A lot happened during 2013 that affects small businesses. Let’s take a look at the top small business news stories for 2013, as tracked by the Small Business Trends Editorial team:
Wearable Technology Gets Attention
Wearable technology ranges from Google Glass (the eyeglasses-like computer you wear on your head – image above) to the smartwatch. Pebble raised a cool $10 million on Kickstarter and started shipping its smartwatch. Not to be outdone, Samsung unveiled the Gear smartwatch as a companion to the Note 3 phone. And 2013 saw the concept of the Smarty Ring , which raised almost $300,000 on IndiegoGo.
Maybe one day Google Glass will be perched on every head, but that day will be a while coming, if it ever arrives. Part of the reason is due to privacy concerns people have about being filmed without their realizing it. Already there are businesses where Google Glass is not welcome.
Accounting Software Market Changes
Competitors from offshore and with cloud products, challenge the big players in this market. And we are seeing the market stratify, with accounting and financial products designed for various sizes of small businesses:
- Xero, out of New Zealand and Australia, still has a small footprint in the United States, but raised $150 million in funding in October, to go after the U.S. market.
- Entrepreneurs and micro businesses are catching on that they don’t necessarily need double-entry accounting software. Freshbooks, out of Canada, is mainly an invoicing and expense tracking software, but calls itself “cloud accounting” now, and has 5 million people using it. And there are dozens of other invoicing apps that when paired up with downloaded bank and credit card records, provide sufficient recordkeeping to meet the needs of very small businesses.
- Sage went the other direction. It continued developing and adding features to its Sage One product — combining accounting, invoicing, time tracking, productivity and collaboration features into an all-in-one suite for businesses with under 10 employees.
- Intuit, the largest player in the U.S. with millions of small businesses using it, went off on yet a different direction, by announcing plans to acquire document aggregator DocStoc.
- GoDaddy acquired the Ronin invoicing app, pairing it with previously acquired Outright, to create the GoDaddy Bookkeeping software.
Online Business Reviews Provoke Frustration, Legal Action
Online reviews and local listings that display them continue to be a sore point. Some of the sites where reviews appear have come across as cavalier and uncaring toward small businesses through poorly implemented review systems and uneven efforts to deal with rampant fake reviews:
- A sting operation by the New York state attorney general resulted in fines against a number of marketing firms and small businesses for faking online reviews.
- Yelp sued a business that it alleges was faking its own reviews – after that same business won a small claims case against Yelp. There’s a lot of “underground” grumbling by small business owners who feel the system is too easily gamed — a common complaint remains that Yelp’s algorithms hide too many legitimate positive reviews, and highlight fake ones by competitors that know how to manipulate the system.
- Facebook rolled out starred reviews. The system was promptly given a poor review by some small businesses due to its clumsy implementation.
- Google managed to confuse small businesses with its Google Local (Places) Plus and Google+ for Business. By the end of the year, things started to look better. In late November, an upgrade was rolled out that allows business owners to manage and respond to reviews left on their business listings.
- The Better Business Bureau expanded its pilot program for verified local business reviews. The BBB review system, which is separate from its rating system of A+ through F, seemed to provoke less frustration than some of the other review sites.
Twitter Goes Public; Focuses on Revenue and Spam
- The company went public in November, trading on the NASDAQ under the symbol TWTR. The stock has gone up and down in the past two months, but currently is up over 40% and the company has a market cap of $35 billion. That’s more than 16 times the size of the New York Times’ market cap of $2.3 billion.
- In anticipation of its IPO, Twitter continued rolling out advertising products and improved its business resources. It announced plans to acquire MoPub, a mobile ad platform. We expect the focus on advertising and sponsored offerings to only increase, given the need to meet quarterly earnings expectations.
- Perhaps anticipating closer scrutiny, Twitter changed its spam algorithms, cracking down on DM spammers and other abusers. We saw a spate of legitimate small business users having their Twitter accounts banned in error – apparently it is now trickier to follow a lot of accounts without tripping a spam filter.
Scrutiny Increases on Content Marketing
Content marketing continued to grow in 2013. We published not one, but two lists of content marketing books during 2013, so that ought to tell you how much interest there is. Native advertising also grew — native advertising comes in many forms, but newspapers have long published a form called advertorials.
Guest blogging and advertorials became so popular that they were over-used and abused by some. It seemed like an epidemic of plagiarism and “spun” articles. Fake writers and rings of “made-for-links” sites proliferated. What was the goal? Build links.
In May of 2013 Google’s head of Web spam, Matt Cutts (pictured above), spoke out and explained how advertorials need to be handled under Google’s guidelines. Then later Cutts cautioned against “low quality” guest blogging. The U. S. Federal Trade Commission also updated its advertising guidelines to address disclosures needed in social media.
There will always be value in high quality content in marketing. But 2013 was the year that saw abuses of content explode, and a resulting crackdown start.
Counterfeits and Mass-Produced Goods Irk Entrepreneur Artisans
Etsy was originally set up as a marketplace for handmade items — and supposedly a refuge from mass-produced stuff. But shop owners, who number nearly one million on Etsy and are mostly entrepreneur-artisans and small businesses, have been vocal about mass produced goods being allowed. Even Etsy’s “be honest” rule is not enough, some say.
Some hand-crafted items from Etsy also are copied. Fakes end up on wholesale sites such as Alibaba. Alibaba, through founder Jack Ma (above), announced an anti-counterfeiting campaign in advance of its rumored 2014 IPO. While counterfeiting is often thought of as a “big brand” type of plague, it also affects small businesses like artisans.
Obamacare Confusion Reigns
The year 2013 has been one of confusion. With many media reports being politically motivated either left or right, millions of small businesses had a tough time getting good information about healthcare options. Here are some key facts:
- An estimated 5 million people had their health insurance policies cancelled or costs increased for individual policies, due to the Affordable Care Act requirements. The cancellations and higher premiums hit self-employed freelancers and small business owners as a group hard, because they tend to have individual policies.
- The Federal healthcare.gov website rollout was almost universally regarded as a disaster. On a positive note, some website improvements have been made since October and it seems to be getting better.
- Many government workers and other select groups have been exempted from the new healthcare law. Larger employers (including small businesses with 50+ employees) got a one-year delay in their employer requirements, until 2015. But that delay does not benefit the estimated 5 to 7 million self-employed and small business owners who rely on individual policies.
- The online SHOP exchanges, which are supposed to enable small businesses with fewer than 50 employees to shop for affordable coverage (and in some cases get tax credits), were delayed until November 2014. Small businesses can still use the SHOP exchanges — they just have to apply through brokers or by mail.
The words of Professor Scott Shane take on added meaning: “Despite (or because of) our policy makers’ efforts, employee health insurance remains a burden for small business owners. *** Only time will tell whether our policy makers’ efforts to help have alleviated or exacerbated the problems.”
Social Media & Mobile Valuations Hit Records
Are we living through another tech bubble, like the Dot Com bubble of 2000? Judging from some of the valuations, possibly.
Remember Instagram, the company with no revenue that was valued at $1 billion back in 2012 when Facebook acquired it? The year 2013 saw a redux of sorts, when Snapchat’s 23-year-old founder turned down an offer of $3 billion from Facebook. Meanwhile, at least 16 million small businesses had Facebook pages, and Facebook was placed on the S&P 500. Despite all that success, a report by Oklahoma Senator Coburn suggests Facebook will for the second year in a row pay zero taxes.
Yahoo, trying to reinvent itself, acquired Tumblr, a blog platform known for its porn, for $1 billion. Shortly thereafter, Tumblr jumped on the sponsored posts bandwagon. And Yahoo is currently a Wall Street darling, with its stock price at a five-year high.
If you want to create a high-valuation startup, mobile and social are hot spaces to be. At least for now.
Traditional Tech Companies Retrench, Reinvent
Remember those traditional technology companies so many of us run our businesses on? Here’s what happened with a few of them:
- Dell went private again after a battle by Michael Dell to retain ownership of the company he founded in his dorm room in 1984. Dell expanded its traditional laptop and desktop computers to include tablets and tablet hybrids. It is aggressively investing in innovative startups, acquiring other companies, and entering into partnerships to reinvent itself into a combined hardware, cloud software and services company.
- Microsoft announced the retirement of CEO Steve Ballmer as it began its own reinvention with strong moves toward mobile. Along with aggressive marketing campaigns for its Windows Surface and RT tablets, Microsoft made a bid to acquire Nokia to gain a bigger footprint in the mobile space.
- BlackBerry – well, pundits have been predicting its demise for the past two years. After the disappointing launch of BlackBerry 10, the company changed CEOs in November. For awhile it planned to go private, then scrapped that. Right now the focus seems to be on serving businesses in regulated industries and government.
Netting it out: the changes at Microsoft and Dell are good news for small businesses. BlackBerry is becoming less of a player in the small business market with each passing month.
Phones Get Bigger, Tablets Smaller, Voice Minutes Go Away
- Mobile devices become big then get cheaper. We saw plenty of data about the increased popularity of mobile devices with consumers this year. And manufacturers responded with more phones and tablets. There were also hybrids like the phablet. And then the devices started getting cheaper too.
- The responsive Web design approach gained steam. Instead of creating a separate .mobi site, today a responsive design can make sure all visitors experience your site in the best possible way – whether they are using a smartphone, tablet or computer.
- Voice minutes are becoming almost a thing of the past in the United States. The reason is that mobile carriers have realized charging for data transfer is the more lucrative approach. Carriers are beginning to do away with hardware subsidies, too.
- Apple, meanwhile, announced that its app store had generated $10 billion in revenue for the third-party developers. The demand for mobile apps on other sites like Google Play also is strong.
Grumpy Cat and Gangnam Style Memes Cool Off
Two of the hottest viral memes in recent memory became big news this year and later faded. Though the Gangnam Style video was posted in 2012, by 2013 it had became the most watched online video in history. Grumpy Cat still has her fans, but the adorable cat (pictured above) is not quite as hot.
Independent Worker Marketplaces Grow, Merge
oDesk and Elance announce a merger. The two online freelance marketplaces decided to pool resources. That fact, along with 30+ other freelancer sites, shows how the labor market is changing, with more hiring of independent workers being done online.
Crowdfunding Sites Grow
Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo became instrumental in funding startup projects. And sites like CrowdBrewed are springing up to represent niche markets like brewing. Meanwhile, the SEC issued “no action letters” that made it a bit easier to do online venture and angel crowdfunding.
Internet Sales Tax Heats Up, Stalls
The issue continues to divide small business owners, depending on their business interests. An effort to pass national legislation — the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act — appears stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, various states tried attacking related issues from another angle, by taxing affiliate marketing.
Printing Evolves From Laserjet to 3D
Traditional printing remained in demand, despite our move to electronic data. The HP laserjet turned 30 years old and HP shipped its 200 millionth printer. But 2013 also was the year that saw 3D printing start to hit the mainstream (image above). Some UPS Stores now offer 3D printing to customers.
Bitcoin: Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing?
Bitcoin, the alternative virtual currency, was much discussed throughout 2013. Some Web entrepreneurs use it because it makes it harder to track their money. However, Bitcoin has a long way to go to catch on with mainstream small businesses.
Privacy and Security Woes Increase
By now you’ve read about the NSA reading emails and listening to phone calls. But it’s not only the government digging into your privacy. News came out that Facebook knows more about you than you might think. And hackers found small businesses to be easy targets.