Levelling the playing field for the SME sector

With all of the attention given to Australia’s burgeoning crop of digital start-ups, you could be forgiven for thinking they are the only game in town when it comes to Australia’s capability to think differently and leverage new technology. However, the start-up sector only employs around 50,000 of the Australian workforce compared to around 4.7 million people that the SME sector employs. The high-risk nature of start-ups unfortunately means most will fail long before they achieve the much-vaunted unicorn status of billion-dollar valuations.

Fostering an innovative culture

Innovation start-ups such as Canva, Airbnb and Uber are lauded for their willingness and ability to generate and develop new ideas, an approach which uncovers entirely new ways of solving problems.

The first lesson then for owners of existing businesses is to take a step back and seriously examine the way they work, and start looking for alternative, more efficient and cost-effective ways for accomplishing routine tasks and addressing issues.

Leveraging creativity and collaboration

Many start-ups also use a problem-solving process called design thinking, which places the customer at the centre of the creative process and builds solutions around their needs. This process has proven wildly successful – so much so that there is extensive literature available about how design thinking works and how it can be implemented.

No one individual has a monopoly on good ideas, and as organisations grow, employees can drift further and further apart, limiting the opportunities for sharing experiences and ideas. SME owners must examine whether their existing business structure places walls between different functions and stifles the flow of ideas, and, if so, ask whether creating teams might accelerate the process of turning ideas into higher productivity and revenue.

Inclusiveness and diversity at the core

Another hallmark of start-ups is how they foster inclusiveness and diversity of opinions in their decision-making. Bringing in people from different backgrounds and with differing levels of experience and skills can uncover new perspectives and shine a light on truths that might have otherwise been hidden.

The lesson here for SMEs is to involve more staff in decision-making processes. Ultimately, this can serve not only to stimulate the creation of new ideas but can also ensure those ideas have the broadest possible appeal, by taking into account the needs of different community members.

Digital technology powering businesses

Finally, one of the key factors that separates many start-ups from small businesses is their foundation in digital technology. While most start-ups transact over the web, they are often reliant on digital technology that provides the conduits through which good ideas can flow. The war for talent often means that start-ups hire employees all around the country, and around the world, then use digital collaboration tools to bring them together.

For small-business owners, these same tools are also critical both for intra-company communications as well as for keeping in touch with clients or customers. These tools include everything from a basic telephone service through to web tools and video conferencing, which are particularly vital in team-based environments that thrive on collaboration. After all, good ideas have a limited shelf life and need to be shared and brought to life quickly by the right people.

Putting it all together

Start-ups don’t have a monopoly on creative thinking, and SMEs across the country have access to every process, system or tool a start-up does.

Ultimately, the difference between start-ups and SMEs is more a question of disposition than capability. Small-business owners can reap the same benefits. All it takes is a willingness to try.

Ben White, Managing Director, Business & Wholesale, Optus

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