What Do SMBs Need From IT? Simple: It's Simplicity

This is becoming a mantra: Business applications need to be easy to install and use, or else no one will use them.

SAN FRANCISCO—What do small businesses want more than anything from IT? Functionality? Scalability? Speed? Mobility?

Sure, they want all of those features. But the "killer app" for them is simplicity. This is because most small businesses don't have the luxury of having a full-time IT staff member, so apps and systems first have to be simple and intuitive for line-of-business folks to use them. Otherwise, IT simply doesn't work and is shelved.

This was a key data point noted at a recent small-business IT forum and panel discussion hosted by Infusionsoft at the Clift Hotel here.

Panel members included Clate Mask, co-founder and CEO of Infusionsoft; Todd Rowe, managing director of Global Channel Sales at Google; Alex Chriss, vice president of the Self-Employed Solutions Business Unit of Intuit's Small Business Division; Ryan Thompson, head of small business at Magento; and Scott Sanborn, chief marketing and operating officer at Lending Club. Video blogger Robert Scoble ("Scobleizer") of Rackspace was the moderator.

Key data points cited by panel members included the following.

--Simplicity in IT is mandatory.

"People ask what the killer app is for SMB; for me, it's not an app per se, it's simplicity," Rowe of Google said. "Whether it's using Google Analytics or others, it all has to be presented in a 'Sesame Street'-simple way, made for small businesses. It's 'Here's where your customers are, here's where they're coming from to your Website,' and so on. That's where you'll start seeing the tipping point."

This is becoming a mantra for all software development: Business applications need to be easy to install and use. The interfaces have to be intuitive to navigate, and drop-down menus and wizards are a must. The apps themselves need to anticipate errors and provide easy alternatives for the user.

In short, apps—especially for small businesses—need to follow the admonition of Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott on the classic television show, "The Office": "Talk to me as though I were a third-grader."

Actually, simplicity in apps works well in the enterprise world, too, as more and more line-of-business employees use cloud services and mobile devices.

--Small businesses are becoming more savvy about using free-of-cost social networks than many business observers think.

They are using Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other channels in creative ways—maybe more creatively than larger enterprises are at this time.

"They've found they don't have to spend millions and millions of dollars [in advertising] to get their products in front of people," Chriss of Intuit said.

"Facebook is incredibly easy to get up and running, but when you get 1,000 likes, 2,000 likes—what does that mean for the business?" Rowe said. "How do you provide attribution? Every dollar for a small business is sacred, so how do you make sure you've got a strong return on your investment? So social is really important for them, so they can really drill into a specific community for the customer base and touch them."

"If you're a solopreneur, you generally haven't built up a list of potential customers that you're going to promote your products and services to, but what's very natural is to go talk about it in your networks," Mask of Infusionsoft said. "We see that in our business, customers using Facebook as a very natural way to get the word out about what they're doing."

--Small businesses often don't realize how effective they're being in using social media.

"Big business marketers are asked to 'try and be authentic,' whereas small business owners are kind of 'born authentic,'" Thompson of Magento said. "They just need to be aware that by being authentic, they're being good at social marketing, and they need to be reminded to use that to grow their business."

--Texting is growing as a communications channel for small businesses.

Services such as Snapchat, WeChat (China), and Whatsapp (U.S., owned by Facebook) are seeing huge up-shifts in usage—and a lot of this can be credited to small businesses. Uber rides, pizza and laundry deliveries, special services (such as a service that buys a customer tickets to a ball game or concert) and numerous others are using text messaging to connect the business dots.

"You're really in the intimate space when you're on text. This is all very personalized, and you're not paying for data," Chriss said.

Personalization is what small businesses are all about, and they are finding ways to use new media to grow into larger businesses.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...