American small businesses are the backbone of our economy and of our communities. They are also a source of valuable insights and unique experiences, to which we too often pay lip service rather than attention. In Washington, where politicians of every stripe talk about small businesses every chance they get, not enough of them talk to small businesses.
Today, more than 60 million Americans are employed by tens of millions of small businesses. From storefronts in small towns to restaurants in big cities and surf shops in beach retreats, small businesses are the straw the stirs the drink. By any measure — importance, interest or even sheer numbers — small businesses have earned a seat at the table when public policy that could affect them is discussed. Traditional business issues like taxes, trade, wages, and health care now include a new, universally critical and increasingly urgent topic: data in the digital age.
No group has benefited more from access to affordable, secure and scalable digital tools and technologies than small businesses. A Deloitte study recently reported that 84 percent of small enterprises are using at least one major digital platform to provide information to customers, and 79 percent are using digital tools to communicate with customers and suppliers. Tools ranging from email and websites to e-commerce and advertising have launched millions of businesses and unleashed a new generation of American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.
The same Deloitte study found digitally powered small businesses grow twice as fast, hire three times more staff and earn twice the profits of companies yet to adopt digital tools. Yet in Washington and state capitals around the country, when policymakers wrestle with how best to deal with our increasingly digitally dependent world, American small businesses are rarely represented.
The Federal Trade Commission recently began a series of hearings on competition and consumer protection, a worthwhile initiative to try to answer important questions in a robust and complex marketplace. The participants were all eminently qualified to address the role of “digital” on competition, the role of government in regulating these technologies, and the economic effects of both. At a conceptual level they are worth listening to, but their collective expertise cannot replace the insights of American small businesses.
The participation of a digitally powered small business in these proceedings does more than put a face to statistics and econometrics. It bridges the gap between an academic understanding of the issues and real-world implications for the people who have built their livelihoods with digital tools.
Take for example, a serial entrepreneur in Dallas, Texas, whose on-ramp to building successful businesses gets shorter and less costly each time because of constant improvements to small business enterprise software. Dramatically lower startup costs and cheaper online marketing and advertising tools are the foundation of her profitable company. While an economic analysis will count the four jobs she has created in the past year, it cannot account for the value she provides her community.
An academic discussion of digital transformation cannot adequately tell the story of a small business owner who inherited a struggling plumbing company in Missouri and found new customers and a second business life through digital advertising and social media. The decision to invest in Facebook advertising, eschewing traditional channels, can be counted in a ledger, but it can only be understood on the faces of her growing team of technicians now happily using Google Drive to share worksite photos and Twitter to respond to customers.
Giving voice to small businesses like these is why the Connected Commerce Council (3C) was founded, and why we urge policymakers to consider the harm done to small businesses if access to the digital tools is disrupted. Policies that do not consider how small businesses value these technology platforms would undoubtedly — and needlessly — harm these small businesses.
The national economy and tens of millions of American families depend on the continued success of American small businesses. As the FTC and Congress work earnestly to understand the new digital world, the unique perspective and hard-earned insights of small businesses owners, operators and employees should be sought out. There are nearly 60 million of them; they are not hard to find; and they have stories worth hearing.
Jake Ward is the president of the Connected Commerce Council (3C), a recently launched advocacy organization for digitally empowered small businesses.
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