Before I joined Venrock, I was lucky enough to lead the long tail ads business at Facebook. My customers were realtors, restaurants, accountants, and everyone in between. Having worked with small businesses throughout the pandemic, I am convinced, now more than ever, that the time is ripe to better support this receptive audience. Building an online presence or embracing digital tools is no longer a “nice to have”; it’s a survival imperative for most. This is a profound shift from an audience that has historically been ambivalent to the prevailing “software eats world” narrative.
Although small businesses may ultimately want similar things as enterprise clients (eg find new customer leads, save time & money), the nuances of how she’ll get there will be completely different. How deeply we understand these differences will determine our success in winning her over. In sharing my lessons learned - some obvious and some not so obvious - my hope is to shortcut those learnings as we build to support this audience.
1/ Reskinned enterprise tools =/= SMB tools
At FB, the ads tool for SMBs was internally called “Lightweight Interfaces.” It was basically a slimmed down version of our core power tools, with a simplified UI. The front end was different, but the backend was essentially the same. This was a massive problem. Here’s one example why:
When I worked with Walmart’s marketing department, there were individual leaders for brand, performance, and social marketing. We could build distinct products tailored to each. My SMB client on the other hand? She was the brand, performance, and social marketing lead rolled up into one. And she expected one solution that delivered all three outcomes. She wasn’t asking for a UI/UX change - this was a fundamentally different product than what we offered.
2/ Customer ROI needs to account for both investment of time & money
When I started working with SMBs, I intrinsically acknowledged that our tools needed to be cost effective. But until I began shadowing our customers, it didn’t really sink in how time constrained they were. The SMB client had a full-time job - whether that’s selling houses, providing tax advice, or baking cakes. And now she’s expected to be a marketer, accounting guru, and compliance expert.
3/ Deliver immediate results
Before FB, I had largely worked with Fortune 500 clients with six figure test budgets to “test and learn” over a pilot period. Test budgets for SMB customers? LOL.
4/ Speak plain ‘English’, and don’t forget to localize
When I first transitioned from finance to tech, I kept a little notebook where I wrote down all the terms I didn’t understand. Then I’d go home and Google terms like “impressions, click through rates, and frequency caps.” I was mystified and terrified those first few months.
When I started covering SMBs, those emotions came rushing back. Because in speaking with our customer, we realized that’s how she felt. We didn’t get better overnight, but this awareness pushed us to get to the heart of what we intended to communicate, vs relying on shorthand.
In that same vein, as startups go global, increasingly from the early days, a reminder to consider how your messaging translates abroad. Case in point: We were excited to launch “Ads Camp”, a guided tour on advertising basics. It was a cute take on summer adventure camps. But as a colleague from Singapore pointed out, this concept had no relevance in Asia. D’oh.
5/ Provide encouragement and celebrate the small wins
It’s human nature to enjoy doing the things we’re good at, and avoid situations where we feel inadequate. It’s why I always avoided playing sports in school.
The SMB customer feels the same way in this new world of digital tools. She’s having to learn new skills, and learn them fast. In situations like this, we all need encouragement. At FB, we learned to identify ‘small wins’ and celebrate them, showing how she was one step closer to achieving her goals. This is a concept that many workout apps deploy, and it works elsewhere.
6/ Mobile first increasingly wins
Although consumer apps are increasingly mobile only, many business apps are still approached with a desktop-first approach. This isn’t entirely without merit. When’s the last time you pulled up gDocs or Excel on your phone? But unlike the desk worker, your SMB customer is at the register, on the sales floor, or at a client site.
In emerging markets, she may not even own a computer. Partly because of cost, but partly because she doesn’t need to - she’s conducting all her transactions via WhatsApp on her Android phone. Want to be part of her workflow? Design it for mobile.
7/ Aim for consumer-grade tools that auto-optimize
TikTok makes it super easy to create content. Spotify makes it dead simple to find your songs. Then why do most SMB tools require endless webinars and $100/hr consultants to get going?
Most consumer products are quietly humming in the background to continuously optimize your experience. When’s the last time you checked your IG or TikTok analytics to improve your feed? Answer: Never. The same should be said for SMB products. The best products auto-optimize, vs putting the burden on their users.
Building for SMBs may be hard, but I can’t think of a worthier mission. If you’re a founder that’s passionate about supporting the SMB customer, I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me at email@example.com