• Johan Booysen

How Small Business can Compete with Big Business through Custom Online Solutions

Every small business owner know that it is difficult to compete against big businesses. Big businesses have more resources, better negotiation ability and the ability to hire way more staff than small businesses have. Sometimes they are also longer established and small businesses just can't compete. Perhaps your small business is from a fixed location and over time, the demographics simply changed so much that you are no longer located in the correct market. Perhaps your business is just starting out. Perhaps your business is very remotely located. There are many factors that could influence your business negatively when trying to edge into a market but at least we have the ability to fight back using online solutions.

Online solutions actually span a wide array of tools that could be used to your advantage, however I am not focusing right now marketing tools, such as websites, social media, etc.

This discussion is more on the tools that will help you render your services to your client and is drawn from my experience in developing solutions for my clients over many years in my business, Noproblem Systems.

Proud to be Small

Even though I have said that I will not talk about marketing, I want to point out that consumers are thoroughly fed up of being a number. Big businesses with call centres, legal departments and procurement offices make a consumer feel small and insignificant. Sometimes it feels threatening. That is why many people actively seek out small businesses and want to do business with small business owners which is great news.

Therefore a small business needs to do 2 things:

  1. Be very good at what you do.

  2. Take pride in being small and even mention it on your marketing material or website.

Leverage Online Solutions to your Advantage

Online Solutions provide you with a way to reach a wider audience with your service. Whatever the service or product, it you could figure out how a customer could do at least part of their interaction through an online mechanism, it is a big win. Firstly, many customers would feel empowered, being able to perform some tasks themselves, even if it is as mundane as checking their balance through an online interface. Secondly, suddenly your market opened up to a much wider audience and your business is available 24 hours per day. Thirdly, through a structured online solution, you could increase your capacity by having the software do much of the work for you.

Examples of Real Small Businesses

Since abstract ideas are sometimes difficult to visualize, I would like to present a few examples of real small businesses that exist because of the online solutions they offer. These examples below are from real clients of my software development company, Noproblem Systems.

Example 1: Custom Online Ticketing Solution

A client of my company is a small private charter company called SwiftFlite, running a service called JetWest. They employ some pilots and air hostesses as well a a few admin staff, they own a few aircraft, one of which is an Embraer 30 seater aircraft. In 2018, they saw an opportunity to run a regular route between a mine and a local airport. The mine was about 5 hour's drive and the airport was close to the city. The fact that most of the contractors that visited the mine worked for a company that employs a number of contractors meant that mostly billing was done in arrears. However keeping track of the available seats, short notice changes to passengers and billing created a lot of work for such a small company. That is when they approached us to develop a custom online ticketing solution for them. It was specific to their needs and simple to use, allowing both card payments and a credit line for approved customers. It had features specific to the way they operated which mean that apart from crew and maintenance staff, they could get away with running that business very successfully with just one person administering all aspects.

Now here comes the interesting part: There was also a second carrier, which was a very large airline company that offered the same service on the same route for slightly less. However their booking system, being a standard airline booking solution, lacked the ability to run credit for companies and therefore all the companies chose to book through the smaller company. By leveraging their ability to customize the service to the needs of the customer, my client was able to fill their aircraft to capacity every day!

Example 2: Vintage Sport Photo Online Store

In 2017, a friend once approached my company, Noproblem Systems, with a dilemma. He had bought the full rights to all the photos that a certain sports photographer has taken during his career and apart from writing history books on the matter, he also wanted to sell the images online on his website Athletics History.

Now selling images online is a fairly standard thing and there are many online solutions that already does that. The issue with this specific example was that was that the images were on film and therefore they had to be scanned, tagged and uploaded to the correct categories. Uploading all those images through the interface of any one of those tools meant a lot of work and there just was not the manpower to do it all.

The solution we came up with was a custom online solution with a desktop software that took care of uploading the photos to an online server. Basically the photos were scanned and indexed in a fast desktop environment and then, in the background a process would upload all those information on the cloud server. A clever way of saving thousands of man hours.

Example 3: Integrated Hardware and Online Solutions

I know that most small businesses would not even think about this level of sophistication, but this is a very nice example of a small business that thrives on the ability to use technology to their advantage. A client of my business, Noproblem Systems, operates a very unique business. They place and operate sunbeds at small beauty salons through their business Solarscape. This is a synergetic relationship between the the two companies. The sunbed attracts clients to the beauty salon while the staff at the beauty salon is able to assist the customers using the sunbed and keep the facility clean. However sunbeds are expensive to buy and to maintain. A further complexity is that you have to keep track of the number of hours before changing the UV tubes and it is a little bit technical also. Most beauty salons shy away from this due to the cost and complexity. So to facilitate all of this, way back in 2005, we have developed an online solution that manages and controls the sunbeds through a smart connected device on the machine. Apart from this is also manages the membership of the customers, performs the billing and debit runs. Allows the clients to purchase sessions online and book session on a particular sunbed.

Even though this business is small, leveraging the technology of online solutions with smart connected devices, allows it to operate in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

Even Very Insignificant Online Solutions can be Effective

I recently signed up with a very small company for a service. Since they were still new, their systems were not yet fully integrated and you had to download and complete a contract on paper. (That tends to be annoying to most people, who want to simply click a few buttons and get on with it.)

I myself shied away from completing the form. But on their website, they also had a section where I could "Get Started Now". In that section, you had to enter your card details and pay for the service. There was on a confirmation and thank you screen. Only afterwards, the owner manually emailed me the exact same form that I had been reluctant to complete before. So you see that even though there were very little automation, because there were some automation, it was better than nothing at all and it had hooked me to sign up.

How do I take the next step?

  1. Firstly, you have to think about the possibilities in your own small business for automation. Sometimes it is good to brainstorm with someone else on this. If you like, feel free contact me to start a discussion on this. Other people often see opportunities that you don't so it can be a great benefit to talk about it. You would also be surprised at how things become clearer to yourself when you physically explain it to someone else.

  2. Once you have identified where your business could benefit from online solutions, start looking for a solution partner. Find a software company that loves to dream with you about your business and is in it for the long haul. Now it is a bit tricky to pick the right partner, and I will someday blog about that as well, but be careful when you are pushed to do too much at first.

  3. Take small steps. If you are offered a website, an ecommerce system, a marketing and hr management solution, 2 mobile apps and a program that would keep the space shuttle in orbit, then you should take a step back and ask, do I really need this? Look at solid initial base that you can build upon and take it from there. Go for the "low hanging fruit". Those features that would give you the quickest way into the market at the lowest time and cost effort.

In Small Business, Cash flow is Tight, how do I Pay for this?

That is why many small business owners never progress. In fact many small businesses die a slow death because of this. Sometimes the cost of the innovation that your business desperately needs is the factor that causes it to fail. However there are ways around this, that I do need to discuss, apart from the obvious, to borrow money or to get an investor:

  1. If you find a software solution provider that can appreciate the size of your business and take a gradual approach to the development, your cost could be spread out over a longer time. Together you can slowly grow and add more features with their associated cost as you get stronger.

  2. Consider a SaaS solution. SaaS is an abbreviation for "Software as a Service" and basically you end up renting your custom software solution rather than paying up front for it. This is a huge help in the cash flow of a small business and you can read more about that in this blog. Your software company has to support that though.

  3. Sometimes it is best to start with your budget in your discussions with your software partner. Tell them what your up front and monthly abilities are and see whether it is possible for them to come up with a plan inside those parameters.

In conclusion I want to encourage you to keep dreaming, keep thinking and keep asking questions. Educate yourself on what is possible, but be careful of too much of a DIY approach as this can consume all your time and energy and could be a potential threat to your small business. Please feel free to contact me to discuss this further or visit the website of my business, Noproblem Systems.

May God bless you business!

Jesus Christ is my King