How and Why Data Will Save Small Business

small business data collection

Small business is in the biggest decline since the industrial revolution.

They’re losing ground to bigger businesses, who, in addition to economies of scale, enjoy a data advantage. In today’s environment, companies with the ability to collect, analyze and decide based on data win. Technological breakthroughs will soon make big data universally accessible.

That’s great news for Main Street.

In a previous role as an analyst at Bain & Company, I spent most nights and weekends analyzing huge data sets in Excel and SQL. Our goal — arm clients with game changing insights based on data.

How can we become more profitable? Who are our best customers? What go-to-market channels are most effective? Bain claims that smart use of data allow its clients to outperform the S&P 500 by a factor of four to one.

Recently, the power of data has jumped from closed-door meetings and PowerPoint decks into complex software in multiple business disciplines, driving efficiency and revenue on all sides of enterprise business.

Joe Lagunda, the head of analytics and business intelligence at Starbucks, recently reminded consumers that Starbucks “knows who you are and why you’re different.” Starbucks uses this information to send timely, relevant marketing messages that make you more caffeinated, and Starbucks more profitable.

Small Business Data Collection

While these data-driven business strategies have long been beyond the reach of small businesses, the current technological trends help end the lead that their large counterparts have enjoyed for years.

First, small businesses have limited access to data. Large firms can aggregate data from millions of consumers to better identify trends and market conditions.

An independent small business has limited information. The rapid adoption of cloud computing will eliminate this data advantage. Cloud-based platforms are beginning to aggregate data from all their small business users, providing any one business with more data than they could collect themselves, similar to how consumers benefit from Google Maps crowdsourcing traffic data.

Second, small businesses lack the people and the systems to analyze large complex data sets. Components of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will solve this.

In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly argues that after a string of “pathetic failures” AI is finally ready for prime-time. Rather than just more advanced virtual personal assistants, real AI according to Kelly will be “more like Amazon Web Services — cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything”.

Right now, AI is behind everything from self-driving cars to Facebook’s news feed, to business tools like RelateIQ that analyze data and predict the best sales approach. Not only does AI have the potential to replace the activities of a Bain consultant, it will make complex enterprise software simple enough for a corner pottery business.

Finally, even with the right insights, small businesses often lack the resources to act. This is where automation comes into play. An easy consumer example in home automation is Nest’s thermostat which shuts off when it senses that no one is home. And enterprise businesses are benefiting from an abundance of automated solutions in the fast-growing field of sales and marketing software. While automation helps corporations be more effective, it actually enables small business owners to use the software in the first place because current solutions are too complicated.

The volume of behavioral and transactional data produced and tracked by small business is exploding and small business owners need help to take advantage of it.

Very soon, your small neighborhood coffee shop will have the same high tech tools that Starbucks enjoys today. They’ll know who their customers are, the last time they visited and, perhaps most importantly, when is the right time to offer a loyalty incentive, ask for a referral, or remind you to leave a review on their Google+ page.

When small businesses can manage and leverage complex data just as well as corporations do, they will once again gain a competitive edge.

Big Data Photo via Shutterstock


Stuart Wall Stuart Wall is CEO at Signpost, cloud-based marketing software that gives local businesses the power to build and manage customer relationships. Prior to Signpost, Stuart worked at Bain & Company, where he provided strategic advice to Fortune 500 companies and private equity firms. He received an MBA with distinction from the Harvard Business School.

7 Reactions
  1. The hardest part for me to see working is the AI component. It will only be as good as the programming going into it and intuition is hard to program. We’ll see how it works out.

  2. This is an informative read Stuart. The post reminded me of a TedX video about deep learning – AI learning complex tasks even without programming! I wonder how the business landscape will change when you combine that with big data.

  3. I think the biggest issue for small business is availability of data. They do not have all the systems in place and hence have only limited data to work with. Once they do have the data there are number of easy to use tools, such as Tableau that can help analyze it without requiring technical knowledge.