The Future of Small Business Technology

A recent report predicts what technology will look like in the future and discusses what companies should be doing now to stay ahead.

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By Ramon Ray

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I'm not a huge fan of studies that predict the future, but I do respect those that try. Their job is to look at the past, analyze the present and conduct surveys to gain insight into the future. Based on all of this information, researchers try to provide a road map for what's to come.

In this case, Intuit, working with the Institute for the Future, found that tomorrow's successful small business owners will be far more reliant on technology than today's entrepreneurs. They'll be more connected in a mobile world, market to customers in ways only imagined today and blur the lines between the virtual and physical worlds. The findings are part of the "Intuit Future of Small Business Report: Technology Trends and Small Business," the second installment of the three-part "Future of Small Business" series.

What's happening in business is what's happening in our personal lives. My own children, from their birth, have been immersed in a culture of technology. My daughter, as a toddler, was playing with my PDA. My son's entertainment is watching NFL video clips online, and he has his own football blog. I, on the other hand, grew up in the '80s, when computers were still thought of as special tools that not everyone owned, and Word Perfect for DOS was the reigning champion.

This study of the future indicates that small businesses will continue to go through a similar evolution in their own use of technology. The study predicts that technology will revolutionize the nature of running a small business and identifies three emerging technology trends:

1. "On my time, on my terms"--In a connected world, small business owners will have even more flexibility in running their businesses.

2. Global, local, virtual--The evolution of the web will fuel small business formation, operations and innovation, especially as technology becomes cheaper and social networking and virtual worlds become more popular.

3. From "push" to "pull"--The small business marketing approach will shift from "push" to "pull" as consumers begin seeking out product information rather than accepting what they're told by companies.

In addition to these emerging tech trends, Brad Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit's QuickBooks business unit, told me he sees three significant things happening in small business technology now:

1. Companies are doing more not only to make it easier for small businesses to find products, but also to find the right products.

2. Peers helping peers is on the rise. With the increase in social networking, it's much easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs to find each other and get help. Sure, SCORE's thousands of counselors will always be around, but with self-help sites from Dell, Intuit, Constant Contact and other companies, not to mention LinkedIn, Plaxo, Ryze and more, it's much easier to get help from your peers.

3. Vendors are listening more to what customers are saying. I recently had the honor of moderating a technology event with Michael Dell to launch a new line of computers for small businesses. (Click here to listen to the webcast.) Why is Dell doing this? The company is listening to its customers and knows it must evolve and grow with customers to keep them. HP and Lenovo, Dell's arch rivals, are doing the same.

What This Means for You
Mobile technology will be increasingly important as small business owners, their employers, their partners and their customers demand anytime-anywhere communication, collaboration and access to each other.

The mantra that "the world is flat" is going to be an asset and a challenge for small businesses. In the past, going global was something that big companies primarily did. But now, thanks to technology, more and more small businesses are finding customers and competitors all over the globe. Technology is connecting New York and New Zealand, and Russia and Rwanda.

Selection of specific information by recipients is going to explode. We'll always have direct mail and TV, for example, which blasts a message to many. But by using technologies such as RSS and podcasts, more and more small businesses and their customers will be able to specifically select what information they wish to receive. Traditional mass media will evolve to niche media.

If your small business is not using technology as a tool to grow, you're set up for future failure. Your competitors that are preparing themselves for the future are going to take your customers and your best employees.

You might still be in business 10 years from now, but you'll find that competitors who are able to do more with less, maximize their resources and adapt to their changing customer base are going to be the thriving small businesses of the future.

Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and currently serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.

Ramon Ray

Ramon Ray is editor of SmallBizTechnology.com and author of Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses.

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