By Kathy Kemper – 03/12/12 08:52 AM ET
Technology has always played a key role in driving the U.S. economy forward. But over the past decade or so, it is not just the big players — government, Fortune 500 companies and research universities — that are benefiting. Personal computers, broadband Internet and now smartphones have put cutting-edge technology into the hands of small-business owners, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs, creating immense opportunities for each person to do what he or she does best.
For entrepreneurs, in particular, technology has been a game-changer, dramatically lowering the cost of starting a business — from establishing a supply chain to advertising to building a customer base. Starting a business these days does not require a brick-and-mortar office, upfront capital running into the millions or even a staff. It does not necessarily take months, years and decades to get going. Today, a 16-year-old armed with a computer, a good idea and a summer break could have what it takes to run a business or come up with the next big innovation. Etsy is a unique example of how technology has enabled one-person shops, in this case, artisans, to survive and even thrive in the midst of the big-box names, which dominate American retailing. Anyone with a slightly creative side — expressed in handmade products ranging from jewelry and quilts to pottery and furniture — can set up an account on Etsy.com, build a profile with pictures and descriptions of the items he or she is selling, and have access to customers worldwide almost overnight.
From the very beginning, over 20 years ago, the Institute for Education saw the potential in cutting-edge technology to connect people, lower costs, streamline logistics and support higher-quality programs. Web, video and smartphone technology have enabled IFE to build camaraderie among its interns and fellows across the country; use paperless planning to organize events with hundreds of attendees; and work with partners on several continents to promote social entrepreneurship, civility and youth global citizenship. People have always been surprised by how big IFE’s footprint is relative to the size of its team.
Entrepreneurs are just beginning to reap the gains from cloud computing, which enables businesses to scale without running into server capacity limits and mobile apps, which provide individual customer analytics and can help business owners target advertising and products. Both are turning out to be potential game-changers.
Technology hasn’t, of course, solved everything. As much as costs have come down, access to capital still matters, especially for the entrepreneur seeking to scale up and turn his or her startup into a “gazelle” business. The days of seeking bank loans to finance a startup business are done. But angels and VCs are coming back.
Success also has its costs. The bigger companies get, the less agile they tend to be. Many Fortune 500 companies are resting on their laurels and failing to take full advantage of new technology to improve their business models, reach out to new customers and make use of real-time data. Dell and IBM are unusual examples of large companies that have not only leveraged technology but are linking up with smaller companies and, through procurement, helping them turn into gazelle businesses that go from point A to M as fast as possible.
Technology is hardly a panacea, but there is no doubt that it will play a critical role in helping small-business owners and entrepreneurs not only create economic value, but address many of the biggest problems the United States and the world face.