Strategy

Small business trends: Big developments you need to know about

The following tech trends aren't part of some hyper-connected, distant future. It's all happening right now.

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(Photo: capsun/Flickr)

If you thought your iPhone or BlackBerry was already crucial to your small business, just wait for what’s in store. Need to accept a customer’s credit card from a remote location? Not a problem. Need to find reliable workers for odd jobs and errands? There’s an app for that. Speaking of apps, what if your business needs one built? You’ll have plenty of options. What’s being described isn’t some hyper-connected, distant future—it’s right now, though not exactly ubiquitous. Keep an eye out for these three tech trends, all of which are certain to impact your small business.

Digital payment options

Credit card machines have long been a hassle for small businesses owners. Not only do companies buy the terminal and pay transaction fees, but they’re locked into contracts. And for small businesses without a fixed retail space, credit cards just aren’t an option.

Well, business owners can rejoice, because digital payment options should make life easier. Amy Webb, CEO of digital strategy agency Webbmedia Group, points out the popularity of Square in the United States. The San Francisco-based company—which is the brainchild of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey—allows people to accept credit card payments through Apple or Android mobile devices. At zero cost, you can register for a free card reader, which plugs into your device’s headphone jack and accepts Visa and MasterCard payments. Square charges a 2.75% fee on each transaction—a cheaper rate than some credit card processors—and doesn’t lock users into contracts.

It’s an attractive option, especially for mobile businesses. “At our farmers’ market, there are several small businesses, which happen to be farms, that are now using Square as a primary payment form,” says Webb. “It’s dead easy to use and cost-effective.” Already, more than two million people and businesses are using Square in the U.S. and the service launched in Canada in October. In the coming years, the digital payment industry is headed for meteoric growth, with major tech players like Apple, Google and Windows getting involved.

The app economy

Apps are becoming big business. Consider that Canada’s app industry employs more than 50,000 people, according to a recent report from the Information and Communications Technology Council, an Ottawa-based research and consulting group. “Our phone rings off the hook,” says Kerry Morrison, CEO of Endloop, a Toronto-based app developer. This year, Endloop has grown its year-over-year revenues by six to seven times, says Morrison, and he doesn’t see momentum fading. “Without being hyperbolic about [the app industry], it’s a veritable goldmine.”

Of course, the market didn’t exist a short time ago, before we coveted iPhones and BlackBerrys. But over the past few years, smartphone adoption has skyrocketed: the ICTC says that Canadian smartphone users will exceed 13 million this year, up from 9.1 million in 2011. In turn, a sizable market has opened up for tech-savvy entrepreneurs and startups nationwide, especially in Toronto, says Morrison. “There is a shocking amount of talent coming out of this city,” he says. “We get a lot of calls from very big brands and companies in the States, and while there are plenty of talented developers down there, I think [Toronto] is really making a name for itself.”

The future looks bright too, with the ICTC predicting that industry revenues will reach $2.2 billion in 2016, up from a current estimate of $775 million. Morrison has a prediction of his own. “Whatever the numbers in the study are, triple them, if not more over the next couple years,” he says. “And I think that’ll be modest for what could potentially happen.”

Peer-to-peer job sites

Think of all the odd jobs that your small business faces in a given week. Maybe you get the receptionist to run across town to pick up some important documents. Or maybe you ask the self-proclaimed office handyman to install new whiteboards (with debatable results). Either way, you’re wasting resources.

But thankfully, there’s a growing marketplace for odd jobs, wherein capable workers are just a mouse-click away. Think of it as Craigslist for the Web 2.0 era.

Investors are pumping millions into these startups, which are best described as peer-to-peer job sites. Notable platforms like TaskRabbit, Zaarly and Exec allow people to buy and sell labour amongst themselves in a time-efficient manner. On TaskRabbit, for instance, you can either post jobs or bid on them, and all payments run through the service. When the job has been completed, both employer and employee can rate each other. The result is something more reliable than your typical Kijiji posting.

So why is the trend picking up now? “I think the growth in demand for these sites is directly related to the economy since 2008,” says Sean Wise, a Ryerson University professor who served as the online host of Dragons’ Den for five seasons. He believes the appetite for part-time, on-demand work has grown due to high youth unemployment rates and baby boomers needing work after the financial downturn. Indeed, reports have said that 25% of TaskRabbit’s workforce is retired people.

For the small business community, using peer-to-peer job sites has obvious benefits. You can pay for services on an individual basis and avoid unnecessary hiring. You can also find temp workers who are highly-rated by companies similar to your own. At the moment, the market for odd jobs is small and mostly limited to urban areas in the United States. But if venture capitalists have spoken with their chequebooks, then you better believe that temp work is undergoing a big change.