Large enterprises are in the spotlight when it comes to technology’s role in driving the economy. From Ford to Google, big businesses certainly make large investments in technology that can save them time and enable innovation, and so are rightly courted by software and hardware vendors. But small businesses are just as important drivers of innovation, especially in the design engineering space.
More than half of the U.S. working population is employed by one of the country’s 28 million small businesses with fewer than 500 employees, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). In fact, SBA says small businesses account for more than 99% of all U.S. businesses, and they produce about half of the private nonfarm gross domestic product. Tailoring technology investments to benefit small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is vital to the economy, and vital to many technology vendors who are rushing to meet the demand.
SMBs’ technology expectations are high. Brother International Corporation, in partnership with SCORE, an organization that mentors small businesses, recently released results from a survey of 500 U.S. businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The survey showed that 72% of respondents expect new technologies to offer a bigger return on their investment than new employees in 2014. Almost half (49%) of the Brother Small Business survey respondents put investing in technology tools at the top of their 2014 priorities. The problem is understanding which technologies to choose. The survey indicates 63% of respondents frequently feel overwhelmed with the number of technologies available to run their businesses.
A Big Business History
The confusion surrounding SMB technology options is understandable. Not long ago, there were technologies that sat squarely in the realm of large enterprises: product lifecycle management, advanced simulation software, enterprise resource planning and more. They often required a significant investment in software licensing and high-performance computing hardware that was out of reach for most SMBs.
But now those technologies are widely available thanks to strides vendors have made in making them more accessible and the greater availability of affordable computing power — from desktop workstations that can handle demanding software, to clusters of cheap workstations, to Cloud services. As technology in general has gotten smaller, mobile and more affordable, SMBs have the potential to reap significant benefits. Today’s technology makes it possible for one person to afford a workstation capable of running advanced design and simulation software, burst to the Cloud as needed, 3D print prototypes at his desk or at a rapid prototyping service provider, and collaborate with clients or even market and sell the product himself online. He can optimize designs, track data from hundreds of iterations and improve a product faster than some large corporations can get an idea out of committee.
Service and Support
That’s the possibility, but the reality is that many SMBs are slow to adopt new technologies. The SBA notes that small businesses have created 65% of net new jobs since 1995, but 22 million of the 28 million U.S. small businesses are non-employers. That means there are a lot of one-person operations out there, trying to keep up with technology and run a business.
An SMB’s size is one of its greatest assets. It provides the agility needed to quickly capitalize on new trends. But size can also be an SMB’s greatest weakness. Small business owners and employees wear many hats. The design engineer is often also the software support specialist, computer repairman, website administrator and technology procurement manager. As Jason Lopes, lead systems engineer with special effects company Legacy Effects, said during his RAPID 2014 keynote: “If it plugs into a wall, I’m responsible for it.”
Unlike SMBs who are overwhelmed by technology, Lopes relies heavily on service providers, collaborates online with other small businesses to find the expertise he needs, and leans on hardware and software vendors for support. In short, he is able to scale up quickly to incorporate the use of the latest and greatest technologies.
The can-do attitude and independent mindset that led to the formation of many small businesses can hamper their growth. Technology allows SMBs to do more than ever, but they don’t have to do it all alone.