Ushering in new modes of communication, new forms of interaction and lightning-fast access to vast amounts of information - recent waves of technological change have made setting up and running your own business a very different proposition today than twenty, ten, or even five years ago.
Digital technology is altering customer expectations and behaviours so rapidly that failing to keep pace with these changes can doom a new business to irrelevance.
At Vistaprint, we work with a wide range of businesses who every day face the challenges and opportunities presented by technology. Our conversations have highlighted five technological developments that start-ups and micro-businesses should be keeping a close eye on.
While talk of the end of cash is probably jumping the gun, the rise of mobile payments is accelerating rapidly. Visa reported in 2016 that 74 per cent of British consumers already use their mobile phone to manage their money or make payments. And while millennials naturally expect to be able to do everything with their phone - from banking to shopping - the fastest growth in mobile payment use is among consumers aged 55 to 64. The upshot: your increasingly cashless customers expect to be able to pay you with their phone. Don’t disappoint them.
"As an m-commerce start-up, mobile payments are vital to our business," says Stephan Scharer, co-founder of Mobile Marketo, an m-commerce start-up. "Having the ability to pay via mobile is a convenient solution for our customers, which means we have been able to acquire a lot more of them."
Where once they might have hired an agency to build their brand and bring new customers through the door, today’s entrepreneur can choose from hundreds of software platforms to help generate, schedule, publish and deliver marketing communications and ads across email, social media and the web. And with the data gathered by these platforms, they can segment their audiences to accurately target different types of customers with relevant, timely offers.
While the barriers to executing a sophisticated, multi-channel marketing strategy have never been lower, remember: you still need a human to think up the strategy, and write the emails, Tweets and blog posts.
Stephan Scharer comments: "Marketing automation has benefited us greatly. We find it improves the way we communicate with our customers and allows us to do so more efficiently. We are also able to run experiments which drives better user experience."
Want to sell products or services online without the hassle and expense of hiring a team of customer service representatives? Why not employ a friendly chatbot to answer your customer’s questions, assess their needs, and guide them towards suitable products? These artificially intelligent conversational interfaces behave almost like real people - even learning on the job by analysing data from previous interactions - except that they never get tired, sick or cranky, and can deal with an almost unlimited number of customers simultaneously.
Bringing a new product or service to market has always been tough, but with bank funding for new ventures even harder to secure at present, finding the start-up capital to finance your revolutionary new concept requires lateral thinking. Crowdfunding platforms let you pitch your new product to potential consumers before it’s been made, helping you gather vital feedback for product development at the same time as raising the money to realise it.
Crowdfunding itself isn’t a new technology - the Statue of Liberty would never have made it to New York without thousands of residents chipping in to help buy a pedestal - but the internet has made it faster, more accessible and less risky for entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, to attract the donations of potential consumers in the face of huge competition requires a solid strategy and a tireless attitude to drumming up publicity.
As Canadian dating site Ashley Madison found out in 2015, the personal data of your customers is a valuable prize for hackers who want to defraud them or cause irreparable damage to your business’ reputation. The more successful your start-up the bigger the target you present for cyber criminals and virtual vandals.
Plenty of affordable services now exist to help small businesses and start-ups protect themselves from cyber threats. But, given the huge number of potential points of attack for even the smallest online business, the starting point should be identifying the data that would cause you the most problems if it was leaked, and making sure it’s secure.
Technologies are tools: they aren’t intrinsically good or bad; it’s how they’re used that determines whether they’ll help or hinder a start-up or micro-business. Keeping abreast of technological changes that affect your customers’ behaviours and expectations is vital, but you need to be sure that the potential benefits outweigh the costs before implementing any particular technology.