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How Then Became Now – A Spaceballs Look at the Changing Small Business Environment

Thirty years ago, the prophetic imagination of Mel Brooks gave us the classic scene asking “When will Then be Now?” With the Spaceballs “new breakthrough in home video marketing… instant cassettes,” consumers could buy videos “out in stores before the movie is finished.” For small business owners today, it can seem like they can be trapped in the same vortex where their landscape is changing faster than they can adapt to it.

Indeed, breakthroughs on many technological fronts require small business owners to stay on the cutting edge of technology or risk the potential of being overtaken by competitors. Just think about how these have changed:

Attracting Customers: Businesses used to rely on consumers “letting their fingers do the walking,” and print advertising in yellow pages and newspapers would drive huge results. Even in the digital age where search engines Google, Yahoo, and Bing dominate internet traffic, consumers, especially millennials, are increasingly turning to new sources of information. Local apps, proximity-driven mobile marketing, YouTube, and social networks offer consumers an ever-growing number of ways to find and compare local businesses and shop their competitors.

Employee Relations: The interconnected world we live in today has led to many companies moving into work-from-home arrangements. TINYpulse recently completed a survey and found that employees working remotely are happier, feel more valued, and are more productive. For employers that still operate in on-site locations for business need reasons, challenges such as social media or mobile phone policies while at work have necessitated attention. Even recruiting has changed drastically. GlassDoor has allowed applicants to see comments about management from current and previous employees. Indeed, LinkedIn, Careerbuilder, and the others have given employers the ability to find hundreds of candidates for open positions in relatively short time frames. Of course, there is also the counter-side of that issue for employers – the sheer volume of applicants can be overwhelming and many employers find that it is worthwhile to consider third party staffing or recruiting firms to aid in their search.

Media: The idea of only running ads with the local TV or radio station for customer attention fails in today’s ever-more-fragmented media landscape. The near infinite impressions available to highly targeted audiences across web properties, social networks, web applications, and live streams combined with consumers watching less live broadcast and cable TV make it more difficult for small businesses to reach their target audience through traditional channels. Small businesses today must rely on a multi-channel, multi-platform approach to stay competitive and win. Consumers are also opting out of disruptive and interruptive forms of advertising (I’m talking about you Mr. Annoying Pop-Up Ad) and opting for native, unobtrusive, or on-demand information about brands.

Customer Feedback: In the past, businesses would mail out comment cards on Business Reply Mail Postcards that would take weeks to effectively generate a response. Today, consumers voice their feeling about brands in real-time on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Social media and reputation management are crucial elements for businesses who want to effectively compete in today’s marketplace. Email and phone survey requests are common occurrences, and most brands offer incentives to consumers who complete the surveys. A relatively new feedback tool is the live chat features on some websites. Savvy businesses use this as tool to not only engage with consumers in a different way, but also to capture user feedback about their website layout and browsing experience.

Shopping Experience: In the 70s and 80s, the suburban shopping mall expansion nearly killed off small town “Main Street” style businesses and many downtown districts. Big box retailers have had similar effects, but in today’s world, it is the online retailers, or e-tailers, that are disrupting the industry. Consumer habits are changing, and in 2016, 79% of Americans purchased an item online. Amazon, E-Bay, and Etsy have not just changed the way consumers shop, but their platforms have allowed small business owners to distribute products at an unprecedented scale while simultaneously lowering the barriers of entry to people who want to start their own businesses.

Technological advancements are fueling the changes discussed above, and there is no end in sight. Customer Relationship Management software programs have revolutionized the way businesses connect to their customers. Electronic Medical Record systems have improved accuracy and efficiency for continuity of care between medical providers and for the electronic processing of medications to pharmacies. Voice search is becoming so prolific that by 2020, 30% of all web searches will be completed without a screen. Artificial intelligence, expansion of the Internet of Things, machine learning, self-driving vehicles, and drone deliveries are even more examples of current advancements that are bound to alter the way we live our lives in the not too distant future.

Just like Spaceballs, today’s small business technology landscape is changing, and it’s moving forward at ludicrous speed. Business owners don’t have the luxury of going back to Then, because they’ve missed it. And when will Then be Now? Soon.


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