Innovation drives technology forward, making the business world run more smoothly and providing ways to save money. No business knows this more than the small business. Without the kind of cost savings innovation brings, many of them would close their doors for good. Here are some specific ways technical innovation is helping smaller businesses thrive.
1: Linux and open source
Linux and open source have not only matured into a business-ready platform, they have pushed innovation forward on a number of fronts. From the server all the way up to the desktop, Linux and open source have helped force the competition to reevaluate how the user and business interact with hardware and customers. The Linux desktop has proved that more can be done with a user interface than the worn-out Start button/task bar metaphor. And with the power of the Linux server, businesses can work with tools like customer resource management, human resource management, and other platforms they might not otherwise have access to. Along with this innovation comes considerable cost savings.
2: Electronic invoicing/receipts
Electronic invoicing and receipts have started invading small businesses, and with good reason. The ability to email receipts to customers helps businesses save the cost of receipt printer paper — and on printers altogether. Although it may seem like a negligible cost at first, over time all that paper adds up. And the continued growth and evolution of electronic invoicing is making it more efficient for small businesses to get paid. And speaking of getting paid…
3: Mobile payment systems
Mobile payment systems have finally become mature enough to be used, reliably, by any small business. You really see these popping up in the restaurant industry and small boutique shops. Apple iPads are quickly establishing themselves as the new world cash register system, and nearly any smartphone can now accept payments thanks to tools like the Intuit's GoPayment. With these new, reliable, cost-effective payment systems, your business can easily travel, and it can quickly and effortlessly take payments for services and products.
4: Blogging platforms
Blogging shouldn't be shoved off your radar simply because it has empowered everyone to seem like an authority on every subject known to man. Blogging platforms can enable your company to easily and cheaply connect to your customers and audience in ways never before possible. And with platforms like WordPress, you have at your disposal a wide-range of add-ons that can transform that simple blogging platform into a full-blown business-centric, content-driven Web site. So don't pish-posh blogging platforms and the innovations they bring.
Many startups are using crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to fund and/or expand their projects and help them get off the ground. Services like Kickstarter and Fundable focus on just that – helping you fund your project. Although this sounds like professional panhandling, you'd be surprised at how many people and companies successfully achieve their goals this way. Without the help of innovative and well-crafted services, this wouldn't be nearly as easy.
6: Social media aggregation
Social media aggregation is one of the easiest forms of keeping your finger on the pulse of your customer/client base. Using various tools, you can keep abreast of what your client base wants. You can also quickly post to multiple social networking services to announce specials, promotions, and much more. And what business would be willing to turn down free marketing? Ultimately, the innovation of social network (and the aggregators that make using them easy) has helped bridge the gap between company and client faster and better than most other technologies — at little to no cost.
7: Cloud-based groupware
If you don't want to pay for an Exchange server and your needs are fairly minimal, cloud-based groupware could be the answer. Both Google and Zoho are amazing platforms for your groupware needs. Small companies may be able to get by with the standard Gmail and Drive. Larger companies might need to turn to the more enterprise-focused Google Apps. Zoho offers numerous tools on its platform – a la cart — that can have you and your business expanding in a variety of ways without having to drain your company budget.
Tablets offer an inexpensive way to get your employees and your business mobile. Not only do they allow for serious work to be done on the road, they enable you to conduct transactions more efficiently, thanks to the myriad software titles available. Combine powerful productivity tools with invoicing and payment software, and modern tablets provide a complete office-on-the-go experience. Eventually, the tablet will completely replace the laptop as the go-to hardware for mobile business users.
9: DSLR cameras
DSLR cameras and video-editing software have come a long way, even though they've been around for a while. With these tools, you can create professional-looking marketing content in-house. And the DSLR cameras aren't limited to still photography. With amazing sensors and lenses, DSLR cameras can shoot HD movies brilliantly. You can take your marketing to the next level and create perfect YouTube-ready commercials to help promote your business. Video-editing software doesn't have to come in the form of Final Cut Pro — that will run you more than $1,000 USD. You can opt for the open source OpenShot and still get great transitions, titles, effects, and much more.
10: 3D printing
3D printing is offering a world of promise for many markets. These amazing devices enable the small business to easily fabricate products that can serve as three-dimensional mock-ups or even as the final product. 3D printers have come far in the last few years, and the results are close (if not dead on) to a finished product. From clothing, to casts, to models, to — well, just about anything. Compare this to the price of having mock-ups and products machined, and the cost savings is apparent. On top of that, you can easily "print" one-off products geared specifically to individual customers, which will set your business well apart from others.
Innovation — even when it's the evolution of an existing product — means businesses can work more efficiently and more cheaply. Not all of these innovations make sense for your business, but many do. And as each day passes, even more innovations will come to light to expand the world of business and IT even further.
- IT Innovation for Small Businesses (ZDNet special report page)
- Executive’s guide to IT innovation in small businesses (free ebook)
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.