10 Small Business Trends and Opportunities

Trends webinar for Intuit CommunityWhat are some of the key trends affecting small businesses?  And more importantly, what do these trends mean and what kind of opportunities will they lead to for your business?

These are the questions we answered in a recent webinar I hosted for the Intuit Community.

I was joined by a special guest:  Ivana Taylor.  We discussed 10 trends affecting large groups of small businesses.

Here’s a summary of the 10 trends we covered in the  webinar:

1.  “It’s the Software, Stupid” — The word “stupid” is not a word I typically use. But I couldn’t resist the play on words to emphasize a point.  In this context it describes the accelerating growth of cloud computing, and the de-emphasis on hardware locally in small businesses.  Now this does NOT mean we small businesses are going to go out and get rid of all of our servers this year.  But it does mean we’re getting closer to the point where one day all we may need to run our businesses is to equip each employee with a computer, browser and Internet connection. The rest of our computing will be handled “in the cloud.”

  • Implications: Software as service applications grow; online backup grows.  The skills you and your team will need in the future are the ability to choose SaaS applications and other cloud computing options, including apps that integrate with one another.  There will be less emphasis on hardware skills in-house. And since online apps are how many of us receive services, if you provide services to small businesses, look at “productizing” your services with at least a Web front end.  If you currently provide hardware services for small businesses such as installing and maintaining servers, look at rounding out your offerings with more “soft” services for small businesses, so that those offerings grow even as demand for hardware services declines.

2.  DIY Marketing Grows — Small businesses are becoming a group of do-it-yourself marketers.  In one sense this isn’t new. Small businesses have always handled some part of their marketing in-house.  What’s different now is the stunning array of marketing tools available — and the fact that there’s hardly any kind of marketing you can’t do on your own, with assistance from some online tool.  And the tools just keep coming.

  • Implications: Decide what makes sense to do internally, and what to farm out.  When hiring, look for people who are skilled at mastering these new marketing tools, and importantly, know how to search for them and test which ones to use.  And if you are a marketing agency, look at packaging up your expertise into online apps, to scale your marketing services and serve the growing do-it-yourself market.

3. “Green” is the Color of Business — Not everyone is committed to a sustainable environment with the same intensity.  But — for a strong minority of people, “green” is a key issue and one of the deciding factors when making purchase decisions. It remains to be seen how long this trend lasts, but it appears solid for the next 3 to 5 years.

  • Implications: Show your commitment through development of green products — and point out the green benefits to differentiate your business. If you can’t remake your product, take small steps like switching to recycled/recyclable packaging.  But don’t “greenwash” (i.e.,  attempt a green connection that’s not meaningful or sincere) — it will backfire.

4. Everyone can be a Celebrity — The phrase “personal brand” is popular these days.  It’s not just for actors.  Think Richard Branson using his personality to promote Virgin Airlines. Personal brand of  executives is becoming a key component of how savvy small businesses are promoting their businesses.  Example: Guy Kawasaki using his high profile to promote Alltop.com.

  • Implications: Don’t just put your company on Twitter.  Rather, give a human face to your company presence by having your company execs and managers establish their own voice online.  And if you are a single-person small business, instead of trying to look like a nameless faceless big business, revel in your personal approach.  Become known as an expert in your field, to grow your business through your personal brand.

5. The “Carry Your Computer” Trend — Look around and it becomes apparent that mobile devices (phones, etc.) are looking more like computers, and computers are looking more like mobile devices you slip into a pocket or bag. That means that increasingly your customers will be interacting with you via mobile devices or very small computers (netbooks, sub-netbooks and tablets).

  • Implications: Get your business prepared for mobile customers. (1) Set up a mobile template for your website at an “M Dot” subdomain.  Also make sure your website is viewable in smaller netbook screens (note: what’s “above the fold”  looks radically different on a netbook screen because it is shorter).  (2) Make email marketing messages mobile friendly. (3) Start building an opt-in mobile text messaging list. (4) Make sure your business can be found easily via mobile search.  If you are looking for revenue opportunities, consider these:  if you are a  Web design firm, add a “mobile package” to your design offerings (i.e., create mobile templates and mobile apps). Marketers, get good at advising your clients on mobile marketing options, including mobile analytics.

6.  Location Based Presence  — The Web used to do a better job connecting buyers and sellers across the country than it did those across town.  But the ability to connect the online and the offline world when it comes to location has gotten much more sophisticated.  It’s becoming easier for customers and prospects to find and interact with vendors and providers locally, using the Web.  Location-based applications, local listings, local search — have gotten “smarter” and made big strides in the past year.

  • Implications: To make the most of these dramatic improvements, claim/update all your local listings in search engines such as Google and Bing. Use a service like GetListed.org to help.  Optimize your website for local traffic.  Offer discounts and coupons to local customers via Yelp, Merchant Circle and Twitter.  Develop community online to enhance offline loyalty, at Facebook and other places.  And get to know how your customers may be using FourSquare.com.

7.  Government Contracting Grows — In the past there’s been more lip service paid to government contracting than reality.  But in the current political environment, there’s a lot of government spending.  And whether you agree with the growth of government contracting or not, the fact is, someone has to get those contacts.  Better that it be small businesses.

  • Implications: If you aren’t currently involved in government contracting, one of the better ways to break in is through subcontracting with a larger company.  Due to specific set-aside programs, you may have an edge if you are a Veteran-, Woman- or Minority-owned business. Dawn Rivers Baker of the Microenterprise Journal suggests registering in the Federal Contractor Database and visiting the SBA’s Contracting Education Center. Also contact a local PTAC counseling center.

8.  Harder to Get Found Online — Today there are far more websites online than there were 3 years ago — and with it so easy to make content and post it online and compete for top spots in the search engines … well, it is getting harder to be found.  Three years from now there will be even more competition for online eyeballs.

  • Implications: Don’t delay — develop internal expertise in online marketing and online technologies for marketing.  Shift more of your marketing spend online.  Get outside SEO / SEM help, too — don’t make the mistake of thinking SEO is easy.  It’s not voodoo, but it is a specific skill.  For revenue opportunities, recognize that there are an endless range of  marketing apps yet to be built to help other small businesses compete online.  Analytics and analytic consultants will be needed.

9. Crowdsourcing Customers — This trend is about your customers giving input to help you develop new products and services.  To some degree small businesses have always used this option, whether the old-fashioned suggestion box or in recent years, focus groups and phone surveys. But the options for gaining input from customers quickly and dirt cheap have exploded with social media and the Internet.

  • Implications: Create a “space” on your website or blog where customers can give feedback. Try out one of the customer suggestion/idea applications like UserVoice.com, Ideascale.com or GetSatisfaction.  Create a presence on Twitter or Facebook as another outlet for customers.  Don’t just push information out on social media. Listen — really listen!  It can lead you to new products or better ways to deliver services.

10.  More Sole Proprietorships — One thing that we know is that during and in the aftermath of recessions, more  people who are out of work will turn to starting their own businesses.  Whether these people are still business owners in 3 or 5 years remains to be seen. But at least in the near term, interest in starting businesses is high and so is the desire for products and services to set up and get going in business.

  • Implications: Those providing products and services to startup businesses, should see increased demand. Price your products to enable startups to get through the early years when money is tight — perhaps building recurring revenue that can grow as their startups grow.  If you are looking for businesses to start, these typically require little startup capital and may not require highly-specialized training or degrees:  pet businesses;  kids products;  Web businesses; consulting for your former employer or industry; virtual assistants; apps development; home based franchises.

For all the insights, please listen to the archived Intuit webinar.

How do you suggest capitalizing on these trends?  Share your ideas below.

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.