Traditionally, technology has strengthened the advantages of large enterprises. Only the big guys could afford sophisticated systems and teams of consultants to streamline their business processes. More recently, big data has also allowed corporate giants to use their market footprint to derive insights about consumers and markets.
For the most part, small businesses were cut out of the loop.
Sure, they could go to their local electronics store and buy a shrink-wrapped product like QuickBooks to help them manage basic processes, but these were limited. If small proprietors wanted something that catered to their specific business, they were mostly out of luck.
Yet cloud computing is now evening the playing field. Today, even the tiniest of enterprises can access nearly unlimited computing power on the cloud for an affordable price. Perhaps even more importantly, entire ecosystems of applications allow proprietors to build custom solutions for any scale or scope of activity. And customizability is really important.
For small businesses, it is truly a new day.
Helping Local Restaurants Compete With National Chains
Everybody loves their local restaurant. The food tends to be much more creative than in a national chain like Applebee’s or Red Lobster and they offer a unique experience. If you frequent a neighborhood establishment, you’ll probably get to know the owner, order special dishes you like off the menu and be made to feel right at home.
Yet watch an episode of Restaurant Impossible or Bar Rescue and it will quickly become clear how hard it is for local restaurants to compete with national chains, who can invest in top notch systems to help run the restaurant and provide data analytics as well as staff marketing teams to assess demand and run promotions.
Cake is a company that helps even the playing field. It offers affordable solutions for point-of-sale, reservations and seating, as well as marketing and big data solutions, allowing owners to analyze their operations more effectively. Local restaurants can sign up and install the solutions easily, which will give them many of the benefits big chains enjoy.
Also, because thousands of restaurants are hooked up to the system, it’s not just about hardware and software, but also data. What menu items are selling? What hours are the most profitable? Which holidays does it make sense to stay open on? Cake lets restaurateurs make decisions based on the experiences of similar business in their area and across the country.
Empowering Independent Medical Practices
It used to be that a doctor could simply hang out a shingle, hire an assistant or two to handle appointments and billing, establish an affiliation with a local hospital and thrive. But over the past few decades the burdens on medical practices have drastically increased. Managed care, regulation, and the increased complexity of medicine have all contributed to the problem.
That’s why so many doctors have become employees at hospitals or large medical practices. Although they lose much of their independence, they gain a back office, a marketing organization, and access to the latest technology. They can focus on treating patients and let somebody else take care of the rest. Unfortunately, by doing so doctors lose their autonomy.
However, for doctors that choose to stay independent, Kareo offers a viable solution. It offers low-cost, easy-to-use and easy-to-install solutions for billing, practice management, and marketing. Because it is cloud based, its marketplace also seamlessly connects to hundreds of other specialty applications for things like managing lab tests and electronic health records.
All of this helps independent medical practices stay competitive. Rather than having to pay huge sums of money to design a system that caters to their practice and medical specialty, they get a customizable platform that gives them the capabilities they need to compete.
Watson For Small Business
For over a century, IBM has been focused on selling solutions to large enterprises. The company began, in part, when Herman Hollerith sold his first tabulating machine to the U.S. Census and ever since, its success has been based on its ability to develop some of the world’s most sophisticated technology to solve big problems.
So it wasn’t surprising that when IBM first began marketing its Watson cognitive computing system, which can do incredibly complex artificial intelligence tasks, it focused on large enterprises. Watson Health, for example, works with some of the world’s top hospitals, like Memorial Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Yet it soon became clear that there might even more potential in offering Watson’s capabilities through APIs to allow others to build applications on top of IBM’s technology.
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“We see Watson as an intelligent engine for our partners to build solutions that will better serve their customers,” Jonas Nwuke, IBM Watson Platform Manager, told me in an interview for another article.
What’s interesting is that many of the applications being built help power small businesses. ROSS, for example, helps small law firms pour through documents, much like the armies of lawyers do at big firms. Superphone helps turn social media followers into real revenues, and Meeka is an app developed by a Brazilian startup that caters to wedding planners.
Technology Not Only Disrupts, It Also Empowers
We often think of technology as a disruptive force. And it often is. A simple smartphone today replaces technology that would have costs thousands of dollars to buy 20 years ago. In the future, robots in factories, self-driving delivery trucks, and other forms of automation will compete with humans for jobs.
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However, technology also empowers smaller enterprises to do a lot more than they ever could before and the cloud may be the best example of that. It used to be that to use a big system, you would have to buy it and have it installed. But now that we can access large systems through the Internet, we can share the cost with hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
Rob Pickell, Chief Marketing Officer at Kareo, points out his company’s software would be impossible to produce cost effectively if it was an installed solution. Mani Kulasooriya, CEO at CAKE highlights the flexibility that the cloud makes possible, allowing restaurant owners to see how their business is doing without having to be there in person.
Clearly, small businesses like restaurants, individual medical practices, and others still have an uphill battle. Large enterprises have far more capital, bargaining power, and other advantages. Still, the fact that the little guys can now have access to technology similar to even the biggest corporations at least gives them more of a fighting chance.
For these small businesses, being able to compete against their better-bankrolled rivals is, as Pharrell Williams famously sang, just a cloud away.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com