Automate your business: Emma Jones, MBE, discusses tech and operational efficiency for SMBs
An interview with Emma Jones.
Enterprise Nation is a thriving small business network and community where business owners can connect with one another and share insights into the latest trends and tech.
At its heart is founder Emma Jones MBE, who has worked closely with SMEs for her entire career. Emma, who received an MBE in 2012 for services to enterprise, appears regularly in the media and has written five best-selling books about small business, including Spare Room StartUp and Working 5 to 9. She’s also Small Business Representative for the Crown Commercial Service, as well as a business ambassador for the UK government.
Emma launched Enterprise Nation ten years ago, and the community has played an influential role in the UK business landscape ever since. Not only has its members instigated a number of national conversations – lately about the post-Brexit future of small enterprise – they’ve become a de facto testing ground for cutting-edge business technology.
We recently caught up with Emma to discuss how this technology is helping SMEs, why some more established SMEs are hesitant to adopt it, and which software, apps and tools she personally recommends.
“For today’s small business owners, technology is often a key component of the product. It’s how they reach out to their audience and it’s how they manage their workload behind the scenes.”
How do the SMEs of today differ from those of 10 years ago?
Entrepreneurs in their twenties and early thirties have grown up in the digital age, says Emma. That’s why technology is written into the DNA of today’s startups. “The new businesses we’re seeing couldn’t exist without technology. It is often a key component of the product, if not the product itself. It’s how they reach out to their audience and it’s how they manage their workload behind the scenes – think accounting software like Xero, or expenses software like Soldo.”
This gives newcomers the edge over competitors who are set in their ways. “Businesses that have been going for a while can rely on old practices, which make them less able to adapt,” explains Emma. “And that’s unlikely to change without giving them a nudge first. It’s just like changing to a better bank account: it’s not a priority, so it just keeps slipping down the to-do list.”
What’s holding these older SMEs back from modernisation?
Business owners may be reluctant to embrace change because they see no need to, or because they’re unaware of the benefits of doing so. As Emma points out, “Owners can think, ‘I’ve always used spreadsheets and I’ve done okay so far. So why would I need to change now?’”
If there are extensive records of information to transfer, owners may also be concerned that the switchover to a new system could be time-consuming or plain risky. But that’s where Enterprise Nation comes in: “Part of our role is to encourage all 5.5 million SMEs in the UK – not just those that have sprung up in the last few years – to recognise how technology could improve their business, and how easy it is to adapt.”
What help is available to SMEs who want to update their technology?
Emma sees advisers as an increasingly important way of supporting small business owners to understand the benefits and embrace technology. That’s why Enterprise Nation is working closely with the Institute of Chartered Accountants. “Accountants tend to be the go-to advisers for all things finance. So if you’re looking to introduce new finance automation software into your business, they’ll be able to tell you how best to go about doing it.”
Software companies themselves are also reaching out to independent advisers in relevant industries. Emma cites accounting powerhouse Xero as a pioneer in this area: “They’ve offered accountants a clear and accessible way to review financial data, and the business doesn’t need to go to any extra lengths to provide it.”
Why should SMEs update their technology at all?
According to Emma, there are two key reasons businesses ought to make the switch sooner rather than later.
The first is purely practical. When the government introduces the ‘Making Tax Digital’ initiative in 2019, every VAT-registered organisation will need to submit its quarterly returns via software solutions. “We think this is a good thing,” Emma says. “It sends a message to small businesses that it’s in their interests to move to more digital solutions.”
But many of her members are also pleased to discover just how much time and money they save when they upgrade – “especially when it comes to expense management,” Emma notes. “When you started the company, you only needed to look after yourself. But let’s say you now employ 20 people: you’re suddenly swamped in expense claims, caught up with making sure cash is coming in more quickly than it’s going out.”
“If someone – or something – could come and save you six hours a month, just imagine what you could do with that freed up time.”
What’s the best technology for saving time and money?
“If you’re looking for a way to really free up some time and money,” says Emma, “I’d definitely look at financial tools. I’d recommend Soldo, which automates both expense claims and reports, and Xero, which works alongside Soldo to make accounting simple.”
For Emma, the right financial software can give you back the time you’re spending on labour-intensive tasks, and help you put it towards more important things. “If someone – or something – could come and save you six hours a month, just imagine what you could do with that freed up time.”
Which other apps and software does Emma recommend?
It depends which aspects of the business the owner wants to improve, Emma tells us. “There’s one called EquipsMe I’m very fond of – a private health insurance app which helps employees get quick care and attention. So it not only keeps your employees healthy and happy, it helps your business stay productive.”
“I’m a big fan of Trello’s lists for project management, and Hootsuite for social media scheduling. And when it comes to sales, marketing and promotion, there’s Instagram, Facebook, Amazon marketplace – all the high-profile places which may be right for the product you offer.”
None of these break the bank for the cash-strapped SME, either. “If you used all of these together – along with Xero and Soldo – it may come to around £100 per month. They’re within everybody’s budget, and they can make a real difference.”
Emma Jones’ top apps for SMEs
- Spending and expenses: Soldo
- Accounting: Xero
- Health insurance: EquipsMe
- Project management: Trello
- Social media: Hootsuite