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Small businesses need more help. Here are four ways to get it

Tough economic conditions are making it hard for small business owners. Here's how you can help your SMB to not only survive but to thrive.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Running a small business is tough work at the best of times, whether you're focused on keeping customers happy, worrying about the bottom line, or thinking about how to innovate and grow. Add in fears about the economy and the challenge gets even harder.

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Research suggests a quarter of small businesses expect their turnover to shrink during the next 12 months. So, how can you help your SMB stay competitive in tough economic conditions? Four business leaders give us their top tips.

Build a local ecosystem to bolster your business

Lisa Heneghan, global chief digital officer at consultancy firm KPMG, says there's no reason why smaller firms shouldn't be able to compete as effectively as bigger enterprises. 

In fact, the nimble nature of small businesses should mean they're able to change direction quickly when new market demands emerge.

"They have inherent agility – and they should have the ability, therefore, to challenge and do new things," she says.

That chameleon-like ability to change quickly sounds great in theory, but small business owners will recognize it can be tougher to make sudden shifts in direction in practice.

Also: Small business tech: How to find the right tools to boost your business

From a lack of access to capital to a paucity of talent, SMBs can sometimes struggle to access the resources they need to power a business transformation.

Heneghan believes the biggest obstacle to change in smaller firms is often access to a string of creative ideas. She says SMB owners should bolster their capability by looking to build strong bonds with other organizations, such as local firms and partnership networks.

"I think small businesses are more dependent on an ecosystem to help them to drive their diversity of thinking," she says. "As an SMB manager, you need to think how you build a successful ecosystem around your business."

Use technology to support nimble decision-making processes

Alex Read, senior manager of data platforms at EDF UK, says his business operates in a sector where entrepreneurial smaller businesses are using technology to gain a foothold.

"They're competitive because they're lean," he says. "They'll typically have a modern frontend stack. They will invest in modern technologies and platforms that support their outcomes and allow technology to do the work rather than people."

Read says his business is learning lessons from these agile smaller businesses: "We're almost trying to adopt the mindset of a startup company, even though we're a larger business." 

EDF UK has spent the past 12 months moving from a disparate collection of bespoke and off-the-shelf systems to a tight enterprise data strategy based on the tactical use of cloud-based services, such as Snowflake and AWS.

Read says this cloud-based transformation will help EDF UK to make the most of the data it holds and to keep pace with nimble startups that are disrupting the utility sector.

For small business owners who are looking to increase their competitiveness, Read says the advice is simple: invest in systems and services that support your core operational focus.

"Make sure that technology is the enabler -- and keep having that small-scale, iterative and agile approach, rather than trying to conquer the whole world at once."

Find the right suppliers for you 

Ed Higgs, group director of IT shared services at Rentokil Initial, is another business leader who says smart-thinking smaller firms support their digital transformation efforts through the tactical use of technology.

Yet small businesses that want to make the most of on-demand IT also need to ensure they develop a strong awareness of the strengths of different technology providers.

And it can sometimes be easier to find that kind of specialist knowledge in a larger business where there are more people who have experience of different vendors across the IT marketplace.  

"For me, there's always someone you can go to and ask a question," says Higgs. "But in smaller firms, you haven't necessarily got that."

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SMBs should meet this challenge head-on -- they should analyze the technology market, get to know key account managers, and build a trusted collection of IT specialists.

"In a smaller business, you've got to leverage your supply network even more," he says. "And getting the right size provider that's going to give you the right level of attention is really important."

Identify hidden talents

Clare Lansley, CIO at Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One, says one of the best ways for smaller firms to gain a competitive advantage is to connect up with larger enterprises.

As digital leader of a business that's always looking for innovation, Lansley recognizes that the search for creative solutions to challenges can come from anywhere -- including by linking up with SMBs in a collaborative environment.

"I don't care where the next great idea comes from," she says. "One of the things that we are looking at is hackathons. As an SMB, joining a hackathon is a great way to get your name into the spotlight, especially if they can come and help us crack a challenge." 

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Lansley says the innovations that come through these sessions might help Aston Martin F1 to boost its performance on and off the track. 

What's more, she says hackathons can help SMBs to identify latent capability within their own organizations and to create fresh opportunities back at HQ.

"It also benefits smaller firms because they might have somebody sitting in the bedroom that they didn't know had a brain the size of a planet. So, look for opportunities where your people can collaborate."

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