Trends are a funny thing: By definition they are fleeting in nature, yet imperative for staying relevant; and it's often difficult to know which trends are important and which ones aren't.
On a personal level, the ramifications of being "out of it" are less egregious than from a business standpoint. Will your reputation be soiled or will you lose your home if you don't have the latest high-wasted jeans; or if you're not aware of which celebrities have recently gotten married, divorced, or something in between? Probably not. But if you fail to understand where your customers or market is headed, you may be issuing your own ticket to an empty concert.
In today's noisy environment, where everyone with access to a blog, media, or publisher's platform can assume an expert point of view, trends can seem as opaque as the American healthcare system. That is to say: No one really knows what is going on or what matters. My antidote to this problem of noise pollution, when I'm attempting to formulate a practical and useful opinion, is to read and listen to those who have ridden the waves for decades and are still standing (usually at the top).
When it comes to small business trends, Erik Day (Vice President & GM, North America Small Business at Dell Technologies) has a front row seat. Situated inside one of the most expansive technology solutions companies on the planet, he has a front row seat to what matters and what doesn't. I sat down with him recently and picked his brain, so that I could inform both my own business decisions and those of my customers.
Trend #1: Digital transformation
Digital transformation and disruption are topics more often heard in enterprise board rooms, but there are technology trends impacting small businesses too. There are many examples of startups disrupting an established industry: Uber in transport and Airbnb in travel are just two that spring to mind. They may be billion dollar companies now, but they were once just small startups with smart ideas.
"Small business is perfectly posed to disrupt the IT space," says Day. He sees AR, VR and gaming design as areas small businesses can innovate. Two examples are a virtual reality app that lets you see how a piece of furniture would look in your home and fashion boutiques that use technology to provide an enhanced shopping experience.
For small businesses, this trend translates to looking at your entire business model and asking the question: How do we become digital friendly? Whether you're a tree-trimming business or a small boutique, refusing to jump on board with digital transformation will eventually have dire consequences. This may be as simple as making sure you have a functional website, to something as game changing as making the decision to accept credit cards or mobile payments.
Trend #2: IT strategy
The dizzying pace of technological innovation may seem daunting to entrepreneurs and the majority of small businesses say they try to stay abreast of innovation on their own. This may, in fact, not be the best way to go. "Focus on what you're good at and look for ways to outsource things that aren't leading to innovation," suggests Day. "It's an 'anti-DIY mentality' in a sense. Find a reliable and trustworthy partner who can help you put a three to five year IT strategy together."
This kind of partnership can help small businesses innovate and stay competitive. Scalability is often an issue for a small business with big growth plans. Some larger enterprises are providing innovative solutions to help solve those problems for less mature companies.
Dell Technologies' years of experience serving small businesses has led them to a method and a process for entrepreneurs. "We want to be a resource for developing the near-term plan and help these businesses craft an IT strategy that will make them as relevant and productive as possible."
Trend #3: Supplier diversity
One caveat Day stresses is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Intelligently crafted partnerships can definitely help a business remain competitive, but relying on only one source of input can lead to trouble.
"In my 18 years at Dell I've seen the value of diversity in suppliers and partnerships," explains Day. "For us this means partnering with diverse suppliers too. It expands your views, you're exposed to other vantage points and you learn to understand their perspectives. The stories that some of those suppliers have are inspirational."
Trend #4: Cybersecurity
Another concern that touches all businesses, particularly those with a strong customer base, is cybersecurity. One in four small and medium businesses does not reopen when it is hit with a disaster. On average, a small business loses $3000 a day if it closes its doors, and 84 percent don't have disaster insurance.
"A small business that gets hacked or hit with ransomware can face a major disaster," warns Day. "94 percent of businesses don't back up critical financial data. We regard it as our job as a technology company to continue to pose the hard security questions and help our customers be fully prepared and protected.
Imagine if every small business in Florida had a solution like MozyPro. All they'd have had to do was push one button and all their data would have been backed up during the recent hurricane."
As is often the case, when entrepreneurs have so many other pressing things to think about, they neglect securing their data. Word to the wise: Dell now has a team dedicated to talking to current customers to ensure that they have the very best insurance on their computers. This means if you own any Dell product, you have a straight line to advanced customer care and advice.
Trend #5: Outsourcing
Although outsourcing has gotten a bad rap over the last couple of decades, it can help small businesses compete in the global search for talent, particularly while scaling and finding a sustainable path to revenue. At the top of the list for easy and affordable outsourcing options: IT strategy and assistance, marketing, design, accounting, and payroll.
"Don't be afraid to ask for help," advises Day. "Concentrate on making your product the best on the market and make sure your customer will buy it. If you're doing things that take time away from that it will be harder for you to be successful. Outsource those things."
Operating with an eye to the future
Even as you concentrate on your current operation, it is vital to keep one eye on the future.
"Millennials are changing the way businesses operate," says Day. "About 16 percent of SMB owners are millennials and the average age of entrepreneurs is now 27, not 35. So we have to look at who we plan to hire in the future and adapt for that."
This means having the right technology available to attract these bright, young employees. And the standard nine-to-five workday is fast becoming outdated. Businesses have to change how they are thinking about technology and work tools.
"At Dell we're having conversations with our customers about the cloud because there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the need for sharing and getting information faster will be imperative. And your data will be safer and more secure in the cloud."
Staying ahead of the trends is what has always allowed businesses to succeed even during unstable cycles and cultural changes. While it is important to remain flexible and adaptable, rest-assured, there are several levers you can put in place to anticipate and ride the inevitable waves of small business and startup ownership.