Cast your mind back to the turn of the century: dial-up internet connections, limited storage space, and life before smartphones and social media. That's when I first started working with small businesses (SMBs). In those days, technical solutions were principally designed for big organisations and scaled down in an often clumsy, compromised way for their smaller competitors. It kept them a little behind the curve: tied people to the office, to hard drives and filing cabinets, to specialists whose services they had to pay for.
However, with the evolution of technology, in particular the cloud, apps are now being built that answer all sorts of small business needs (take a look at the marketplace GetApp and you'll see over 5,880 listed). Levelling the playing field between small businesses and large corporates.
One of the biggest benefits of the apps and platforms are that they fill the skill gaps. Take the early days of BCSG for example. There were four people doing everything: answering phones, building relationships with clients, handling the post... and HR was an area that we found difficult. Our experience was limited and we were growing so fast, our HR processes and procedures weren't keeping pace with the business. Now there's a solution or an app for everything: often more than one in fact.
These apps are hosted in the cloud which means there's no significant upfront capital investment, just a monthly or annual subscription fee. And people can log in from wherever they are, setting them free from their desks and reducing the need for after-hours admin, which, for time-stretched SMEs is one of the biggest problems they face. Our research found that on average small business owners are spending over a third of their working week on admin (15.5 hours).
If it wasn't an over-used term, I'd say the cloud is a small business revolution. It's making enterprises nimble, focused and competitive, so much so that it can be hard to tell a small company from a big one.
But their owners still need good, practical advice. Where can they get it? Business banks are cutting back on their relationship managers; accountants and financial advisers can go only so far with their help.
There's a world of words, videos and apps online. Who can small business owners trust? How will they find out about the things they don't yet know about? This is an area that corporates like banks and telcos are just beginning to move in to, with services that complement their core products.
And SMBs are ready for it. Our research also revealed that a significant percentage of small business owners would be more likely to use software recommended to them by an established brand. That's especially the case for SMBs at the beginning of their journey (pre-start ups: 37%) and those with a higher turnover (small businesses with a turnover between £500k-£5m: 45%).
I'm in a privileged position in some ways, watching technical innovation transform opportunities for small businesses. I'm genuinely optimistic about what future iterations will bring, because app development starts from the business need and then delivers a solution that makes things easier. I'd really like there to be a greater understanding of how challenging it can be to set up and run a small business, and for support to be tailored accordingly. That way, high-growth SMEs will have a real opportunity to compete, not just with big businesses in the UK, but on an international stage too.
It is time for SMEs to fully embrace the technology that is available to them. Many small business owners will deem themselves time poor, but there are solutions to help and enable more time to be reserved for growth and development. Technology is no longer an area exclusive to the bigger companies, it should be central to SMEs' daily activity.