Big Data and Business Intelligence Resources for SMBs

Wednesday Apr 2nd 2014 by Pam Baker
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There's buried treasure in your small business servers. Big data tools can help you discover it and build new or improved revenue. These resources will help you get started.

You may have heard the term "big data," currently one of the hottest buzz words in both business and technology, but still remain a bit fuzzy on what it is—and how it could possibly apply to, much less benefit, a small business owner such as yourself.

Webopedia defines big data as: "A catch-phrase, used to describe a massive volume of both structured and unstructured data that is so large that it's difficult to process with traditional database and software techniques." Click the link to read the full definition in detail.

Big data also includes the software tools and services used to process and mine all that data to glean business insight. And while it may seem like a tactic that's too big, complex and expensive for most small business owners to consider, that's really not the case. Forget the "big" in big data and think new form of business analytics instead.

Over the years, your company has collected and saved an enormous amount of data. Using big data tools lets you find new ways to make money from information that's been collecting virtual dust in your company servers. Here's what you need to know.

Big Data for Small Business

The biggest secret found in big data is that these tools work pretty well on any sized data. Plus, vendors are steadily tweaking big data tools to make them easier to use by workers at every skill level, by small groups in big companies, and by small companies.

They're inexpensive too, and getting cheaper every day, placing them well within reach of most small businesses. Now is the time to get onboard and leverage all that information you have stashed in your servers to increase your profits in ways you've likely never imagined possible.

Does big data-driven business intelligence (BI) still seem like overkill to you? Consider this: "big" is not the important part of that equation. In fact, if you go out and try to gather all the information you can find on the Web and elsewhere just to make your data bigger than it already is, overkill is exactly what you'll get.  Instead, use data that is meaningful to your business and ignore the rest.

Naturally, the data currently residing in your servers already reflects your business concerns. Start with pulling knowledge from that raw data to improve your business and find new or improved revenue streams. You can then add data from other sources as needed to supplement the information you have. The size of your data doesn't figure into the equation at all, unless you count calculating how much storage you need.

Vendors rarely spell out big data use that clearly, and they tend to scare off small business owners with what sounds like an awful lot of expense and work.

"It's been hard for many SMBs to relate to the 'big data' story that most vendors have been pitching," writes Laurie McCabe in SMB Group's top SMB trends for 2014 report. SMB Group research reveals that only about 18 percent of small, and about 57 percent of medium, businesses use business intelligence and analytics solutions.

However, SMBs understand the value of getting the information they need, when they need it – especially as they try to compete with new, nimble born-on-the-Web startups that view data as the new business capital."

How to Start With Big Data

In general, you want to start small and work your way up to answering more complex questions. That way you can learn as you go and tweak your methods accordingly.

As the director of product development at Trulioo, an analytics-based identity-verification startup, John Schaub knows a thing or two about big data. In addition to his day job, Schaub has led BI and big data initiatives in small, medium and large companies, and he currently teaches data visualization at a local technical university.

"The biggest mistake that organizations make when they try to roll out a BI solution is to take on too much too soon," said Schaub. "When you first start out you should determine the three or four questions that you need to answer, and then build a scalable and maintainable solution that can answer those questions."

Choose tools that let you start small and inexpensively, but that will also scale as big as you need them to later. For example, an Excel spreadsheet may have served you well in the past, but that thing will only grow so big and then no bigger. And long before your info overwhelms Excel, the spreadsheet layout will likely become too cumbersome and unwieldy for you to easily find the info you need right away.

You want a tool that will grow with your company but that won't cost much in the beginning (or later either.) Plus, you'll want more functionality and easier integration with other software than a spreadsheet can offer.

"Integrating online sources such as Google Analytics and Salesforce with relational databases is difficult and takes time with on-premises solutions," says Rachel Delacour, CEO of BIME Analytics, a cloud-based BI provider.

"What's more, many SMBs want to have data collaboration such as interactive dashboards to get live insights to as many people as possible, says Delacour. "By using technology that brings in many and different online sources on the fly, small business owners can get answers from their data in real-time, and they can immediately share or publish interactive graphs and dashboards."

Of course when Delacour speaks of on-premises solutions, most small businesses should think "out-of-date software I've been running forever." You know, like that 2003 Microsoft Office software you're still using (and the old Excel spreadsheet within it).

You may think you're saving money by not replacing old software that "still works," but you aren't. Consider this: your competition is armed with BI and big data tools, and you're still trying to compete with old software. That's like trying to win the Indy 500 in a soapbox derby car.

How to Choose a Big Data Solution

What should you look for in big-data-for-the-small-guy software?

"When you consider a big data solution for your small business, look for these three elements: ease of use, a mobile-forward strategy, and a cloud-based architecture," advises Quinton Alsbury, co-founder and president of product Innovation at Roambi, maker of a mobile-first, cloud-based business analytics and reporting tool.

"As a small business you probably don't have a full-time data scientist on the payroll, so choosing a tool that can be used by the entire organization is essential," says Alsbury.

But there is one other thing that's different about big data as opposed to traditional data or BI analytics: speed. It provides really, really fast data input and analysis. So naturally, you must look for this key capability.

Rich Reimer, vice president of marketing and product development for Splice Machine, a transactional SQL-on-Hadoop database designed for real-time big data applications, offers two questions and answers that can help small business owners choose a product:

1. Can the big data system update data in real-time? "We have never met a company, regardless of its size, that did not want reports and analytics to be more real-time," says Reimer. "This means that data should be updated in real-time or near real-time: within seconds to a few minutes."

2. Can the product support real-time applications? "Small businesses don't have armies of analysts to sift through the data, and then contact other humans to take action. Where possible, SMBs should use off-the-shelf algorithms or simple rules to automate common actions," says Reimer. "Keep it simple—focus on the 20 percent of the actions that drive 80 percent of the value in your business."

And, if you happen to be using SQL already, Reimer says you have an extra advantage if your big data tool-of-choice supports SQL too. "Small businesses can't afford to hire Java programmers to write custom MapReduce programs to get data out of their big data systems," he says.

Start with the Basic Big Data Tools First

If you honestly are at a loss as to where to start with big data, you might want to try some basic tools first—some of which are free—before buying a big data product or service. That way you will have a much better idea of the types of questions you need answered by data. 

Just keep in mind that these tools have their limitations, and that you will likely need to dive in deeper into big data very soon. Translation: do not get comfortable at the basic level and think you can stay there forever. Learn and grow. And then grow some more.

Here's a list of great tools to help you start understanding and using big data. These are not presented in any particular order, and you'll probably want to try several to get a better gist of the possibilities big data presents. This is also not a comprehensive list. There are other products on the market and more joining everyday.

Google Analytics

Google offers many educational resources for Google Analytics ranging from introductory to advanced. You might want to start with those to develop your analysis skills in general and for using Google Analytics in particular. Otherwise, go to the Setup Checklist and the Getting Started Guide, and you'll be analyzing your data in no time.  If you need a little extra help, go to the help center where you'll find helpful articles on all things Google Analytics, including implementation, analysis best practices, and troubleshooting.

MicroStrategy Free Analytics Desktop Tool

This is a free stand-alone desktop tool (meaning you don't have to already own or buy something to get this freebie). It lets you pull your data right into the tool, analyze it and turn it into easy to understand visualizations.

You're not obligated to buy anything from MicroStrategy to use this tool, but if you decide to scale up to the larger platform, this tool requires no integration effort to fit into the bigger platform—you just move all your work over to the larger product. But you can also just use this as a learning tool, and then buy a different tool from somewhere else. Watch a video demonstration or download it here

Tableau Desktop Tool

This popular tool comes with a free trial offer, albeit a short one. "It's so easy to use that any Excel user can learn it," claims the website. And it is indeed easy to use. See a video demonstration or download the free trial software here.  

Enjoy the mind-blowing big data experience these products offer. Your business will never be the same.

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.

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