Wearable tech. 3D printing. Space travel. Low-energy transmissions. Mobile payments.
Nope. No one I know is begging for this stuff. Not that they're not important or potentially lucrative. These are all the cool things we read about every day that are promised to soon change our lives. I think the "next big thing" is very obvious. Actually, there are five big things. I know this by listening to my clients. And they are begging for help.
Last month, I got together with 15 other small-business owners and managers to discuss technology issues that faced our businesses. The people in the room were my clients, partners or professional friends of mine from around the Philadelphia area. They represented companies that range in size from 30 to 250 employees. The event was organized and videoed by Xerox, another client of mine, which hired me to lead the conversation. They called it a "dreaming" discussion. Personally, I didn't hear a lot of dreaming. I heard a lot of begging. Begging for help with existing technologies and searching for a better way to do things. That's because these business owners and managers, like most of my clients, are struggling with technology. I saw it and heard it loud and clear. Hey Silicon Valley, want a few sure-fire, less riskier investment ideas? Here are five problems suffered by millions of enterprises that are begging for help.
1. EASY INTEGRATION
Every client I know is struggling with duplicate data entry. They have multiple systems using different databases for accounting, inventory, customer relationship management, their Web site, etc., etc. Some are cloud-based. Most are on-premise. None of them talk to each other. The same data is input into multiple systems and is not consistently updated. "Links" provided by a few third-party developers are weak and often go unsupported. Time is wasted. Everyone at the "dreaming" session had this problem. Everyone has failed to find that one-stop application that does it all. That solution doesn't exist. No one had an alternative solution, short of hiring a developer to create bridges for an unknown cost and uncertain long-term results. Sure, there are plenty of database tools available. But go ahead ... you try using one. I dare you. Within an hour you'll throw up your hands and ask for a consultant's help.
2. FAST AND SECURE MOBILE
No one in the room was succeeding at mobile. Some have a "Bring Your Own Device" policy, others haven't even considered it. About half supply company-owned devices to their employees. All are confused by the different choices dangled in front of them by Apple, Google and Microsoft. And the worst part? Speed. Slow connection speeds make even the coolest mobile app (and there are still a significant lack of those for enterprise use) difficult to work with. Mobile workers are hamstrung by slow connections from their mobile providers, overloaded routers at Starbucks and spotty access points at the airport. We need a faster and secure way for our mobile people to easily connect to our companies, and I'm convinced that there's a software solution for overcoming this problem. And the company that comes up with that platform-independent answer will make a lot of money for its investors.
3. CHEAP CLOUD
By now, most small companies understand what the cloud is. But judging from the participants in the session I conducted, few are fully going there. Some had fully cloud-based applications, but most were still using their reliable on-premise solutions.
Almost everyone had explored having these systems hosted by someone else in the cloud, but were all held back because of the cost. It's still around $100 per user per month, on average, to hire a cloud-based service provider. Everyone agreed that it was cheaper just to buy another server. Small businesses want to move to the cloud. But it's still too expensive.
The company that figures out how to provide a cheap, secure, fast way to host existing applications in the cloud will hit a home run some day. Who will that be?
4. SOCIAL CRM
Among the 15 companies represented that morning were manufacturers, distributors, IT firms, and software developers. They all used some type of CRM system. But less than a third of them actively used social media for their business. Nobody was tweeting, by the way. There still remains a significant disconnect between social media and CRM. Business owners and managers know that there are potential opportunities for them on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But they don't understand how to exploit those opportunities. They need something that will identify prospective and current customers with a need for their products on social media and then bring that opportunity's contact and historical activities into their CRM system for follow-up and messaging. "Give me an application that will search and identify leads for me on Facebook and then automatically import that contact data into my CRM system so my sales guy can follow up," one participant begged.
5. REAL BATTERIES
So much time and money is being spent on little games and apps and tools to improve our lives. But I wonder if any of these entrepreneurs and their investors have been to an airport lately. Because there you'll see people getting into fistfights over an available outlet to charge their mobile phone. The best laptop batteries give four-to-six hours of time, barely enough for a cross-country flight. Small businesses, big businesses, consumers ... we all suffer from limited energy sources.
In my opinion, the real answers must come from the giants, like Microsoft, Apple or Google. Only they have the ability to distribute to the mass market of millions of businesses. But they'll need the technology from someone. And that someone may already be out there. So maybe it's not a technical problem. Maybe it's just a marketing problem. I hope some smart investor is reading this. Because my clients are begging for help.
Note: This article mentions companies that are clients and partners of mine. I was not compensated to write it.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.
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