Future of small business is local, personal and about data

Data and working from home are going to transform small businesses, and the SME owner-director needs to be ahead of that curve

The future of small business is local, personal and all about data, according to futurist Andrew Grill.

Grill, whose clients include Nike, Nestle and the British government, says: “It’s about being local – harnessing the power of the community – understanding the power of data, and personalisation, making things individual or even just redecorating your home.

“If you can get those three things right, there’s a lot of opportunity for a lot of small businesses.”

>See also: Brexit puts more than third of UK small businesses at risk of closure

The good news is that there may never be a better time to run a small business.

According to a Vistaprint survey, over two thirds of Brits say the Covid-19 pandemic has shown them how important small businesses are to our society.

Forty-one per cent of those surveyed said they would even pay more for coffee or lunch if it meant supporting a small business. And 63 per cent said that was to help the local economy.

Grill, a former IBM Global managing partner turned in-demand futurologist, says that the pandemic had accelerated trends by between two and three years.

>See also: Leading creatives call for tax on tech devices to help the arts

To illustrate the speed of change, Grill said that back in 2018 when he addressed small business owners, only one third even had a website because they relied on local footfall.

“But if you have an online presence, you don’t have to stay local. You can grow your presence beyond your local area,” says Grill.

Everybody working from home has injected fresh life into local communities. With fewer people venturing out from their urban village, this creates opportunities on the high street for more independent shops.

Indeed, the Vistaprint survey said a butcher was the most highly prized local asset (37 per cent) followed by a bakery (36 per cent) and a coffee shop (32 per cent).

It may be that supermarkets on the high street share space with independents, like popup shops, as they need less shelf space due to online food shopping.

‘Small businesses are really going to thrive post pandemic’

Grill says: “Working from home, you’re going to be spending more time in your local area, which is going to be good for small businesses because of increased footfall.”

This new working-from-home reality means that there are also going to be opportunities for local co-working spaces, as just because people are working from home doesn’t mean they want to be tied to the kitchen table.

And he predicts in the future there will be a boom small business working out of start-ups, as people use the hours saved on commuting each day to follow their passion projects, “and those side hustles are going to become full-time hustles,” he predicts.

Indeed, the Vistaprint survey found that 30 per cent of respondents were planning to start their own small business in the future, and 11 per cent of those said the pandemic had accelerated those plans.

For Grill, successful small businesses will be those which harness the wealth of data out there. This could be as simple as a shop reacting to customer footfall in a more sophisticated way than simply marking the number of customers in a shop.

And the other advantage small businesses have over big competitors is personal service, creating their own communities. The flip side of this is that independents must offer the same level of customer service, if not higher, through apps and online, which national brands have.

There are five areas in particular that Grill sees the future of small business changing:


Data collected on wearables provides an opportunity for fitness trainers, beauty therapists and the like to create personalised fitness plans and beauty regimes. For example, wearable fitness technology such as Fitbit or Apple Watch means that personal trainers can individualise training plans.

Grill says: “There’s a whole SME opportunity for people who are practitioners in this space, analysing the data from health devices can help wellbeing. Those practitioners who become more digitally curious and investigate what data is available are going to be one step ahead.”

Creatives and makers

3D printing will be a boon to creatives and makers able to print objects on demand, such as scale models for architects.

Home improvement

In the next five years, 3D technology will have evolved to allow hardware stores to provide services to print-on-demand instore and provide a complete custom design capability.


Just as we have embraced wearables for physical fitness such as Fitbits and Apple Watches, so there will be wearables for mental health.

Restaurants and cafes

There will be more automation, along the lines of apps where you can order food and drinks to your table. The challenge is that during the pandemic a lot of hospitality businesses took what was available off the shelf, and it may not have been fit for purpose. How can you ensure that some of these platforms are suitable for SMEs?

Small business future

However, what would Grill say to the PwC report that predicts nearly one third of UK jobs at risk of automation will have been replaced by AI in the early 2030s?

Grill shrugs off such a gloomy assessment. He points out that this is the fourth industrial revolution; the first being when pulleys and ropes replaced men heaving stone. All that happens is different, currently unimaginable jobs are created – who would have thought a decade ago that search engine optimisation would be a sought-after skill?

What people can do though is prepare for this digital, data-led future.

“I would encourage people to be more digitally curious,” Grill said. “Data and digital technology are here to stay. There’s an opportunity for small businesses to offer digital retraining.

“Small businesses are really going to thrive post pandemic because they offer something different. They’re being started by entrepreneurs who want of offer something to the local community. They’re going to started by entrepreneurs who have passion and that’s the sort of service you don’t require tech for.”

Further reading

Brexit puts more than third of UK small businesses at risk of closure

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Tim Adler

Tim Adler is group editor of Small Business, Growth Business and Information Age. He is a former commissioning editor at the Daily Telegraph, who has written for the Financial Times, The Times and the...

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