We recently surveyed 529 small businesses about the barriers stopping them from using tech to grow their business. While many pointed at issues related to the digital divide – the cost of tech or the time and knowledge it demands – the single biggest response was for ‘Other’.
When we dug a little deeper into what that meant, the results painted an interesting picture. Among the confessions of technophobia and a lack of trust in tech, almost a third of the responses said they just didn’t need it.
“I’m a driving instructor – what tech do I need?”
In some ways, it’s not a surprise that so many micro business owners don’t see tech as being relevant to them. The term “micro business” might be limited to businesses with five or fewer employees, but even that’s a fairly broad spectrum.
On the one hand it includes individuals running e-commerce stores or small retail and cafe operations, where tech like accounting software, social media and graphic design tools form a core part of the business. But it also includes sole traders like plumbers, gardeners and electricians, whose jobs are primarily hands-on and low-tech.
Part of the problem is that not everyone means the same thing when they talk about tech. Many sole traders say they don’t need to “go digital” because they imagine that means setting up a website, but don’t realise they’re already using tech in the form of digital calendars, navigation apps and emailing invoices.
Of the small business owners who said they didn’t need tech, many explained it was because of the jobs they did – jobs like driving instructor, holistic therapist and hairdresser. But these business types aren’t by necessity analogue. They depend on booking appointments and taking payments, and there’s no reason that can’t be done by a digital system rather than phone calls, cash and bank transfers.
Even low-tech businesses will need to embrace tech soon
Embracing the digital world isn’t something that small businesses and sole traders can put off for much longer. When banking, retail, education and even medicine can be accessed via tech, the expectation from consumers will soon be for every business, even the smallest, to follow suit.
Larger organisations are already responding to that demand. In 2021 they spent a combined $615bn worldwide on enterprise software. If small businesses don’t embrace digital tools as well, they’ll struggle to compete.
They’ll also face stiffer competition from each other, since not all small businesses and sole traders look at tech the same way. A Quickbooks survey found that almost three quarters of Gen Z sole traders considered digital tools to be core to their business. These business owners have grown up with the internet and technology, and using social media marketing or selling online is second nature to them.
That integration of tech into their businesses has helped them better navigate both the growing digital trend and the recent pandemic. In the last 12 months the Gen Z sole traders interviewed by Quickbooks saw a net increase in their revenue, while their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts experienced a net decrease.
It’s not just small businesses looking to grow or who sell products online that need to seek out tech. A local self-employed plumber might not see a need for a professional website. But if they’re still relying on posting flyers through letterboxes to find new customers while their competitors can be found and booked online in seconds, they’re almost certainly going to lose trade because of it.
If they’re going to adopt tech, it needs to speak to them
As more small businesses follow larger organisations in adopting tech, those that don’t will risk being squeezed out of their market. But for many it’s not as simple as finding a supplier and buying some software. Our research found that 37% of small business owners don’t know what digital tools would be important for the future success of their business, and 39% didn’t know what kind of company they would trust most to provide them.
Partly this comes down to the way the tech is marketed, and how you engage with your small business customers. That’s the goal for one of our biggest hosting partners. They want to reach out more to tradespeople, and know that they need to target their marketing and image choices to speak to those business owners on their level.
When you market your digital tools, focus on what small business owners and sole traders are hoping to achieve. Most of the time they started their business because they love teaching yoga, solving technical problems or decorating cakes. When it comes to tech, they’re probably only looking for ways to book in customers without sitting by the phone, or to keep their supplier receipts and invoices logged neatly for tax season.
Another way to build trust is through the tools themselves. Small business owners already have enough on their plate with running their business, and can’t afford to let tech eat up any of their precious time. That means making tools easy to learn and use, and as accessible as possible.
Making them mobile-first has a huge role to play in overcoming this disconnect. If a website builder or e-commerce store kit only works properly on a desktop, that means business owners have to carve out special time at their desk to engage with them. But mobile-first tools mean they can tinker with their online presence over a coffee, at the pub, or lying in bed. Going digital then becomes part of their routine rather than an interruption to it.