The Small Business Web: “Friends with Business Benefits”

What if someone pulled together all of the tools you need to run your small business in one place on the web? Sound too good to be true? I sat down with team members from The Small Business Web, a directory of companies who work together to better serve small businesses. Read on for the scoop on how they are making it easy for small businesses to be efficient, organized and get the job done.

 

 

Melissa Zieger: How did The Small Business Web come about? What is it, exactly?

 

Michelle Riggen-Ransom:  The company I co-founded, BatchBlue Software, was going to South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2009, and we had integrated BatchBlue Software’s APIs into other companies. We thought it might be helpful for us to work with each other’s marketing departments to try and market jointly instead of singularly. So, we decided to market the five companies together as web app builders. We all serve the small business market and all solve a different issue for small businesses - almost like a suite.

 

In order to do this though, we decided this group needed a name. We came up with the name The Small Business Web because it actually is like an integrated web of services that you can choose from that all address the same market. The five founding were companies BatchBlue Software, FreshBooks, MailChimp, ShoeBoxed, and Outright.

 

So, we launched at SXSW in 2009. Then we watched the movement grow in an incredibly organic way. People took note at SXSW and we saw articles appearing and videos getting posted. We then started to get inquiries from vendors who wanted to get involved in The Small Business Web, so we needed to create some ground rules.

 

Our manifesto believes small businesses are the lifeblood of economy, and we want to help them achieve success. With that in mind, we created simple rules of engagement. Members have to have an open API – they cannot charge for it or hide it behind a firewall. And they have to be respectful of customers. That’s it. Those are the only criteria to join.

 

At first we had just a static HTML site. Then in 2010 we wanted to make it easier to see how the products work together. We also wanted to decrease the amount of maintenance that our team was required to do in order to add companies. So, we wrote up specs and our tech team created a new site.

 

Now it is really simple. Once you are approved, you can update your own section – almost like WordPress. The Small Business Web has grown to a robust directory that can be as simple or complex as the individual companies like, because they control their own pages.

 

In 2010 we had grown to 70 companies, and we started hearing from customers that they loved the integration that we offer. We decided it was time to do something on a larger scale.

 

Last year at SXSW we threw a party, sponsored by 13 vendors from The Small Business Web, to introduce customers to other vendors in the The Small Business Web, and to get the brand out there. Over 5,000 people RSVP’ed! Robert Scoble was there. It was incredible. We had a vendor dinner the night before and we got to meet new integration partners – it was really great.  It became clear to us that the brand was gaining traction.

 

In part, because of all that traction, this year our plate was full with our regular development work and we decided not to do a big event at SXSW this year. Then AMEX OPEN approached us about becoming a sponsor for The Small Business Web for 2011.  We went to NY and met with them and they were excited to do a similar event to our 2010 SXSW event where they could meet customers and vendors. We agreed, but insisted on a more targeted invite list. It was hard to enforce but we really didn’t want 5,000 people, we wanted it to be more serious.

 

It was a great success. Our BatchBlue team had a great time and we met a lot of people for new opportunities. We were also invited to be on a panel – a first for BatchBlue Software at SXSW – and had Scott McMullan from Google moderate it. The topic was “Friends with Business Benefits”, which could not be more fitting for The Small Business Web.

 

MZ: How did Google get involved in your panel?

 

MRR: Google joined The Small Business Web the day before the panel. Anyone who is serving the small business market with an open API is a contender to join – we don’t limit it just to small business vendors (although there are a lot of them). The barrier to entry for SaaS companies that focus on particular things is low, so that is attractive to small businesses.

 

MZ: Do you think that is because large companies want to do it on their own?

 

Pamela O'Hara: Yes. Small companies tend to employ guerilla marketing tactics. They can’t afford a $20,000 booth at CES like the big guys. We use Twitter, Facebook, our blogs – a lot of social media and word of mouth. That was something that glued us together from the beginning. We started to notice that the rising tide lifts all boats, and that why we are starting to get cruise ships into port. The first 70 companies that joined up were small, then the larger companies, like Google, took notice. We welcome them with open arms. 

 

MZ: When I first met Pamela and she described The Small Business Web, I kept wondering how you manage the issue of competition.  Is it a problem when you have multiple vendors on The Small Business Web that compete with each other?

 

MRR: We have a succinct policy. ‘Hug it out”. We have a couple of vendors that did not join because they don’t want to play nicely with others. That’s fine. We’ve been asked to be on panels and co-market, and we have not had problem with it yet. The competition is good - all of our products will be better if customer expectations are high.  

 

MZ: How have you been able to measure the time you spend acquiring customers versus vendors. Is it difficult making sure you are doing enough of both to justify the time BatchBlue spends on The Small Business Web?

 

MRR: I’ll be honest, we struggled for a while with growing for both vendors and customers. Then we decided to divide and conquer. I focused on consumers/end users and FreshBooks founder Sunir built another site which is TheSmallBusinessWeb.org that lists out manifesto and focuses on vendors. 

 

Overall, The Small Business Web has been a huge benefit for BatchBlue. Yes, we and FreshBooks have done the lion’s share of the work, but now we only have to approve the people to come on board. The build out their portion of the directory themselves.  We do spend time and resources around events, but having corporate sponsors has helped with that too. Overall it has been worthwhile.

 

Here are some interesting metrics. Customers are three times more likely to use a second or third web application after they start using their first one.  So, we are reducing the cost of customer acquisition.

 

We also talk a lot to our vendors and the resounding answer is the networking and customers they are getting through The Small Business Web are very beneficial. We have a monthly call with them where everyone discusses topics from the trade shows and events we should do, to how do you fire a customer. It is like having a peer advisory board. Next, we want to have an “unconference” to share best practices.

 

MZ: What do you think are the biggest technology challenges small businesses are faced with right now?

 

PO: We were just at the Real Estate Tech Conference in Georgia. Everyone there said they are overwhelmed by choice. Our directory is helping them make some sense of it all. We recognize that small businesses are busy and don’t want to have to figure out which apps to use, so we arrange them by category. Now we are hearing we need to curate the directory a bit more. But we don’t want to play favorites and say “here are the best vendors in this list”.  

 

Things have changed – people used to advertise in yellow pages and radio. If a customer had an issue they called. Now there are huge choices, but you don’t have to use what another company uses. The amount of choice can be overwhelming: desktop software versus cloud software. Advertising versus blogging versus PR versus Twitter. So, we have published “blue papers” (our company take on “white papers”) for small businesses that cover everything from how do you manage your contacts to how to do social media.

 

MZ: Any advice for small businesses going to the cloud?

 

MRR: If you are thinking about going to the cloud, think about the flexibility that gives you. Mobile versions are important, so make sure that is an option with your choice. Companies need to understand what their goals are to be able to decide what is really going to work for their business.

 

To learn more about The Small Business Web, check out their website and follow them on Twitter.

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