Lessons Learned: Small Business Takeaways from 2014

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

It’s the end of the year, so let’s look at stories and trends from 2014 that can help your small business perform better in 2015.

The Affordable Care Act

Healthcare coverage was a big story in 2014, and will continue to be in the spotlight in 2015. According to the 2014 Aflac WorkForces Report, only 9 percent of employers felt extremely or very prepared to address changes to the healthcare system, and only 30 percent of those owning businesses with fewer than 100 employees said they understood healthcare reform extremely or very well. That’s probably why 45 percent of those polled said they’d rely on brokers or insurers to help them understand benefits options. You should, too.

“This law is so expansive and confusing that many small business owners are left with only gossip or rumors from fellow business owners to make a decision on what to do,” says Anthony Fracchia, co-founder of and partner at Altruis Benefit Consulting in Bingham Farms, MI. “Small business owners should be reaching out to professional health agents or advisors for an objective proposal on what will work best for them.” He says the best way to find an expert to consult with you free of charge is by visiting the National Association of Health Underwriters Web site.

Your Small Business Takeaway: Work with a professional advisor to understand your options clearly.

Millennials

It feels like everybody is talking about how to work with and market to Millennials these days. Research by VitalSmarts® in Provo, UT shows that these young people believe that “speaking up” and “voicing their concerns” are job requirements, but they worry that doing so will undermine their relationships with managers and more senior staffers.

“Too often, organizations ask Millennials to bide their time and wait their turn,” says David Maxfield, the company’s vice president of research. “That’s not how you nurture knowledge workers, no matter their age. VitalSmarts’ research shows that organizations can help through training and by making it easier for young people to be heard.”

Research from Austin,TX–based SecureNet shows Millennials expect marketing that’s focused on their preferences. Shoppers in this age group use mobile devices to research products and services, and 85 percent would be more likely to patronize businesses that offered customized promotions based on past activity.

Greg Constantine, the company’s executive vice president of client operations, suggests offering a full omnichannel — i.e., on-site, mobile, email and offline — marketing plan to ensure your message is on all the outlets that Millennials use. He also encourages small business owners to utilize data collected during transactions to tailor future purchases for return customers and foster a loyal consumer base.

Your Small Business Takeaway: Make sure Millennials work together with more senior, experienced and skilled workers. Create a multichannel marketing plan to reach Millennials on all the platforms they use.

Mobile Payments

Mobile payment options like Square and other mobile POS solutions have been a boon to small business owners in both the B2C and B2B sectors. According to the 11th Annual Retail Info Systems/IHL Group Store Systems Study, more than 50 percent of retailers will make their next POS deployment capable of allowing mobile and eCommerce transactions. And the 2013 Intershop Ecommerce Report found that 75 percent of B2B vendors planned to offer mobile commerce in the next 12 months.

“It's important to stay on top of developments, because your customers are adopting these new payment methods. If you don't support them, your business may suffer as a result,” says Amad Ebrahimi, founder/writer at Merchant Maverick in Orange, CA. “The biggest challenge that I'm seeing right now is in having the right hardware to facilitate a mobile transaction. Hardware is a huge part of the equation, and many small business owners don't have terminals that are equipped with NFC (near field communication) technology, which is required to accept mobile payments like Apple Pay. The good news is that it seems like the largest players — Apple, Google, Softcard, MCX — are all settling on NFC, which could mean more stability in the market and more confidence for small business owners.”

Your Small Business Takeaway: Make sure your POS system is mobile enabled and NFC based.

Crowdfunding

Data from EquityNet shows that more than 40 percent of equity crowdfunding activity was undertaken by consumer and business product/service organizations — sectors often underserved by more traditional funders.

“Small business owners no longer need to beg for money from friends and family, banks or high-cost, high-risk lenders,” says Mark Easley Sr., business team leader for the NC JOBS Act, which enables a new way to finance small business in North Carolina using investment crowdfunding.

“Instead, they can finance their businesses at a reasonable cost directly with those who care the most about seeing it succeed in their own social networks of customers, fans and supporters. And those lenders can participate in their success and get a reasonable return on their investment. Investment crowdfunding eliminates the middleman, and makes small business loans and equity offerings fair again. That’s why we’re seeing the tremendous ramp-up rates in these new financial technology platforms that enable investment crowdfunding.”

Your Small Business Takeaway: Don’t ignore crowdfunding — it’s not just for inventors, tech start-ups and movie directors.

Customer Sentiment

Big stories like the Market Basket fiasco and the Crumbs Bake Shop bankruptcy and recovery showcase the importance for all businesses, regardless of size, to stay in touch with customer sentiment. Losing customer trust and ignoring shifts in tastes can spell disaster.

“A big advantage of small businesses is that management can get close to customers,” says Adi Bittan, co-founder and CEO of OwnerListens in Palo Alto, CA. “Making a personal connection is a great way to engender loyalty and get authentic customer feedback.” That insight helps you spot trends like changing interest in a product or service, or feelings about customer experience and how you operate. “Make it super easy for customers to connect with you. Make your contact info available and put a feedback program in place that goes directly to you — not a contact center like the big companies do.”

Your Small Business Takeaway: Create systems to help you stay in touch with customer preferences, trends and values.

More than headlines, these business trends offer lessons to small business owners. Use this information to plan for a successful 2015 and beyond.

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