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Small Business Technology Then and Now

Small Business COmputingIf you're a small business owner, manager or entrepreneur—or interested in becoming one—I encourage you to visit Small Business Computing, a leading technology and business-growth resource. The site's been online since 2002, and I've been fortunate to be the editor for the past 10 years. It's been exciting to see the remarkable progress in small business technology over the past decade.

Technology has changed so much and so quickly, making it easier than ever for small businesses to compete, to grow and to prosper. Think cloud computing, mobile and social media just for starters. But we still have a long way to go to reduce the complexity and to make sure that small business owners can easily find the help and advice they need to assess, to buy, and to use the right technology for their needs.

When Small Business Tech Was Young(er)

Back when I started, the cloud was barely forming (it was mostly just fog at that point), and there wasn't a lot of technology designed specifically for small business. For the most part, tech vendors focused on products designed for the Fortune 500 crowd; small business products felt like an afterthought. Vendors stripped out a few of the high-end features (while leaving the complexity) and offered the result to the small business market.

I referred to this practice as the Cinderella Syndrome. Companies would hack off a few toes, or maybe a piece of the heel, and then jam that bloody foot into the slipper and hope it fit. The results were neither pretty nor functional. Granted, selling to the small business market is a challenge due to its diversity: depending on a company's size and industry, its technology needs can vary tremendously. Plus, the community's multiple levels of familiarity and comfort with technology makes serving small businesses even more difficult. Still, this practice served no one's interests.

Along with a lack of options, many small business owners faced overwhelming IT complexity. And the products they could get were often overly-difficult, expensive and required an IT team to install, maintain and support the infrastructure.

What a Difference a Decade Makes

Fast forward 10 years, and it's truly amazing how many products exist specifically for small business. From cloud-based accounting and customer relationship management (CRM), to mobile, storage servers and, well, just about anything else, small business owners have enough tech options at their fingertips to run a business entirely in the cloud (be sure to check Small Business Computing in April for a feature on that very subject).

Small businesses now have affordable access to technology that was once available only to big business, such as monitoring company websites and networks or conducting mobile email campaigns. With cloud and mobile technologies you can run a small business from anywhere and collaborate with employees across town or across the globe.

Hosted phone systems can route customer calls right to your mobile phone; your business won't skip a beat, and you'll project the professional image of a much larger company. You'll need access to your data while you're on the road, and cloud storage handles that task, too, at a fraction of what buying, installing and maintaining your own servers would cost.

Facing Tech Challenges

It all sounds so easy, as if we're living in some kind of small business tech utopia. "As if" is right. Yes, the changes are wonderful, but they bring their own set of challenges. For starters, we've gone from paucity to plethora in terms of products designed for small business. In his article, Small Businesses Turn to Tech to Drive ROI: Survey, Pedro Hernandez reports on this year's Brother Small Business Survey.

It notes that while 72 percent of small business owners expect to see a bigger ROI on new technology, 63 percent of respondents "said that they felt overwhelmed by the number of technology choices available to them." John Wandishin, vice president of marketing at Brother, believes that "technology, in a way, is not getting simpler. It's getting more powerful."

And it's still complicated. How do you integrate all of these cloud services to play together nicely, for example? The root cause of tech frustration and confusion has changed, but the feelings remain a major roadblock for many small business owners.

Small business owners also struggle with finding the time to research and evaluate tech solutions for their business. [Shameless plug: bookmark Small Business Computing right now.] That's closely followed by difficulty finding local tech support to help them when things go wrong. And we all know that things go wrong whenever tech is involved.

There's no easy fix for these issues. But better education and communication from vendors selling to the small business market is a good starting point. Many vendors work hard on that front—most notably, Intuit, Sage and Dell, to name just a few. A word of advice to all tech vendors: get better at explaining how your product can solve an actual business problem (if it can’t, go back to the drawing board, please). And lose the tech jargon—nobody beyond the engineering department needs to hear that stuff.

We need better resources for finding local IT help. Seriously, if they can solve the problem of local search advertising, why can’t someone make it easier to find skilled, local IT support? There's a startup waiting to happen. You heard it here first.

I can’t lay all of this on tech vendors. Technophobic small business owners need to take responsibility and pay attention to tech trends that can help grow their business (or delegate it to someone who can). Be open-minded and willing to learn. Embrace change. Bookmark Small Business Computing. Wait, I said that already. Whatever. You can do it.

Technology has changed the way we do business. They're joined at the hip, and both will continue to evolve rapidly and along the same trajectory. Some people believe that resistance to technology will disappear as the aging Boomers fade into retirement and the young whippersnappers who entered the world texting join the workforce. But technology moves at a blinding pace, and I'm pretty sure that resistance to it will evolve too, and there will be plenty of confusion in the coming decades to keep IT advisors gainfully employed.

In the meantime, I hope we can help you better understand how technology can help you grow your small business.

Lauren Simonds - SBC

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com. Simonds has more than 18 years of experience covering the technology industry. In 2013, she was named one of the Top 100 Small Business Influencers in North America.

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