Big Data for Small and Medium Businesses

by Craig Mellow

Small businesses are discouraged by big data.

In a recent Nielsen survey, just 12 percent of business owners said they cope “very well” with deriving “actionable insight” from data processing. That compared with 42 percent who thought automated market research was either too complicated or time-consuming to attempt.

Most small business owners can easily see the advantages of knowing more about which customers buy what and when; how the vehicles and packages that service their business travel; or how sales and expenses at different sites compare in real time -- all of which are advertised plusses of the big data era. But to many, obtaining this knowledge seems like an overwhelming task.  

This attitude from small businesses is not surprising.

The big data era is in one sense true to its name. Some 90 percent of all of the world’s electronically stored information was created over the past two years, as collective memory vaults from Facebook to credit card providers make leaps forward in storage and analytical capacity. Making sense of this terra-tangle on a limited budget is certainly intimidating. But user-friendly tools are evolving rapidly.

A good place to start is by ignoring the off-putting term “big data” entirely, and asking instead which elements of your business you would like to know more about and manage more scientifically for efficiency. Item number one for many retail businesses may be customer identities, demographics and preferences. Other business owners may focus on shipping and the logistics chain, others still on accounting and managers’ performance.

After you’ve focused your needs, look around to see what resources are available aside from becoming a computer genius yourself, or hiring big-name consultants for hundreds of dollars an hour. A number of big data tools are well on their way to becoming part of everyday small business life without most owners even realizing it, like spreadsheets and QuickBooks did in their time. Perhaps the most common of all is Google Analytics, which extends advanced data-crunching techniques to customers who visit your website, and any millennial employee should be able to deploy passably well. The humble weather report is another big data app in disguise. With longer range and more detailed predictions constantly available from the government and private weather sites, small businesses can plan more exactly when to pull out the barbecue pits and sunscreen, or supplement their gelato business with a special on hot chocolate.

Some big data analysis resources may be effectively borrowed from a bigger business that is a provider or customer. Federal Express, for instance, can attach a sensor called SenseAware that lets you track not only the real-time location of any package, but also the temperature, humidity and light exposure to which it is subjected. Along with some software to compile these inputs, this can be a powerful tool for small business owners who offer perishable goods like flowers.

Specialist data analytics firms and sites are proliferating at a terrific pace and sharply decreasing their price. Online providers like Canopy Labs or InsightSquared offer small businesses what is essentially outsourced customer relationship management (CRM) at affordable fees. Canopy keeps tabs on up to 5,000 customers for free, and up to 100,000 for $250 a month -- pretty big data for such an affordable price.

For one-off or unorthodox assignments in big data mining, online consultants like HyperCube or Acxiom are disrupting a business previously dominated by big names such as SAS. A provider that introduces an interesting social media element is Kaggle, which matches data-challenged small businesses with problem solvers through a sort of online auction process: the client submits a problem and developers who are members of the site compete to offer solutions.

This consulting world can be a bit confusing and laden with jargon. But it is simpler than trying to become an expert yourself. Big data can boost a small business if you don’t focus on how big it is. Think about the problems you need to solve and the solutions available, and little steps may take you a long way.

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"Big Data for Small and Medium Businesses"