This speed has its costs, however. Due to their size, small businesses don’t have the capital to cushion a poorly-implemented change. For example, the rise of smartphones and linked technology means we can work from anywhere, but also presents security issues. One socially engineered employee could spell the loss of important client information.
Savvy small businesses work in the sweet spot between early adoption and cautious observance. Inasmuch as new technology introduces risk, it also gives your business an opportunity to grow. Get a jump on the future; prepare your company for these seven tech trends that will change the way small businesses operate in 2017.
1. Chatbots, AI, and machine learning
AI is a computer’s ability to think for itself based on prior knowledge. Machine Learning is the practice of building all the algorithms that help the computer to think for itself. The combination of these technologies is making communication with customers and stakeholders easier through automation.
Look for intelligent apps that use machine learning to curate content, data, or products for customers. In the not-so-distant future, retail transactions might take place through a chat model, where the user logs into an instant message app, tells the chatbot what they want, and the AI offers the best fit based on current stock. This technology could also find its way into support channels where AI locates help documents, bypassing support professionals. AI can work in any chat interface, including phone apps, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Hipchat and SMS.
Slack users already interact with the basic AI chatbot, “Slackbot.” This bot uses simple programs to get weather, serve you a GIF, remind you of an appointment at a day and time, and even speak to other apps.
2. BYOD and MDM
In mid-2015, International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasted that nearly 75 percent of the workforce will be mobile by 2020. A more mobile workforce means more vulnerable data, especially in workplaces with a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy. When your employees check email and sensitive customer information on their personal devices, that data can be exposed to threats.
One stolen phone, laptop, or tablet can put your security at risk. Data segregation or “containerization” solves this problem by putting company-owned or sensitive data in silos on all devices. Even small companies need to defend themselves against hacking and social engineering, so secure connections are critical. Mobile device management (MDM) systems help enforce some of these policies, but we’re starting to see more of those systems become native apps. Safari, for instance, lets you bookmark particular URLs that require VPN access. Small businesses in particular can’t afford to open themselves to a security risk.
As mobile productivity becomes increasingly plausible, more business units will (and should) adopt information systems with mobile-friendly interfaces or native mobile apps. For example: cloud-based ERP software with an app for tracking time and expenses and viewing real-time data on the go.
3. Remote offices
Most people who haven’t experienced it for themselves imagine the remote office as a Silicon Valley hipster trend or a form of staycation where the employee works from bed or the beach. While there is a higher incidence of pajamas in remote offices, the dull reality is that most remote workers carve an office out of their homes or the local coffee shop with the strongest wifi connection. And they’re actually productive. Sure, meetings happen on Google Hangouts or Skype, but technology keeps people in touch.
There’s a financial gain behind working remotely: the U.S. alone could stand to save more than $700 billion if those who had jobs suited to remote work could do so. As asynchronous communication through email and chat services becomes ubiquitous, remote workers can batch their tasks and use the long uninterrupted times to get more work done. No celebrations from the sales team or cupcakes to distract you from your work, and the lack of commute saves time, money and oil.
Real estate is expensive, and when your staff gathers virtually, you can save that overhead and expand your talent pool across geographic boundaries.
If your store doesn’t have an e-commerce site, potential clients will go elsewhere. Some buyers don’t purchase anything that can’t be delivered, while others are looking for niche products from undiscovered sellers.
Etsy posted growth numbers again in the second quarter of 2016, as companies of all sizes move to the platform. E-commerce sales alone are expected to reach more than $4 trillion by 2020, twice the projection for 2016. Small businesses need to jump on this opportunity and put their products on the web. Now.
Over the past few decades, the job market has shifted from a focus on manufacturing and production to services. The newest trend, as you may have noticed, is even more nuanced: connection-as-a-service. Think Uber or Amazon. Despite a recent U.K. legal decision, Uber maintains that it connects contract drivers to riders in need. Amazon connects sellers to folks who need important provisions (and weird stuff too), and will even bring you groceries.
Connecting customers to services and products is big business, but small businesses can invest in this trend, too. Lots of small businesses are partnering with connection services to make their products more accessible via the gig economy and the delivery economy.
6. Subscription-based businesses
In the same vein as connection-as-a-service businesses, companies are moving toward subscription-based models. Subscription services + automated payments = win. Also, subscriptions let you budget and make sales projections because clients pay a recurring monthly fee rather than a single flat payment.
Subscriptions are taking over in monthly beauty or shaving boxes, wine delivery, e-learning, healthy snacks, crafting, chore completion, you name it. Subscriptions can be built into nearly any service or industry. Combine the thrill of getting a package in the mail or a completed to-do list with the ease of automatic payments. Everyone wins.
7. Influencer marketing
Billboards and radio spots are a thing of the past, but social media rules our lives. Instead of paying for ad spaces on traditional channels, influencer marketing gives the microphone to key “influencers” who have the ear or eye of large groups of people.
Think the Kardashians and product placement on all of their social channels, but with more clarity, and perhaps a better reputation. Remember, you have to disclose if you pay an influencer to promote your product. That doesn’t mean leveraging important clients doesn’t pay off. Influencer marketing has the ability to reach niche and untapped markets and is particularly helpful when targeting millennial customers—who, as Katie Elfering of Forbes reminds us, want to “feel informed and involved instead of marketed to.”
None of these tech trends are particularly mind-blowing to the informed small business owner, but what may be a game-changer in 2017 is the increased rate of change and adoption that we’ll see. Technology tends to have a flywheel effect: adoption breeds faster adoption, which breeds even faster adoption. One thing is certain about 2017: technology will move quickly.