Let’s get the buzzwords out of the way up front, shall we? For small-business owners, the last two years have been ‘unprecedented’. We’ve seen more pivots and pirouettes than the Bolshoi Ballet and, quite frankly, we just want to move on from the COVID-19 conversation and figure out the ‘new normal’.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could pick up where we left off, dust off the ‘open for business’ signs and wait for the hungry throngs to beat down our door?
But business has fundamentally changed and so has consumer behaviour. Everything from exercise to medical appointments has become available online. QR codes are a universally accepted language and Australia Post research shows that November 2021 was the largest ever online shopping month in Australia, with a staggering 76 per cent increase from November 2019.
In just months, technology forever changed business – for business owners, suppliers and consumers. But what role can technology play in rebuilding our small-business sector after COVID?
Adopters and delayers
If we look at the age spread across small-business owners, you’ll quickly realise there are a whole lot of Gen Xers (over 40). In fact, over 63 per cent of all small-business ABNs are registered to people over 40. These folks (who include me) did not grow up as digital natives. The fast-moving nature of technology leaves many of us feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. There are too many options, not enough clarity and we’ve been burned by digital providers too many times.
“It’s time we start thinking of our technophobes as the client and put them at the centre of better solutions.”
I call this group my technophobes. They’re the ones who realise digitising their business could have huge upsides, but they don’t know where to start or whom to trust. So, they do nothing. They drag their heels and delay making decisions in the hopes an easy solution will present itself.
On the flipside of the coin are the early adopters. These are the folks who see opportunities in technology. And, while it’s not a club exclusive to the under 40s, those who don’t recognise a VHS or cassette tape certainly make up the majority.
They are quick to try the latest software or hardware. They invest in upgrading their knowledge and they aren’t shy about test-launching a new product or service to see how the market responds. They are nimble and they realise that some of what they trial won’t suit their long-term requirements, but they also know some will pay off hugely. I’ve observed that these adopters tend to grow faster and bigger. They typically employ more people and they often have more than one business venture at a time, so they’re always looking for ways to simplify and speed up their operations.
These two sides of the same technology coin (the adopters and delayers) represent a digital divide across the country. This is the divide we need to address to see significant growth within our small-business sector.
The role of government and corporations
So, how do we close this gap, overcome the technophobia and get small business humming again? To begin, the government needs to get serious about the situation. Research that CPA Australia conducted last year pointed to the major investment ($325 million) Singapore is making to assist small-business owners with their digital transformation. We’ve seen some investment at a federal level, and our state governments have offered some grants over the last few years. But we don’t have the grassroots ‘hand up’ kind of support that is required to make a difference.
Next comes the role of the corporate end of town. A sizeable group of corporations rely on small businesses as their clients. Let’s assume that 10 per cent of small businesses don’t make it through the next two years (and that’s a conservative figure). What would that mean for the bottom line of these corporations? Imagine the shareholders wondering what happened to their dividends. Think about the job cuts as the loss of small-business clients shrinks businesses. Corporations can avoid all this by assisting their small-business communities with understanding and implementing the various ways technology can streamline activities and increase profitability and improve sustainability.
The win for big business? Clients would have more reason to remain loyal. They would probably become even more profitable for the larger companies and they’d certainly be stickier to their products or services. The increased profitability that a digital transformation would deliver would far outweigh the short-term cost to government and corporations.
How do we overcome technophobia?
Beyond engagement from large organisations, we need to totally revamp our thinking on how we best assist our technophobic business owners. The general consensus has been to offer virtual training (even well before the pandemic). The thinking was: Give people webinars and they’ll learn. Offer them YouTube sessions and they’ll pick it up. Give them a downloadable training series, they’ll be fine.
But they aren’t fine. They are overwhelmed by the amount of information on offer. They are frustrated trying to choose someone they can trust. And some of them literally don’t have the bandwidth. I have travelled to many regional towns that are only now getting internet speeds faster than a stroll.
We cannot continue to cajole these folks with purely digital solutions. This is the generation that needs to connect, to build trust, to feel safe enough to ask the ‘dumb’ questions. I’ve trained small-business owners who would not click on a Zoom link until I walked them through it. Now, they join webinars and participate in group learning, but it took time and in-person effort to get them there.
It’s our responsibility to meet these folks where they are. In marketing, we promote the value of building relationships with clients and putting the customer at the centre of a business. It’s time we start thinking of our technophobes as the client and put them at the centre of better solutions.
What we need to be doing
We need hybrid training solutions. We need boots on the ground showing our technophobes how to cut through the digital noise. We need supportive learning environments, where they can see people just like them getting digital wins and showcasing how it has improved their business.
We need to encourage tiny steps, not try to convince people to change their entire business model overnight. We need to show them how to track and measure the adaptations they are making in their business, then celebrate their wins as they come.
We’re not looking for huge leaps forward for most of our business owners. We’re not asking for double-digit growth year on year. We just need to guide them towards implementing technology to improve their business in small ways, to start. Then we’ll see overall increases in productivity and profit that, in turn, will lead to job growth and better economic sustainability.
Technology is the road to rebuilding small business after the pandemic but only if we overcome the technophobia that’s at the heart of Australian business.
This article first appeared in issue 36 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine