO of Network Automation. "Like census data and public records, for example."

"You can query systems online, get the data back, analyze it, move it to any system you please, and use it -- all of it automated so no one has to struggle with it," he added.

There is also plenty of data you can better use internally such as email. Yes, email.

Think of all the email you get, all the email your staff gets and how much of that has accumulated over time -- with yet more to come. "There are a lot of hidden gems in company email; from prospects to ideas in employee conversations with clients and customers -- and every bit of it is mineable data," says Snell.

"The same is true with all the data associated with your website," he added. "You can get a single, clear view of your customer or prospects from email conversations to relational data (data from tables), machine generated data, and more."

What to Do With Big Data

"Asking 'Is Big Data useful for small business?' is a little like asking, 'Is a lot of oxygen bad for people?'" says Jake Freivald, vice president of corporate marketing for Information Builders. Everyone needs oxygen but in different concentrations, he says. For example, those who are scuba diving need a different concentration of oxygen, and they need it packaged a different way, than say those who live at high altitudes.

"Each of these differences in managing oxygen comes with an associated cost, and therefore shouldn't be undertaken without a goal in mind," he explained. "Similarly, all things being equal, more data is better; but SMBs shouldn't just collect data without a goal in mind, and that goal had better be worth the associated sacrifices the company will need to undertake in managing Big Data."

So the question is not "What do I do with all this Big Data I collected?" but "What do I need to know to advance my business and where does that information exist?" Once you determine where the information you need is, and you go look at it and have a whoa-momma-that's-a-whole-lot-of-information-to-dig-through moment, then you look to big data tools to do the mining for you.

"If the answer makes the IT team quake in their boots because of the data volumes, velocity, or variety, then the small business should start talking to Big Data specialists about what can be done to make those possibilities actual," says Freivald.

The Advantages of Using Big Data

Hamid Schricker, product marketing manager at Radius Intelligence, offered these examples of how small businesses can profit from using Big Data:

  • Big Data offerings help small businesses make sense of the explosion of data from social networks, websites, user generated content, location from mobile phones, etc. This will continue to grow with the increase of digital signals.
  • Companies based on Big Data have improved the overall economy of SMBs. With easy-to-use online tools that crunch big data 1) SMBs can better generate new customers and retain existing ones. 2) More companies can offer and sell a wider variety of services to the SMB market. 3) And they can reduce cost and increase revenue
  • Big Data is becoming a competitive advantage and economic asset for SMBs from both sides of the market: buy-from-SMBs and sell-to-SMBs

While those points are all true, nearly everyone has different reasons for leveraging Big Data, and those reasons are also true.

For example, Rachel Delacour, co-founder and CEO of the cloud-based Business Intelligence start-up Bime, believes these are the top three reasons why Big Data matters to SMBs:

  • Go deep for cheap: SMBs can, for the first time, mine their own business data like the big guys, and do so quickly and cheaply.
  • Big Data will be their best salesperson: While everyone from a CEO down is busy running the company, collaborative BI will allow everyone, including partners and customers, to delve into and engage with Big Data.
  • Everyone will be the Chief Data Officer: Harnessing Big Data through cloud BI will enable SMBs to turn every single employee into a data analyst.

How useful Big Data proves to be for you depends on how well you identify your goal and match the data to that goal.

"For big data to be useful to small businesses, the business must have the right kind of data," says Brian Hawn, marketing communicator of RAI Stone Group. "This means that the analysis and utilization of that data is imperative to the successful implementation of the data."

"Think of data like food -- all kinds of food is available to us, but not all food is good for us," Hawn added. "Too much food is not good for us either. Same with data; a correct 'data diet' will keep your company lean, fit and healthy."

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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