Big may be beautiful, but next year it seems small will be better. SMEs will be the big thing in 2003, and vendors are finally seeing the light when it comes to doing business with these firms.
More than 150 channel and SME delegates attended the Think SME event, run by Ideal Hardware at Madejski Stadium in Reading last week.
The event, which was supported by CRN and its sister publication Computing, was organised to help SMEs understand the value of technology and to help VARs selling into this space.
Current estimates reveal that the vast majority of UK businesses have fewer than 100 employees. In other words, there are more than two million SMEs in the UK. The potential market for resellers is immense.
In a straw poll conducted at the event, most delegates said that, although IT budgets would not increase in 2003, they were not set to decrease either.
However, because SMEs tend not to have a separate IT department, the important decisions are often taken by the managing director, who is often also the owner. This means they will be less susceptible to being taken advantage of when it comes to buying IT equipment.
Alex Tatham, vice-president of global software distribution at Bell Microproducts, parent company of Ideal, said: "SMEs want value and they want trustworthy advice. As a reseller and a vendor these groups are very important to influence.
"Most SMEs don't have an IT manager, and view IT as a necessary evil. But there is still a huge opportunity in this sector."
Mark Swarbrick, a representative of the Department of Trade and Industry's UK Online for Business scheme, said that many SMEs have made an initial investment in technology but have yet to fully exploit its potential.
"The UK lags behind most nations in e-business productivity, and we see IT as an enabler to help businesses [especially SMEs] to close that gap," he said. He added that, when it comes to global e-business take-up, the UK currently lies in fourth place, behind Germany, Sweden and America.
There are three main ways of communicating the importance of IT to SMEs, Swarbrick said. You can raise awareness of how technology can benefit their businesses; provide front-line advice through partners; and continually update information on the web.
Swarbrick said that the government's target of getting one million SMEs trading online by 2002 has not been met, but added that more than half a million SMEs currently use some form of e-business.
Vendors, too, have to play a clear role. It is about simplifying and promoting the business benefits of products, rather than techno-jargon, Swarbrick said.
Jonathan Wright, technical director at services company Agilitie, said that there needs to be greater education in the channel and among vendors to find out what SMEs really want.
"Most of the manufacturers don't actually know what SMEs want," he said. "They are putting all this information onto their websites, but quite a large percentage of SMEs are not even connected to the internet yet."
Wright added that vendors are aiming at a mass market, but some of their technology needs to be targeted at SMEs.
"[SMEs] have been around for a long time and have been steadily growing, and because they are owned privately, decisions come from the heart rather than being made on a whim based on the latest gadgets," he said.
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