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Why the Next Generation of Small Business Owners Needs Tech Literacy

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why your kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing journalists and the professionals protecting our national parks.

Tech literacy isn’t optional for business owners anymore. Even the smallest companies in the least tech-related fields need a basic grasp of the Internet and the digital world if they hope to maintain their business and continue to grow.

Failure to modernize would cause their businesses to fail, no matter how successful the model or how in-demand their products are.

Here are a few basic tech skills that all business owners will need to succeed in the next 10 years.

Website Creation and Maintenance

Ten years ago, it was OK for a company not to have a website. Customers understood that some small businesses didn’t have the budget or even need to maintain a digital presence. As long as they had print ads, TV ads, and phone book listings, they could reach enough potential customers..

This is not the case in 2017. Brian Sutter, a veteran marketer who works with small business owners every day, highlights two key facts that emphasize the value of a small business website:

  • 83 percent of small business owners who already own a website feel they have a competitive advantage over those without.
  • 59 percent of small business owners who already own a website said their businesses grew once they built their sites.

Customers expect an online presence and are wary of businesses that don’t have their own website. According to Verisign, 84 percent of consumers believe a company with a website is more credible than one with just a social media page, and 65 percent consider company-branded email more credible than a generic email account.

This means entrepreneurs, regardless of the size or industry, will have an easier time attracting new customers with a professional digital presence.

So, why do some modern-day small businesses ignore the digital world? The team at Clutch interviewed 350 business owners to understand how small businesses view website creation, and many reported they either lacked the funds to build a website (30 percent of respondents), or said it simply wasn’t necessary for their markets (32 percent).

But even if you don’t think your website is a valuable tool for your customers, it’s an important asset that allows you to interact with investors, vendors, and potential partners.

“Have you tried getting a business loan recently?” Peter Visser asks at Big Mouth Marketing. “It’s not easy, but if you try and the bank manager asks to see your website, you better have a pretty good one. It doesn’t just stop with the bank, the perceived value of your business will be lower in everyone’s eyes — especially your customers.”

The number of small businesses that lack a digital presence will continue to shrink, so entrepreneurs will need to know how to build their websites to attract customers.

A bakery

Social Media Management

Yes, websites are essential to running a small business, but social media are also important channels for connecting with customers.

In fact, Steve Olenski reports that 70 percent of small businesses see a marked ROI from social media. The key, he says, is to focus on the local level and the main customers. When a small business tries to be Taco Bell or Oreo online, they fail. When they use social media to communicate information that’s important to their customers, they succeed.

The digital world has created a completely new set of rules for people to follow that Miss Manners could never have imagined. Not only do small businesses need to know how to navigate these websites, but they need to be ready to communicate with customers at a professional level and understand how to handle stressful digital situations.

Gina Schreck at SocialKNX highlighted this perfectly when she discussed costume shop Party City’s social media crisis of 2015. After a mom wrote a post on the limited costume options for career-oriented girls (she could choose between cheerleader or princess while boys had doctor, police officer, and scientist options), Party City thanked her for her comments and then immediately deleted them. This turned a mild complaint into outrage that drew the attention of thousands of other parents.

“Today, consumers don’t have to call and ask to talk to your manager; they simply go to social media and let the manager find them,” Schreck writes. Without the knowledge to navigate the social world, entrepreneurs can watch their brands sink into a PR crisis.

Employees in a warehouse

Programming and Troubleshooting

While a small business owner could contract out website creation and social media management to an agency, there are significant benefits in understanding how the technology works.

Kabbage, a company that specializes in small business loans and resources, listed basic HTML coding as one of its top tech skills that entrepreneurs need — right behind using Excel spreadsheets. While business owners don’t need to become advanced programmers, they should be able to navigate the back end of their websites to make quick fixes.

“Even if you are using a content management system like WordPress, which has an HTML editor, knowing basic HTML code can help you make quick design fixes in seconds and eliminate the need to pay someone to help you.”

This will save both time and money for companies that do contract out to a marketing vendor.

Programming also lets business owners roll up their sleeves and develop their own apps or websites when they can’t afford to hire tech talent. David Nield at The Guardian argues that tech demand at large firms is leaving small businesses behind. Most entrepreneurs can’t afford to hire a programmer or data analyst on a six-figure salary, especially if their companies aren’t in the tech sector to begin with.

“While not all businesses are developing a smartphone app or running an eCommerce platform, most are dealing in data and code of some form or another, whether that’s websites or customer details — and that’s where even a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of coding can help.”

Small business owners with a knack for programming can even create their own tools to help their business. This is why many small business owners are opting to learn Java and open-source languages. In fact, with just a little Java knowledge, business owners have launched revenue-generating apps within a few weeks, Mayur Prakash writes at All About Web. Contracting out that same work would have cost thousands of dollars.

Further, understanding programming means understanding how your business functions. Kenny Kline is an entrepreneur and business owner himself. He firmly believes in the value of programming for other small business owners — even those outside of the tech startup world.

Simply put, entrepreneurs who are “fluent in technology” can understand how the accounting, HR, marketing, and operations systems work. Even if you don’t fully understand the systems, you can make sure you hire someone who does.

“It is much easier to spot tech talent if you have an understanding of what that talent entails,” Kline says.

Twenty years ago, small business owners took bookkeeping classes to learn what their accountants were doing. Today, they’re taking programming classes to keep up with modern web development best practices.

Coworkers at a tech startup

Artificial Intelligence

Most people think artificial intelligence is the technology of the future, but it’s actually the technology of the past. In an article for Forbes, Greg Satell explains that artificial intelligence was first explored in the 1950s, when developers believed robots would take over work for humans within a generation.

Eventually, funding dried up in the 1970s, and AI wouldn’t become popular again until recently. Had we continued to invest in this technology 40 years ago, we could be in a completely different place technologically.

In many ways, the idea of AI hasn’t changed since The Jetsons first debuted in the 1960s. The goal is to use robots to free up time for humans, who are then able to strategize and handle bigger issues.

“AI can take care of routine, repetitive tasks so everyone at your company can be more efficient, which is a game changer for SMBs with limited resources,” Jamie Domenici writes at SmallBizDaily. “Just think, if you could increase the productivity of your sales reps, service agents, and marketers, you could build your business that much faster.”

Furthermore, artificial intelligence can be employed regardless of the industry. Derek Iwasiuk at Data Science Central explains how AI is making accounting easier for small business owners trying to balance their books. AI tools can automatically generate invoices, send reminders to clients who haven’t paid them, and track what payments have been received. This is a huge time-saver for business owners who don’t have time for accounting — and a relief for entrepreneurs who shy away from financials.

Even if the technology young entrepreneurs need isn’t easily available or affordable, it probably will be within the next decade. Daniel Faggella at TechEmergence reports that more than 140 startups received funding that featured AI as their main product or service in Q3 of 2016 alone. These startups pulled more than $958 million in funding, proving its perceived value by investors and thought leaders.

The tech world has locked into AI and will keep working with it until it’s commonly used by businesses large and small.

Security and Data Management

Finally, small business owners need to have an understanding of how customer data is stored. While a security breach at Target translates to bad publicity, a security breach at a small business can financially harm customers and potentially ruin the business itself.

According to Andre Lavoie at Clear Company, 37 percent of small businesses have adopted cloud computing, a number that’s expected to balloon to 80 percent by 2020. This is because the cloud provides more affordable storage options, better sharing and integration with other systems.

Some business owners might not even realize that they use cloud storage when they invest in various software tools. Not only does this put them at risk, but it also limits what they can do with the data at their fingertips.

“When things go bad, it’s usually because small businesses are deploying to the cloud incorrectly,” Bryan Soltis writes at Inside Small Business. “Many applications are hindered before they are ever deployed and robbed of the very benefits the cloud was supposed to provide.”

Technology will be a huge part of small business management in the future, which means today’s entrepreneurs need to develop these skills now, or risk falling behind when they set out to build their dreams.

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