Is it Time to Use Big Data to Run Your Small Business?

Use business intelligence software to make informed decisions about your small business — without breaking the bank on data analysts.
Just like enterprises, small businesses can benefit from business intelligence software. Learn how big data can help grow your business. (Photo: Maksim Kabakou)

The main reason for investing in big data is to take all the information your computer collects and use it more efficiently, says Ben Noble, communications manager at New Voice Media. (Photo: Ben Noble)

Big data. The intimidating name that appears regularly in the news to describe how organizations, businesses and intelligence agencies leverage large stores of information to work more efficiently — sounds like something that only big enterprises have the resources to invest in.

But at its core, big data, which is a popular way to refer to business intelligence (BI) solutions, isn’t necessarily expensive or complex. And it might be the solution you need to take your business to the next level.

The case for (and against) big data

At its core, the main reason to invest in big data is to make all of the information you’re already collecting more useful. You might be storing customer information in an application like Salesforce, support ticket information from Zendesk, and website performance in Google Analytics. With the right software, you can combine and visualize it all in a way that allows you to improve your customer interactions and better gauge your business’s current performance.


“Small businesses can’t afford to try to find problems for Business Intelligence to solve. If there isn’t a ‘hair on fire’ business problem or if it’s not driving immediate business results, chances are small businesses shouldn’t care.” -Jeff Ferguson
(Photo: Jeff Ferguson)

“The right tool can consolidate all that information into a single dashboard,” said Ben Noble, communications manager at NewVoiceMedia. “It helps you make smarter decisions. If a customer is constantly calling in worried about a delivery, software can help flag this guy and recommend keeping an eye on him to ensure on time deliveries.”

Some experts are more pragmatic, advising that you need to have a clear idea of why you want to explore big data from the outset or it’s not worth the expense.

“Small businesses can’t afford to try to find problems for BI to solve,” said Jeff Ferguson, co-founder at PipelineDB, Ferguson. “If there isn’t a ‘hair on fire’ business problem or if it’s not driving immediate business results, chances are small businesses shouldn’t care.”

And Daniel Harris, market research associate at Software Advice, agreed that you should approach this idea with caution, citing the potential expense. “True big data analytics requires a data scientist, an IT department, or analyst teams — resources that are far beyond the budget of small businesses.”

When it works

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t explore the benefits from big data. No matter your industry or kind of business, a key part of big data is getting to know your customers. The right data can help you to interpret their buying habits and anticipate future trends. Many retailers and restaurants, for example, have a variety of offline, online and conversion data that’s ripe for a combined analysis.

“I am currently consulting with one small retail business to bring website visitors, phone calls received with Click To Call, and conversion information from a third party together into one system,” Dan Gudema, consultant and chief executive officer at StartupPOP, said. “In this case, technologies like Google Analytics, MySQL and Periscope Data all came together to render the full picture, giving the company business intelligence to make future decisions.

Self-serve BI

The good news is that, while Daniel Harris warned you might get the best results with BI experts, you don’t necessarily need to hire data engineers to explore big data. Increasingly, there are self-service BI tools available that let small businesses analyze and interpret data without the need for specialists.


Although hiring a Business Intelligence (BI) expert is a good idea, there are self-service BI tools that small business owners can access themselves, says Daniel Harris, market research associate at Software Advice. (Photo: Daniel Harris)

If you already have a wealth of data from apps and services within the company — like Salesforce, Quickbooks, GA, and Zendesk — but no way to visualize and interpret it, consider a tool like ClearStory Data. ClearStory combines your business’s data to create graphs and other visuals. Or there are solutions like Domo and InsightSquared — both of these are popular tools that connect to data you already have, to create displays for forecasting, lead generation and tracking, profitability and more.

If, on the other hand, you don’t currently have sources like those, you can consider generating the data you need through customer surveys. Qualtrics is a tool that lets you conduct studies with customers and glean insights on customers, employees and the entire market.

And if your business is primarily online, be sure to adopt Google Analytics. It’s the gold standard for online BI data in part because it’s free, and in part because it delivers detailed web monitoring data about every aspect of your site’s traffic and engagement.

Is it right for you?

BI solutions thrive on data — the more multifaceted the data, the better. If your business is only in a single channel, like the internet, or uses a single app, there’s little, if any benefit in investing in a BI solution. But if you collect data from multiple sources, BI can combine and connect them in ways that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with, say, an Excel spreadsheet alone.

It often comes down to cost. A license for many common BI solutions typically start at hundreds of dollars for a single user. That sounds daunting, but consider that you may only need one or two licenses.

And that investment has the potential to make a big difference.

“If your business is all about small details and your margins are thin, then it is even more important to use your data wisely,” Gudema said. “Quite often the solution to finding an insight is in the combination of data, not in one report.”

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