From cloud collaboration to transforming the customer experience with social media, digital technology can revolutionise the way SMEs operate. But ensuring they invest in the right tools and tech can pose significant challenges.
The UK’s 5.6 million small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine of the country’s economy, employing 16.3 million people and generating a combined annual turnover of £2 trillion.
However, despite the sector’s energy and dynamism, it still struggles with one stubborn problem: productivity. Helping UK companies get more from less remains a priority, with a range of remedies already up and running – chief among them a concerted effort to get more SMEs to embrace the wealth of readily available digital technologies on offer.
With their relatively low overheads and installation costs, the right digital tools can dramatically improve productivity without causing significant disruption to the day-to-day running of a business.
Whether it’s cloud accounting software, workflow management tools or e-commerce functions, digital tools – and the skills needed to identify the right tools and use them effectively – can elevate businesses to the next level of growth.
However, there is clearly work to be done: the latest FSB Spotlight on Innovation report revealed some startling facts that illustrate
the scale of the challenge. The report highlights that:
27 per cent of small businesses considering digital innovation believe it to be too challenging or disruptive to their business
43 per cent believe that they simply do not have the time to implement new innovations
Fewer than half (40 per cent) of small businesses have made use of cloud applications or services.
These issues – and others – were discussed at a recent First Voice/Virgin Media Business roundtable in London. The event brought together small business owners, technology companies and senior FSB figures to discuss how and why SMEs are harnessing the power of new digital tools to grow their businesses.
For Rebecca Bright, the award-winning co-founder of Therapy Box, the importance of digital cannot be overstated: “It’s our bread and butter,” she says, pointing out that whether it’s Therapy Box’s software developers using tools to create the company’s pioneering products or staff members chatting daily on Slack with clients and collaborators, Ms Bright and her team are the epitome of a digitally-enabled growing business.
However, while Ms Bright illustrates how digital adoption can truly underpin a small business’s rise, there’s little doubt that, for others, finding and introducing the right tools is not simple. Anne Iarchy, who runs her own weight loss company AI Fitness, explains that finding the right people to help is a key challenge. “We’re all busy in our own businesses, so it becomes a question of: who can you trust to give you the right advice for what you need?”
Even with the help of tech vendors, it can be hard to navigate the market, especially when tools that are sold as cutting-edge can soon become obsolete. “You might sign up to one particular email marketing service today but, a few years on, you might choose something else,” adds Ms Iarchy. “I don’t have the resources to migrate everything over to a new system, so you can find yourself stuck.”
Clearly, tech companies should be instrumental in helping their customers choose flexible tools that enable growth and development. Dave Ferry, National SME Field Sales Lead at Virgin Media Business, says they try to make it as easy as possible for SMEs to change their requirements as the business takes off. “It may be that they need more bandwidth or a faster connection, or more voice lines,” he says. “The challenge for smaller companies is keeping up with the pace of change, which can be really tough.
Big businesses like ours have a responsibility to try and guide SMEs through that.”
Lars Andersen, the founder and CEO of My Nametags, agrees that tech companies are a vital part of the solution. But to really make a difference, he says, they must speak the language of SMEs. “I think tech vendors have to explain the benefit of their tools in a clear, specific way. Simply saying, ‘This tool will improve productivity’ isn’t enough. It has to be: this will help you save an hour a week. People haven’t got time to do a deep dive into the functionality; they need to know in 280 characters.”
Julian Hall, founder and CEO of Ultra Education, offers some advice on how best
to test the water with new digital apps.
“The way we approach tech is key: we don’t implement, we experiment. That means that we try lots of tools: download them and play around with them. And a few days of doing that can help you work out whether it integrates into your business.”
Mr Hall is now able to run Ultra largely from his phone, using apps like Slack and Instagram to communicate, collaborate, research and sell. The company’s diffuse workforce all work on documents stored on Google Drive, a relatively cheap and low-tech tool that offers connectivity and scalability as the company grows.
The user-friendliness of these consumer-facing tools is a boost to smaller organisations. “It needs to be easy to introduce,” Mr Hall explains. “Gone are the days when things can take a long time to implement and unplug – it needs to be fast, easy and convenient. That’s a big advantage for SMEs. Product developers know that their competitors are around the corner so the differentiator is responsiveness, service and support.”
The opportunities are out there – many of the most useful tools our panellists use are free for SMEs to use – but obstacles remain. Without a doubt, though, UK SMEs are ready to ride the digital wave.