Expert predictions on the exploding trends reshaping small businesses in 2015

By: Thomas Neergaard Hansen, Vice President, Worldwide SMB, Microsoft

As a part of my job, I get to travel around the world to meet with small business owners and technology providers. In these meetings, we discuss everything from local challenges and changing business models to how technology enables them to grow, innovate and position their business well into the future. I love hearing stories of small companies that, despite a lack of capital, used technology to push the limits of what can be done. These conversations have made it very  clear that technology absolutely has an impact on SMBs’ bottom line – in fact, a recent study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) revealed that tech-savvy SMBs increase their annual revenues 15 percentage points faster and create jobs two times faster than SMBs using little technology.

With that in mind, I’d like to take an opportunity to drill down on key technology trends that will impact small businesses in the coming year. Yesterday, my colleague Susan Hauser offered her insights on the top business technology trends to look out for in 2015. While small businesses will undoubtedly see some of the same trends emerge in their business, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data, we also predict that small businesses will take even more advantage of mobile technology, and we expect to see industry-specific mobile applications and mobile payments gaining more ground.

Technology That Works for You

Susan discussed the benefits of machine learning and predictive analytics for some of our enterprise customers, but these technologies are not just for big business anymore. Small businesses will also see ways that increasingly intelligent technologies can work for them and ultimately make them more successful in 2015.

We are at a tipping point when it comes to intelligent technologies, and it all starts with IoT. People have been anticipating the day when virtually all electronics are connected to the Web for years, and in 2015 the idea of IoT will become a tangible reality for businesses of all sizes. Many small businesses may feel overwhelmed by IoT, but we they can succeed by starting small with a few changes that can make a big impact. The Internet of Your Things, as we like to refer to it at Microsoft, is not about ripping and replacing technologies. It’s about leveraging what companies already have and adding to their existing systems so everything works better together. Here are a couple of examples:

  • A local retailer can think about how smarter point of sale (POS) terminals can increase cross-selling and up-selling opportunities, how sensors that monitor traffic patterns throughout a store can better facilitate customer service interactions and how they can track shelf inventory data in real time through a device to better meet customer demand.
  • A small manufacturer can add sensors to the factory floor that can “talk” to diagnostic monitors to improve production efficiency and reduce down time.

IoT offers an opportunity to gather insights like never before, and we believe it will help small businesses get away from just running a business to finding ways to make it thrive.

With the help of mobile digital assistants, small business owners and their employees can spend less time worrying about mundane activities and instead focus on running their business.

Another area we will see technology impacting small business is mobile digital assistants. From a sales perspective, Gartner predicted that by the end of 2016, more than $2 billion in online shopping will be performed exclusively by mobile digital assistants. And for small business owners and employees, mobile digital assistants like Cortana can help manage the little things so they can focus on the big things instead. With the power of Bing behind her, Cortana gets to know you. She keeps track of things that interest you, makes helpful suggestions, reminds you of meetings and appointments and helps you stay closer to the people that matter most. With the help of mobile digital assistants, small business owners and their employees can spend less time worrying about mundane activities and instead focus on running their business.

Going Deeper With Mobile: Niche Apps and Mobile Payments Gain More Ground

In 2014, small business realized the competitive advantage offered through mobile technologies. Take Dan Prud’homme of Carolina Realty Group as an example. Through Windows 8 devices and cloud services like Office 365, his office is nearly paperless, and he’s able to truly enable a mobile workforce of employees who connect more quickly and reliably in the office or out in the field. He also uses Skype to meet with remote buyers and conduct virtual tours of properties. With this example in mind, it’s not surprising that BCG revealed that nearly half of all small businesses surveyed said technologies such as cloud and mobile have helped create more satisfied customers – and 42 percent said they resulted in better customer relationships. Roughly the same number said their employees get more done in the same amount of time thanks to technologies like cloud and mobile.

Of course, suggesting that mobile will have a major impact on the small business landscape isn’t much of a surprise. The interesting details, however, are found in how mobility will continue to provide vast benefits and opportunities for small businesses in the coming year.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • Small Businesses Invest in Industry-specific Mobile Applications: Christopher Chute, research vice president for global SMB cloud, mobility and digital imaging research at IDC, recently told ChannelPro, “look for 2015 to be the year of the niche in mobility, as developers introduce a steady stream of apps aimed at specific scenarios involving specific user populations in specific industries, like building contractors, physical therapists and field service personnel.” He also predicts we will see more workflow-centric, mobility-driven types of applications in 2015, like Office 365, SharePoint and OneDrive in particular. These kinds of applications that are tailored specifically to industries, job functions or roles have the potential to increase productivity for small business owners and employees.

    We expect to see new solutions gain momentum that offer small businesses more choice, flexibility and the ability to integrate with existing technologies.

  • Mobile Payments Gain More Ground: Following broad adoption of mobile payment solutions such as Square, Softcard and PayPal in 2014, 2015 will continue to see a rapid increase in mobile commerce and payments. We expect to see new solutions gain momentum that offer small businesses more choice, flexibility and the ability to integrate with existing technologies. This means small business not only need a mobile-optimized website, but they will also need mobile-enabled POS solutions that are integrated into their back-end infrastructure to help manage inventory.

SMBs Will Begin Harnessing the Power of Big Data

Big data is often considered to be the realm of big business, but small businesses are increasingly realizing they can use the data at their disposal to make more intelligent business decisions.  In 2015 many small businesses will learn how to put their data to work for them, using it to identify business opportunities, drive internal efficiencies and more thoroughly understand their customers. Big data helps organizations take a proactive approach to managing their business in the best way possible. For example, a small retailer can apply new insights to optimize its assortment of products, pricing and timing of promotions to best increase sales during key times throughout the year, such as Black Friday or Valentine’s Day, as well as during traditionally slow times of year.

Also, with IoT taking hold in 2015, small businesses will have access to more data than ever before. To avoid data-fatigue, small businesses need to figure out what key pieces of data are critical for their business. And with the growth of cloud computing, they can count on having access to anytime, anywhere data and apps at lower costs than ever before.

The novel idea for 2015 is how the availability of IT resources enabled by the cloud will allow more small businesses to begin using these technologies to their greatest benefit.

While the technologies highlighted in these predictions aren’t new, the novel idea for 2015 is how the availability of IT resources enabled by the cloud will allow more small businesses to begin using these technologies to their greatest benefit. And research has shown that those benefits can be very tangible –BCG credits technologies like cloud and mobile with not only improving  the  efficiency and productivity of small businesses, but also, and perhaps most importantly, their ability to compete and succeed. Whether generating insights and efficiencies with IoT and data analytics, or better connecting with customers through mobile solutions, small businesses have the opportunity to compete with larger counterparts like never before.

Can’t wait to see where the next year takes us. Bring on 2015!

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