The advent of the Internet means that most small businesses nowadays might be better described as “micro-nationals”. That is, a small to medium enterprise (SME) that could trade and grow globally, facilitated by a web presence and an e-commerce trading platform.
There are over 150 million of these small firms in the world, employing more than half a billion people.
There is now a new type of company, like Alibaba Cloud, which may be able to help these firms. These companies are called Primary Providers and they provide core web hosting, site building, e-commerce, and promotional services to help SMEs reach global markets. The rise of the Primary Provider is a particularly important phenomenon which has simplified the process for SMEs that wish to get online and start their conversion from small business to micro-national. A Primary Provider brings together the infrastructure, platform, application software and domain registration under one roof, improving the speed of the process and making billing and control simpler.
By relying on a Primary Provider for web hosting, it is now possible to launch a website with almost any national domain prefix — from the large English-speaking countries to China, the world’s single largest market — for under a dollar and in just a few hours.
Achieving success in international trade need not be a function of scale. A small firm can trade globally as easily as a large firm.
The principal drivers for this large-scale empowerment of small firms have been:
• the growth in the reach and capabilities of logistics firms
• the growth in Internet use by small businesses which can now bring the varied functions from marketing and order acceptance to shipment within the capabilities of one or two people
• the emergence of e-commerce trading platforms which provide these linked services
• the growth to near-universal acceptance of online payments, from credit cards to cryptocurrencies
• the rapid decline in the cost of accessing Internet facilities, from data and storage to web design, hosting and platform access
• new attitudes, with owner-managers throwing themselves into it with commitment and treating it as a core skill for the company, at the heart of their business model
With such tangible benefits available, why aren’t more SMEs committed to transitioning into micro-nationals? Some of the perceived drawbacks are:
• Unknown ROI — small firms are happy to buy things which they need for their business, but it is often hard for them to imagine a new business model and harder to quantify the return on a website until results are proven. Small firms find these open-ended investments hard to justify.
• Leadership and disposition — owner-managers recognize that they have to be confident and be advocates and enthusiasts to make progress online.
• Skills — owner-managers and the personnel in small businesses quickly find that maintaining an online presence takes time and can be complicated, and they soon feel they need specialist skills which are not readily available at reasonable cost to develop a website beyond the basic level.
• Cost — the cost of deploying a website has been a material cost to a small business, though this has now changed decisively and this barrier has almost disappeared.
There is also the general background of how hard small firms work to make progress and where a website and online trading fits in their overall priorities.
In all countries, there is an Internet connectivity gap between small and large firms, and small firms face a host of other issues that rarely have as much impact on larger ones. These range from the access to finance — usually cited as the single most important issue — to regulatory issues such as import tariffs, the implementation of trade facilitation and the enforcement of property rights.
To begin the journey from SME to micro-national there are three things SMEs need to get right: visibility, availability, and trust. A web presence is vital to these three things, and if addressed together they can deliver a step change, not just incremental growth for a small business.
Visibility of a business in a marketplace is paramount. When a customer is considering a need or exploring products or services, the Internet plays a major role at this early stage. It informs research and helps frame questions, it helps assess features and benefits, it allows comparison between competing vendors, and it gives access to feedback from trusted authorities and peers.
Having a good quality website is not the only factor that influences the visibility of a business online. A business that is referenced by other websites will achieve higher visibility. The more credible the sources referencing the business, the better the visibility. A business which regularly posts online videos or social content will also find its visibility in search engines much improved. Even such things as having local offices with addresses and contact details can dramatically improve the visibility of a business online.
Availability means that a website makes itself available at every opportunity to transact with a visitor, whether the visitor wishes to download materials, browse products and services, compare, purchase, cancel orders, return products or connect directly with the business through email, chats, instant messenger, voice, video, raising support tickets or some other mechanism.
Availability does not just mean that a website is available to conduct a financial transaction — it means that a website is available for the visiting customer to connect and transact in the way that is most comfortable or natural for them, day and night.
Availability is important because customer expectations are so high. They value immediacy, and if they reach conclusions and make a decision as they explore their purchase options, they like to act on them and get results quickly. They expect that the website will provide ways for them to connect and interact.
If the required features aren’t available, the customer will look elsewhere to a site that is more available.
Trust is a vital step in the process for all customers. They may see a business online and they may be ready to transact with a click, but they will almost always do some background checking to become comfortable with the business they are about to buy from. It helps if they know the brand and it already has a global reputation, but even then, they will typically still do some basic checking to ensure they have the correct “official” website and they are not about to enter into a transaction with an authorized third-party by accident.
One of the most important references for a new customer is what other customers have said online, on the website or in social media about their own experience with the business.
For a website to impact trust in a positive way it must deliver two things: value and transparency. The site should deliver value by allowing the customer to do the things they want to do and providing them with the information they need to do these things, all in an easy and efficient manner. Businesses need to develop the skill of simplifying their offering for it to work online, from simple words and images, to easy ways to navigate the website in mobile, tablet, laptop, and desktop format. Research has shown time and again that a website where the developers have clearly thought through what the customer wants and needs, will contribute to trust much more than a website which simply showcases what the company wishes to present.
Transparency builds trust and it means the business needs to provide answers to the question: “So who are these guys?” The answers can come from an “About” page on the website which tells a short story about the business and gives key facts about its origins and key staff. The business could explain with care and passion how the products are sourced or made and how the company functions. People who are buying online relate more quickly and easily to companies who also give an insight into their own people.
If there is no web presence, or if it is poorly executed or not up to date, a customer is likely to choose an alternative supplier.
If a customer has to search too hard to find the right website for the business, or if it is not obvious which website is the right one for the business, they will seek an alternative supplier.
If they then find the business, but note that contact details are out of date, the company is publicizing awards that it won five years ago, or that its news pages have not been updated for six months or more, they will not feel the business is reliable. They will prefer to deal with a business which is more geared up for online trade.
Businesses which operate websites live under a constant pressure that if the website fails to meet the customer expectations at any time, the customer will immediately and without hesitation go and do business elsewhere. On the other hand, there are big benefits to getting it right in the areas of visibility, availability, and trust. It can mean the difference between remaining an SME, and truly becoming a micro-national.