PC makers drool over SMBs; What will win over the accidental entrepreneur?

Dell is the latest PC vendor to update its small business lineup and it's clear that there will be a real battle between HP, Lenovo and others to target that market. Why the interest? We're all small businesses and if we're not today we will be at some point in the future.

Dell is the latest PC vendor to update its small business lineup and it's clear that there will be a real battle between HP, Lenovo and others to target that market. Why the interest? We're all small businesses and if we're not today we will be at some point in the future.

A confluence of trends are spurring technology vendors' interest in small and mid-sized businesses. For starters, unemployment is pushing 10 percent and the ranks of underemployed are even higher. These folks, many of them are highly skilled, are tech savvy and being forced to launch their own businesses on the side. These people are referred to as accidental entrepreneurs. ZDNet's Brian Sommer just did a series on accidental freelancers. Sommer sets up the profile of the folks who may buy into these new fangled SMB plays from tech vendors. Speaking of two executives he knew Sommer wrote:

Both of these fellows are doing some freelance work, looking for full-time gigs and are trying to stay connected with executives at established service firms hoping some crumbs (or a permanent gig) fall their way. These guys are freelancers who really don’t want to be freelancers. Instead, these are employees who are without an employer and are doing freelancing as a means to provide an income. Worse, since both are over 50, they expect to be freelancers until they retire as they aren’t finding prospective employers too interested in people of their age.

Also see: The scary side of freelancing: the inadvertent freelancer · The Inadvertent Freela

ncer (part 2): How to Sell · The Inadvertent Freelancer (Part 3): Pre-Sales Homework

In either case you get the idea: Former stalwarts in Corporate America are going out on their own. We're all consultants, freelancers and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, a lot of these folks are tech savvy. HP, Dell and Lenovo obviously see the trends and are making their pitch. Courting SMBs will be one of the larger tech trends of 2010. To wit:

  • Dell's Vostro line (above right) is geared toward SMBs and is pitching a mix of form, functionality and service to appeal to business owners. Dell has the usual notebook PC features with a few perks, but the real message from the company is that support is available when your business hits the fan. [Image Gallery: Dell Vostro 3000 series]
  • HP last week
    also pitched its notebooks and wares for the mobile professional
    .(right).  HP touted things like brushed aluminum metal cases and other features. The real perk: Something called DayStarter that allows you to see your calendar before Windows starts up. However, HP didn't pitch service much. HP chose to talk up financing options.
  • Lenovo's line also carried some nice features. The ThinkPad Edge laptops offer that mix of style and function that apparently appeals to SMBs. Lenovo also said it had a suite of flexible service and support options.

What's the differentiator here? All of the PC vendors are pitching a consumer-SMB crossover approach, but the real tell will be service. When your business hits the fan---whether its Web hosting, hardware or telecom---you want someone on the horn pronto. When you're a small business you are your CIO and you don't want to screw around with lax support.

For more on SMBs see BNet's Owner's Only blog, entrepreneur and small business resources.

Two other moving parts that will tell the SMB tale:

Trust: Every recession---or slowdown in large enterprise spending---the big tech vendors migrate downstream. It's almost as predictable as the change of the seasons. Vendors want to go where the growth is and more often than not that turns into a small to midmarket revenue rap. The catch: Small business owners have heard this before and don't expect vendors that traditional enterprise titans to stick around. SMBs stick with what they know, which is why it's so hard to upend companies like Intuit and Microsoft.

Consumer appeal: Every statement on SMB products from HP, Dell and Lenovo spend some time on the style equation. No one wants to look frumpy---including SMBs. It's quite possible that the technology that works for the consumer will branch over to your friendly neighborhood new consultant. In the SMB space there is no market where the "consumerization of IT" is more pronounced. In this regard, Apple may wind up ruling the SMB roost. Apple knows this emerging work-life intersection trend well.

My hunch is that service and support will ultimately win over SMBs. Let's face it: This is a crowd where Staples and Best Buy are often the procurement department; A reseller might be CIO; and more often than not you're muddling through things on your own. The PC vendor---or any other tech player---that has the right messaging and can back it up will win the day.

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