Small Business

Wrapping Up the Year in Small Business

Rhonda Abrams, USA Today
Apple iPhone
Manuel Balce Ceneta

Let's look back at some of the most significant trends and happenings affecting small companies this past year.

Global. We're all connected. One of the most vivid memories I have from 2011 came from my trip to Africa, watching a Maasai warrior, dressed in the traditional red plaid blanket, shepherding a herd of goats down a dusty road in Kenya. He lived in a village of huts made of dirt and dung without running water. Yet, glued to his ear was a cell phone! Even tiny towns had Internet cafes with signs for Facebook.

Mobile. We now expect to be able to do everything on our phone. My office manager, Rosa, is thrilled that she can run our office payroll from her cell phone any time day or night. It's a challenge for small businesses to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunities the growth of mobile offers us.

Cloud. The word no longer means only those fluffy white things in the sky. No, the cloud is where we store our data, run our software, collaborate with others. Internet-based apps exploded in 2011, and small businesses are early and eager adopters of these powerful, easy-to-use business functions.

Social media. It's not just for teenagers any more. In 2011, more small businesses grasped how to use social media tools to connect with customers. Location-based social media such as Foursquare enable you to target (and potentially up-sell) customers right when they come to your neck of the woods.

Health care. Our long national nightmare continues. Like most small business owners, my costs skyrocketed while benefits plummeted this year. The self-employed have it even harder. Many small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs are counting down to 2014 when the state health exchanges kick in.

Shop local.The movement picked up steam. And I hope it picks up a great deal more steam in 2012. Look for some kind of national agreement on Internet sales within the next couple of years to help give local bricks-and-mortar stores a fairer shake. In the meantime, we need to help educate our friends that if they want good local schools, fire and police departments, they had better shop locally.

Anti-local. That possibility also picked up steam. Want a way to kill your favorite local store? Now there's an app that encourages shoppers in real stores to do a price check and order online instead.

Banking. Credit for small businesses was still AWOL in 2011. Let's hope better financing options for small businesses show up in 2012.

Daily deal sites. We saw another one every 10 seconds. Groupon didn't just go public this year, it went viral. It has tons of competition, including Living Social, Gilt, Deal Chicken (which Gannett owns), and dozens more. My prediction for 2012: a shakeout of some of these companies, better deals for merchants and not such great deals for consumers.

Long-term unemployed.They're still with us. Let's hope many of them get jobs in 2012, and the rest start their very own businesses.

Occupy Wall Street. The protesters have an important message. The occupiers seem to be devolving, but their core message is still important for small companies. The middle class in America is shrinking, and it's the real long-term threat to our economy.

Steve Jobs.A true entrepreneur died. He changed the world, but don't take any lessons from his management style. You can only be a jerk and a bully if you're a genius. You're probably not.

Legislation. It was MIA. Did you see any legislation that provided meaningful assistance, incentives to hire, or improved access to credit for your small business? Me neither.

On a personal note, 2011 was the year my beloved dog Cosmo passed away. For most of my years in business, Cosmo was by my side — coming to the office, greeting clients, helping recruit new employees. He was my company's "CCO," chief canine officer, and he's missed.

I hope 2011 was a good year for you and that 2012 will be even better. Happy holidays.