Feb 032017
 

Last year the Committee for Economic Development, Australia (CEDA) warned over 40% of the nation’s jobs were at risk from automation over the next 15 years.

While that focus was on the risks to workers, it’s equally threatening for small business. Many companies and sole traders are facing the same disruptions from technological change.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, in the Twentieth century the motor car displaced thousands of small businesses that catered to the horse drawn economy and family run corner stores were displaced by the arrival of supermarkets in the 1950s.

Beyond the personal computer era

At the end of the last century the personal computer’s arrival revolutionised small businesses as suddenly tools that were previously only in the reach of big organisations were suddenly accessible to the most modest venture.

One of the early beneficiaries of that shift to desktop computers in 1990s was the bookkeeping industry which took off as a legion of home based contractors catered for local small businesses.

As the internet and smartphones came along, the bookkeeping market changed as features like bank feeds and receipt apps automated many previously manual tasks.

Despite those challenges the bookkeeping industry has survived and continues to grow with IBIS World estimating the overall accounting industry, which includes bookkeepers, grew 2.6% per year over the past five years.

Close to customers

The success of bookkeepers and accountants in navigating change is probably due to industry being close to their clients along with being early adopters of new technology, two things that caught the taxi industry out when Uber arrived.

Uber’s success in upturning the taxi industry illustrates just how important understanding emerging technologies is for smaller businesses. One industry currently facing massive disruption from robots is the construction sector.

The trades were thought to be relatively immune from automation – after all, who’s going to build a robot plumber? But now robots are moving into trades like bricklaying, as Australian startup Fastbrick Robotics shows.

Fastbrick are building a commercial bricklaying machine, Hadrian X, that automates the trade’s physical work and integrates with 3D printing technology.

In one respect the robot bricklayers are bad for the trade’s employment prospects but for older brickies with bad backs having a machine to help you is a godsend while for employers it improves productivity and reduces workplace accidents. It won’t be the end of the trade but the contractors who survive will have adapted to a very different construction industry.

Restructuring industries

That Fastbrick integrates with design software shows how the dynamics of the construction are changing. In 2014 Chinese company Winsun demonstrated how they can build ten houses in a day with large scale 3D printers.

While we may not see that particular technology in Australia, aspects of it will be used and they are going to change all the trades and professions related to the building industry.

Architects are one building industry group that have long dealt with technological change. Like bookkeepers, the arrival of personal computers completely changed their profession and those who adapted thrived.

Now with cloud computing services plugging into builders’ supply chains like Winsun and machines like Fastbrick’s, architects are closer than ever to the worksite and their customers. The ones who are adapting are the earlier adopters who are getting into these technologies further.

Disrupting the professions

Accountants and architects aren’t the only professions being affected, lawyers are facing a new wave of services using artificial intelligence to do many legal tasks ranging from a chatbot that appeals traffic fines to a program that predicts US Supreme Court decisions.

Like other sectors, it’s the early adopters in the legal sector who are adapting to a very different industry with much of the manual, lower level work being automated out.

The wave of technology we’re now seeing appear – including robots, autonomous vehicles, machine learning and artificial intelligence – are going to change our industries and workplaces dramatically in the next few years.

What the accounting industry and the architecture profession teach us is the businesses closest to their customers and those adopting technology early will be the ones who thrive in a very different industries. Researching, experimenting and paying attention will be the keys to business survival.

An open mindset

Even for the trades, survival during this wave of technological change will be a matter of watching the marketplace closely while being open to new methods and technologies.

Assuming it won’t happen to your industry is probably one of the riskiest things of all. Ten years ago the idea of smartphones revolutionising the taxi business or that robots could replace bricklayers was unthinkable. Now it’s almost expected.

The forces that are changing the workplace are also changing industries and markets, so small businesses will also be affected. It’s going to pay to be smart and curious.

Sep 292016
 
A small business closing due to rent increase

One of the notable things about the 2008 financial crisis was how people stopped setting up businesses. Faced with economic uncertainty, it seemed most folk decided starting new ventures was just too risky.

The OECD’s Entrepreneurship at a Glance report shows just how dramatic that fall in small business creation since the financial crisis has been with United States’ current new business formation rates at 15% below 2008 levels, Italy’s at 35% and Germany’s at 23%.

Even in Australia, which largely escaped the 2008 crisis, business formations are twenty percent lower. This is despite interest rates being close to zero for the last five years.

Those statistics are telling – despite the talk about tech startups, people are not starting new ventures at the rates they were ten years ago. That’s a worrying aspect for economies and future growth prospects.

Sep 152016
 

What is changing the modern business? In Flying Solo’s upcoming free webinar, The Future is now – Trends in the Modern Workplace, I’ll be exploring some of the technology trends changing the way we work.

A few of these trends are already here, like the mobile workplace but others such as artificial intelligence, the internet of thing and augmented reality are on the five year horizon and we can expect those technologies to have a major impact on the business in the medium term.

One of the industries we’ll be looking at is the automobile industry that’s facing massive changes as electric vehicles, driverless cars and smartcities change the way we use cars and get goods delivered. This sector is looking at both the immediate effects and the longer term effects of the technological change on their industry.

In preparing the presentation it’s striking how similar todays discussions about AI and and AR are with how we talked about the World Wide Web twenty years ago. At the time we didn’t see how companies like Google and Amazon were going to change they way we work and the way our customers buy from us.

Equally ten years ago we didn’t see how the mobile internet or social media was going to change the ways we did business or how our customers would buy. Today they are important factors.

Mobile has changed business

The recent announcement of the iPhone 7 underscores just how the smartphone has become part of lives. No device has been adopted quicker by the marketplace and its effects on business have been profound and continue to be felt.

In the nine years since the iPhone was released, the mobile internet has boomed. Now almost all our customers are looking for our services through mobile devices – be they smartphones or table computers.

One of the things that ‘s worrying however is how few small operators have mobile friendly websites. This year’s Sensis e-business report found sixty percent of small businesses have websites but only forty percent of those were mobile friendly meaning less than a quarter were suitable for smartphones and tablets.

But it’s not just marketing – the mobile internet, smartphones and cloud computing is changing how workplaces operate. It’s becoming easier for employees to work remotely and for companies to be genuinely distributed and we’re seeing more businesses made up of workers scattered around the world, a good example being the company that created WordPress, Automattic, who are showing how a modern workplace can operate.

Automattic’s experience shows how companies can use the mobile and web based tools to manage a modern workforce. For solo businesses, being able to harness outside skills and participate in larger projects, is one of the great opportunities presented by the mobile world.

Everything is connected is connected

Key to business automation is how things are being networked. Increasingly things are being connected to the internet, whether it’s bees, kettles or tractors. If we can put a chip in something and connect it to the net, then we will.

Also, as anyone who deals with the supermarkets knows, large customers increasingly want suppliers to be connected into their data exchange platforms. That integration into supply chains is only going to increase.

This has a number of issues for organisations, first we need the technology to allow us to connect and the systems to efficiently exchange data with our business partners. We also need to know what is being collected by our devices.

Swimming in data

‘Data is the new oil’ is one of the mantras we hear, however that overlooks that dealing with oil is a complex, often dirty and frequently dangerous business.

While having lots of data is an opportunity to get more understanding of our businesses and the markets they operate in, all of this information also has a number of hazards. Not least in securing it and making sure company’s, its employees and its clients’ data is safe.

The big challenge for businesses, big or small, is managing the data that threatens to overwhelm everyone. Being able to get value from the information flowing into the organisation while protecting the underlying data is going to be one of the big issues facing businesses of all sizes.

Automation and robotics

Much of the work in managing all this data will be done by computers – artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation are all going to be standard features in business.

For service providers, increasingly ‘bread and butter’ tasks are going to be taken over by robots that deprive them of business and cash flow. Other businesses however will see this shift as an opportunity to reduce costs and improve productivity.

Accounting service Xero is a good example where founder and CEO Rod Drury sees these technologies as changing the way we work, “Automation and machine learning are improving traditional services by streamlining compliance processes and creating new business opportunities, many of which are either no-touch or limited-touch.”

Increasingly we’re going to see these technologies built into the software programs we use, not just in accounting packages but also in areas like CRM platforms, email and even word processing,

Visualising the data

One of the most exciting technologies of the moment are Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and, a combination of the both, Mixed Reality. While games like Pokemon Go! are leading the way it’s actually in industries like logistics, resources and public safety that are leading the applications of these technologies.

For smaller businesses technologies like AR and VR promise to help us visualise the data we have to deal with along with opening up a range of applications ranging from virtual meetings to prototyping. Coupled with technologies like 3D printing, VR and AR may open up a whole range of new industries.

Cultural change

This range of new industries means we’re going to need a whole new set of attitudes and business faces a cultural change as technology changes the workplace. Coupled with major skill shortages in most areas, corporations are going to need to find a new pool of diverse, qualified labour. This is great news for solo businesses.

Like everything there is also a catch, and small businesses are also going to have to embrace that diversity in looking for commercial partners, suppliers and customers. Increasingly, thinking outside the box to find people who can effectively use new technology is going to be important.

The good news is that mobile and cloud services coupled with most of the world becoming connected makes it easier for solo operators to find the skills they need. The real barrier lies in ourselves ditching old prejudices and assumptions

A new business environment

In conclusion, we’re about to enter the next phase of the computer revolution. We’ve been through the PC period, we’re now in the middle of the smartphone era and the artificial intelligence age is about to begin.

The ultimate trend though is that business is going to get faster and solo business proprietors are going to face the same challenges as managers and executives in large corporations as a wave of data floods over us all.

One of the advantages for small businesses is we’re not saddled with legacy systems in the way large organisations and with the tools of the new era being affordable, means solo entrepreneurs can grasp opportunities far quicker than their bigger competitors.

The opportunities are there for us to take, we just have to seize them when when they appear.