It has long been accepted that the larger business is, the more capable it is of competing beyond local markets relative to its smaller counterparts. Technology, however, is disrupting this long-established status quo, holding the key to enabling small businesses to punch above their weight and legitimately compete. Now perhaps knowledge, rather than money and resources, is the final hurdle we need to tackle …
By employing technology to its maximum, micro and small businesses now face significantly less barriers to competing outside of their local marketplace than they did even 3 or 4 years ago. You could say that technology has now become ‘the secret weapon’ in small business competitiveness. It has the powerful effect of levelling the ground by allowing small businesses to become ‘virtually mobile’, enabling them to operate and compete beyond their indigenous locality, with their relative access to cash and availability of people resources no longer being a barrier to their competitiveness, as it has in the past.
Small business is becoming virtually mobile
Through adoption of technology, small businesses are becoming virtually mobile, and in so doing the world becomes their oyster. Through technology business owners can operate outside of their immediate locality, have easier access to new markets and participate in activities that develop both themselves and their businesses. All of this is available to small businesses without being disadvantaged by either physical access or, to a great extent, personal economics, and many businesses are taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Technology has a significant part to play in making businesses more efficient, more creative and more innovative. In the theme of virtual mobility, however, there are two core areas of business where these advantages manifest themselves the most: in marketing and in communications. By fully embracing technology in their marketing and communications, small businesses can gain significant competitive advantage.
Marketing and social media
So first, marketing. In my mind the greatest advantage of technology to small businesses has been in the sphere of marketing, and in particular in the introduction of social media. Solo entrepreneurs can now communicate with customers and prospect customers virtually, through social media, in a way that simply wasn’t possible a few years ago, without a sizeable marketing function at their disposal.
And it’s clear that businesses are taking advantage of this opportunity, with an explosion in this arena over the past five years.
Social media has made customer communications faster and significantly more direct, and small businesses often have a major advantage over larger competitors when engaging in social media, as their communications can be more personal and consumer-responsive.
Small businesses can be as visible online as their larger competitors
Alongside social media is the ability for small businesses to be found online in a global marketplace. Through a fairly simple process of gearing their website to their target markets, assisted by easy-to-use translation tools such as Google translate (which of course can improve, but you take the point), technology is starting to remove the barriers of language for small businesses wanting to trade internationally.
Search engine rankings have no association with the size or perceived gravitas of a business – purely the relevance of content to the search being made, so small businesses can secure page 1 rankings and become as visible as their larger competitors, a feature that just wasn’t possible in the past. The size of a company’s marketing budget is, in many cases, now secondary to the perceived quality of a service or product – customers have the power to raise the profile of a brand, irrespective of its size, in a way that would be unprecedented until the past few years. And, of course, the reverse is also true – large brands are at a significantly greater risk than ever before now their reputation is very much more in the hands of the consumer.
Then we turn to communications. First Telecoms. Small businesses were never able to function effectively in the area of telecoms relative to their larger counterparts. If you were away from the desk or the shop, you were away from the desk or the shop!
However most of the barriers associated with telecoms infrastructure and cost of telecoms have been removed through technology. The switchboard operator or receptionist are no longer required for small business. Mobile phones make call handling and message-taking simpler on the move, but small businesses can also access virtual call handling services, providing them with a personalised answering and message taking service which can be purchased on either a small monthly subscription, or on a call-by-call basis, making it genuinely affordable for just about any business.
Through the evolution of mobile apps, businesses can also access landline telephone numbers for use on their mobile at a fraction of a cost of traditional telecoms.
Video-conferencing allows small businesses to meet virtually, anywhere in the world
Also on the theme of communications, we can turn to the ability to participate through technology via facilities such as Video Conferencing
Video-conferencing, once the domain of the larger business, is now available as an affordable, and often free resource for small companies. From Skype to more sophisticated subscription services, face to face meetings can now take place virtually, assuming both parties are happy to participate. Video conferencing significantly reduces the time associated with attending meetings, even when held on a local basis, and virtual meetings located nationally or globally can now be held without the significant costs historically associated with travel.
Although personal face to face discussions are still invaluable in forming relationships, managing ongoing relationships with associates, suppliers and customers can be facilitated through technology.
Video Conferencing and Live Streaming also brings events and conferences to a significantly greater audience. Events and conferences which are sector or topic-specific, whether they are geared to supporting start-up businesses or related to a key aspect of business growth, tend to be located in capitals and large urban centres. Although a ticket fee for participation in such an event is still to be expected to cover the cost of participation, and of the technology required to live stream or record, the time barrier, and prohibitive costs associated with travel and accommodation, can be completely eradicated through enabling small business owners to participate through technology.
Without doubt one of the values of attending conferences, is the opportunity to network and participate in discussion, which it can be difficult to replicate online. However the richness of the speakers’ presentations – the knowledge, experience and ideas they have to offer – can be conveyed with equal impact to a virtual audience, enabling small businesses to take advantage of opportunities for personal development and stimulation that would not have been available to them previously.
So, how can we help small businesses to use technology to their competitive advantage?
Although a significant number of small businesses are taking advantage of technology, it has to be said that there is still significant room for improvement. Much more can be done. In my next blog on the topic of small business competitiveness I explore ideas about how this can be achieved by business support services, policy makers and small businesses themselves.