Yesterday, I got the following notification from LinkedIn:
As you can see, that second one got my attention! It’s been 15 years this month since Anita Campbell started Small Business Trends! So, after congratulating her on such a big accomplishment, I had to ask her about her journey transforming a personal blog into one of the most influential sites providing advice to millions of small business owners and professionals each month.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the full interview, check out the video or the embedded SoundCloud player below.
Small Business Trends: First of all, congratulations. Does it even feel like it’s been 15 years?
Anita Campbell: Well, in some senses it does and in other senses it’s like I just started the site yesterday. In fact, when I go back and I look and I see articles that I wrote in 2004 and I can’t even believe it and how much has changed since then, it’s just … Things that we thought were unique back then are today just commonplace. And so, it’s still very different.
Small Business Trends: So, let me take you back to 2003 when you were just really getting started. Could you ever have imagined back then where you’d end up with Small Biz Trends today with millions of people visiting the site? I don’t know how many thousands, tens of thousands of pages of content, and just all that Small Biz Trends has meant to a lot of small businesses and startups.
Anita Campbell: In one sense, no. Of course, I had dreams, but I didn’t actually dream that it would go down the path it went down.
So, I’ve often told the story of how I started Small Business Trends, because I wanted a place just to get some newsletter articles up online. And a friend said, “Oh, you should go over and try a blog. And there’s this place called blogger.com and you can publish online instantly”.
And I was like, “Oh, blog. All right”. I had heard of blogs, but they were more like personal journals back then in 2003 and people were just writing about their lives and so on. LiveJournal was really big back then. And Blogger was the king of the hill when it came to blogging software. Movable Type and a TypePad came along as well, but those were more nitchy.
So, I started blogger.com. I couldn’t believe it. It was like I’d been spending days struggling, using Dreamweaver software to try to load articles online and I’d hit the back key and I’d destroy everything. Everything would fall apart on me. And here was Blogger. It was so easy.
So, I started out just publishing some newsletter articles and before I knew it, more people were coming to the site than were reading the newsletter. And that’s when I realized, “Oh, I should be spending more time writing online. The newsletter is fine, but really online publishing is where it’s at”. So, that was back in 2003.
Small Business Trends: So, over that course of those 15 years, what has been the biggest change that you’ve noticed in small business?
Anita Campbell: Well, when it comes to small business, I think what’s radically changed is how important the online world is to small business, even for brick and mortar businesses, ones who get most of their customers locally. I mean, almost everyone that I know that is trying to market their business is doing something online, depending on what their market is.
So, if they provide home services, for example, they’re on homeadvisor.com or they go to nextdoor.com and they’re promoting their business there. Realtors have drastically changed what they’re doing so that they’re doing much more marketing of real estate properties online.
So, any industry just about, certainly any that serve consumers, are definitely more online savvy today. And sometimes I feel like that stat you often hear like, “Oh, well, only 50% of small businesses have a website”. First of all, I’m not sure I buy that number. I think it’s higher, but beyond that, I think that it’s irrelevant today, because a lot of businesses are getting leads from these central marketplace sites. Or they’re using a platform such as … I know you talk a lot about Amazon.
Think of how many eCommerce sellers are selling through Amazon or through Etsy if they’re into the handmade market or through Ebay if they’re that kind of seller. So, to them, a website may be somewhat irrelevant if they’re really doing most of their selling through one of these platforms.
Small Business Trends: And what’s the one thing that’s remained consistent over those 15 years?
Anita Campbell: I think what’s remained consistent and probably just become more and more of a factor is how important technology is, but yet, how baffling it is when you’re a small business, to figure it out.
It used to be that people were struggling with computers and they struggled with a lot of security issues. And those still may be issues, but I think what’s become a bigger issue today is that they’re just so many software and apps out there that it’s become baffling to try to figure them out and to figure out what you should use in your business. And how to get yourself and your team up to speed on them.
It’s not just about you. You might be very open and desirous of moving to a new software, but if your team is used to doing things a certain way, if they use one kind of software and you come along and say to them, “Hey, there’s this great thing. It’s got all these bells and whistles. Let’s try this”. They’re thinking, “Oh, that’s just more work I’ve got to do”. So, you have to sell them on it as well. And they’re overwhelmed, because they have to know so much.
As a sales rep, you’re not just picking up the phone and calling. Now you have to know how to use tools like CRM and prospecting tools. And you have to be savvy about social media and how to go out and find people and connect with people on social media. So, the bar is just a lot higher.
Small Business Trends: So, what do you think the current state of affairs is for small business today?
Anita Campbell: Well, right now I think the economy is doing well, so I think a lot of them are feeling optimistic and doing well, because of that. I think some industries struggle. So, irrespective of the economy, if you happen to be in an industry where, maybe you’re being disintermediated and you haven’t figured out how to make that transition, things may look different for you.
And the best advice that I can give any small business is, if your industry is under attack, and I use that “attack” loosely, but if your industry is rapidly changing and the old way that you did things is no longer working, because maybe there are big players in there or there are these shifts or customer behavior is changing, the best thing that you can do is really just don’t feel like it’s the end of the world. Step back. Look at what’s changing. Look how you can leverage something.
If you’re in retail or eCommerce and you feel like some big players are out there, is there a way that you can leverage that and maybe use their platform? And even if it’s a dual strategy for a while, maybe you’re still doing things the old way for a while as you grow this other channel.
Those are important things to do. What I can tell you is, you can’t stand still. You’re not going to be able to turn back the clock.
Small Business Trends: We hear about the voice assistants thing. We hear about AI. We hear about a number of things. What technology do you feel that small businesses should really concentrate on more over some of the other things we’re hearing about today?
Anita Campbell: I do think artificial intelligence is the next great leveler of the playing field. So, it’s not just about any technology. It’s really about the technology you can gain leverage from.
How do you gain leverage? Well, you gain leverage by, you do a little bit, but you’re able to achieve a lot. So, think about you have a big boulder. You’ve got to move a boulder. You get a crowbar and you stick it under the boulder and that gives you leverage and you can move this heavy boulder that you could never move on your own, just pushing against it.
So, that’s how you really have to think about technology. How do you gain leverage? What technologies will give you leverage? And that’s where I think the beauty of artificial intelligence comes in, because artificial intelligence enables you to analyze and make use of data, let’s say, that you couldn’t otherwise do, because you wouldn’t have enough staff in-house to do that using ordinary tools. You wouldn’t be able to do that at the level that’s really going to give you that leverage to compete with much larger companies and get ahead of your competition.
I think that what artificial intelligence does is it really helps you do so much more, achieve so much more, without putting in as much manual effort, without spending on a lot of staff. You can keep your expenses relatively low or lower and gain a lot from it. So, that’s why I’m a huge believer in it. We use it in some applications in our company and it’s totally transformed our business in ways I could never have expected.
Small Business Trends: Well, that is awesome and awesome advice. And, once again, congratulations on 15 years, 15 more and beyond hopefully to come. And thank you for letting me be a part of Small Business Trends as well.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.