What do small business owners really think about technology as a tool to grow their business? That's not an easy question to answer given the diverse nature of the small business community. You'll find folks who enthusiastically embrace technology (business analyst Laurie McCabe refers to them as Progressive SMBs), those who loathe it, and everyone else in between. That covers a lot of ground.
Still, there's no doubting that many small business owners need help understanding how technology can help grow their business, which technologies to choose, and where to turn for help. For example, this 2013 study from Yodle, an online marketing firm, indicates that more than half (51 percent) of the small businesses surveyed don’t have a regular website and, of those that do, 90 percent of them aren't mobile-friendly websites.
While purely anecdotal, after nearly 10 years of writing about technology for small business, I find that many small business owners remain overwhelmed and even fearful at the thought of sorting out the technologies that can help them to compete, to succeed and to grow. And who can blame them?
Technology is a constantly changing labyrinth of incomprehensible terms and options that affects every aspect of running a business. Are you in the cloud; do you have a mobile website; how many Likes do you have; do you automate your tweets; choose the right keywords; secure your endpoints; what the hell is BYOD again? For many people, it's an exhausting barrage that feels like a giant, endless game of whack-a-mole.
Small Business Tech Education
How can small business owners combat their technophobia? Though education and by partnering with people who love tech and understand how it can solve business problems. That premise was the driving force behind this year's New York Business Expo & Conference (NYXPO), which I recently attended in Manhattan.
"We placed great emphasis on technology and social media to provide our attendees with the tools and education they need to take their businesses to that next level in today’s business arena," organizer Marc Sherer, president of Event Management, said in a prepared statement.
The NYXPO offered a great selection of panel discussions; my favorite was Using Technology to Drive Innovation and Grow Your Business. Moderated by Robb Patterson of Progressive Computing, the panelists included Jim Jones, director of product management and marketing at Time Warner Cable, Lydia Loizides, CEO and founder of GGGrit.com, and Jennifer Shaheen, the Technology Therapist.
The large room was packed, indicating a sharp interest in the topic.
Confusion About the Cloud
The panelists agreed: any discussion of how technology can help small business grow must involve cloud computing. The problem is that a lot of small business owners still have no idea what the cloud is or how it can help their business. In its most simplistic form, "cloud" means computing resources that you access via the Internet using a Web browser. Gmail (email), Microsoft 365 (productivity), QuickBooks Online (accounting) and Mozy Pro (storage) are all examples of cloud services. Your data remains accessible to you online, where it's stored and secured by the vendor.
"Basically, you're off-shoring your data," said Lydia Loizides. "The data sits in the cloud, and the service provides the interface for you to access your data."
The advantage is that you pay a monthly subscription fee to access the service. The technology to run your business becomes a predictable operational expense rather than an expensive, upfront capital expenditure. The cloud "lets you use someone else's payment system, like PayPal or Amazon, and decrease your operational costs," said Loizides.
"I run my entire business in the cloud," said Jennifer Shaheen. "I started my business when I was in college. I couldn’t afford to pay $400 for software, but I could afford a monthly charge on my credit card."
She also noted that using cloud services offers added business protection in case of disasters. Her laptop was stolen recently, and because Shaheen runs her business in the cloud, she didn't lose her business data. Shaheen simply disconnected her cloud service accounts from that mobile device and was back up and running by 7 pm that same night.
Expert Advice on Cloud Services
It's hard enough for some small business owners to grasp the cloud concept. It's another to figure out how to pull all the pieces together and make it work for their business. One audience member summed up the challenge asking, "Is there something out there that connects all your info in these little clouds?"
The panel reiterated that there is only one cloud, but within that there are many cloud services. The trick is to understand which services your business needs (email, accounting, storage, website, payment processing, etc). And yes, making sure that these services play nicely with each other—e.g., integration—is essential.
Lydia Loizides recommended getting all your cloud services from one major, brand-name player. "Think about the four tasks your business needs to do, and think about how they're connected. Then look for the apps that can handle those tasks, and find out who can provide those services."
She then used a department store as an analogy. "For example," she said. "I decided to shop at Macys. I only buy at Macy's. They have house wares, cosmetics, clothing—everything I need. I'm referring, of course, to Microsoft," she added.
Small business owners also need to think about the support they want from their cloud service providers. "It's really important to trust your providers and to have an 800 number you can call for help you when you need it," said Loizides.
Due diligence and self-knowledge are also essential. "Lots of small companies make good software," said Shaheen. "Do you need a bigger company that you can call at 3 AM, if needed, or do you want the personal attention that a small business can offer?"
The panelists urged small business owners to think about customer support before they need it. Decide what your support preference is—email, phone, both? How much? What hours? And ask every cloud service provider you vet about the terms of its Service Level Agreement (SLA).
This service contract outlines the required level of service the company will provide—meaning that your cloud service (and your data) will be online and available when you need it. The SLA also outlines what compensation you can expect if the service fails to meet the agreement.
If you're a small business owner and you want to cut costs, reduce technical complexity and grow your business, using cloud services is one way to help you meet those goals. But don’t go it alone. The smartest thing you can do, especially if technology just isn't your thing, is to find a seasoned technology expert who specializes in helping small businesses.
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of Small Business Computing. Follow Lauren on Twitter.
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