The year of 2013 was ripe with innovation, including the spread of 3D printing, big data analytics services, and crowdfunding tools—all of which continue to contribute to the ever improving world of small-business ownership.
The year ahead, though, is the one to take stock of your company's tech savvy and get in line. If your company is behind in the tech department, make it a priority to get back on track in 2014 by jumping onto the bandwagon with these three small business tech trends.
We asked small-business owners and experts about the key trends you should be watching. Here's what they had to say.
1. SaaS Stampede
In 2014, we'll see an increasing move towards small businesses using cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) products, rather than downloadable software, many of our interviewees told us. SaaS products are hosted in the cloud, rather than on the user's machine, and they tend to be offered at more reasonable prices than comparable software options.
"We saw in 2013, the ability to work with web apps, at an affordable and scalable level, as small businesses began using apps like Google Drive and Dropbox to better manage their businesses," Jennifer Gehrt, founding partner of Seattle-based PR firm Communiqué PR. "In 2014, the continuation of this trend will be monumental for small-business owners, like myself, who haven't had the advantage of licensing expensive enterprise technologies in the past. It will allow us to spend less time managing administrative tasks and processes, and more time focusing on larger business goals."
Gehrt's team, for example, uses online project management tool Smartsheet to run every facet of the business, she says. "It allows us to be transparent with clients and has cut down on our time managing administrative tasks, like processing resumes or ordering lunches," she says.
In the past year alone, I've personally used dozens of SaaS products in my interactions with businesses: Project management tool Basecamp, point of sale system Breadcrumb, invoicing tool Freshbooks, email marketing service Mailchimp, customer service platform Zendesk, the list goes on.
If your small business isn't taking advantage of the many low-cost, high-quality SaaS products out there, start researching the options in the coming year.
2. Funding Fiesta
This year saw the rise and proliferation of crowdfunding, with platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo fueling the continued livelihood of countless small businesses—small businesses like Janel Johnson's Nevada-based botanical shop, which raised $14,000 on Kickstarter this month to expand production of its DIY bitters kits, one of which I'm now a proud owner.
While crowdfunded resources are helpful, digital loans are becoming a more viable option. In the coming year, we'll see further accessibility of institutional lending via online methods, says Chris Myers, co-founder and CEO at small business financial analytics dashboard provider BodeTree, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona. In the past, businesses had to go to a bank to apply for a loan, and even then smaller loan needs were typically tough to fill. Now, it's becoming easier for small businesses to apply for financing right from the comfort of their laptop or smartphone.
"Banks will start leveraging the vast amounts of data that exists in the SMB space to automate lending processes, increase communication with clients, and improve their core value proposition," Myers says. "The banks may be late to the technology game, but don’t underestimate their reach. They have the capital, market presence, and infrastructure to reassert their dominant market position in 2014."
In the past two years, banks funneled substantial resources towards developing online and mobile banking tools for customers—2014 will see a shift in focus towards small-business lending, Myers says.
Startups Kabbage and OnDeck are already tackling the space, offering easier access to loans ranging from $500 to $250,000. These startups made waves in 2013—2014 will be the year of that larger banks follow suit with online lending prowess, says Myers.
This month, I experienced the reality of quick, hassle-free online loans myself with CommonBond, loans specific to helping MBA students finance their education, benefiting the small business of "me" in this case. This seamless user experience—I had my loan approved in days after filling out a quick application—will likely translate more broadly to small business loans in the coming year.
"2014 will be the year that traditional lenders finally respond in a big way," Myers says. If your business is in the market for a loan, why not skip the bank visit and go right to the web? In 2014, you'll start to see many more digital-based borrowing options.
3. Mobile Madness
Depending on what report you read, mobile web browsing is set to outpace desktop browsing in either 2014 or 2015. Meanwhile, mobile purchases and smartphone adoption are skyrocketing worldwide. Mobile sales during the 2013 Cyber Monday event, for example, hit record highs, growing 55 percent over last year. In short, consumers are serious about their devices.
Small businesses, though, haven't caught up as quickly as they should. Let's hope 2014 is the year they finally get on board with the mobile future that we will all share.
"Whether you're a hairdresser or you're selling pizzas, it's no longer enough to just throw up a website and expect that to drive business," says Umang Dua, co-founder of New York-based handyman service provider Handybook. "Native mobile apps, mobile web, and responsive designs are concepts people will get used to... It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that 'mobile first' is a prudent strategy." Dua says businesses should be focusing on achieving a "one-click service delivery" experience for customers. The less friction to checkout, the better—let's get those conversion rates up, people!
"At a minimum, small businesses should have a mobile-optimized version of their website to help facilitate mobile shopping, including product research and actual purchases," says Matt Winn, marketing communications manager at e-commerce platform provider Volusion. "Beyond that, retailers will need to keep close tabs on their analytics to define what percentages of traffic are coming from mobile, tablet and desktop devices, then dissecting each segment to see where there are opportunities for optimization."
In 2014, start small—optimize your website for mobile—and then get down to the nitty gritty. The more ahead of the curve you are in mobile, the better off you'll be as mobile madness continues to set in.
What Trends Are You Watching?
As you head into the new year, think about the business resolutions that are going to take your business to the next level, add in a dash of the above tech trends, and get to work.
What small business tech trends are you watching in 2014? Share your thoughts in the comments below and feel free to strike up a conversation with me on Twitter: @ericaswallow.