Delve Into Phil Simon's "The New Small"

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with TalentCulture’s good friend, Phil Simon about his new book “The New Small”. Phil has written two other books: Why New Systems Fail and The Next Wave of Technologies. A recognized technology expert, he consults with companies on how to optimize technology use. His contributions have been featured in The Globe and MailComputerWorld, ZDNet, New York Times, ReadWriteWeb, and many other sites. Phil is also a popular speaker about emerging trends and technologies.

Why did you write this book?

  • As I mention in the Preface of the book, I saw a need. Many small business owners are awash in a sea of technological choices. They are too busy to research all of these technologies themselves. While my book is certainly no reference manual, it lays out options and provides advice that would take a long time—and a great deal of money—to learn on their own. There are many opportunities out there; many small business owners simply aren’t aware of them.

What’s the difference between how small businesses approach technology (especially collaboration tools) and the traditional enterprise approach?

  • In a nutshell, small businesses (SBs) tend to experiment more. They’ll try out a tool like Yammer, for example, on an individual basis. If it catches on, it will be adopted throughout the company. It’s less “top-down” than the traditional enterprise approach. What’s more, if something else comes along that offers superior functionality, SBs will experiment with that tool as well, utilizing what’s best from each. There’s no corporate edict that “all people must use X” even though X doesn’t have key functionality.

How can managers start with their own teams on the cheap/free to handle their communication needs?

  • I interviewed a lot of business owners and managers for The New Small. It’s given me great insight into what managers do—and how they do it. These managers aren’t sure about what’s best, so they don’t pretend to have all of the answers. They encourage employees to find the right tools. Once something reaches critical mass, they’ll give it a shot.  Today, so many products are based on the “freemium” model; it’s rare now that you have to sign a traditional contract with a vendor before you can kick the tires on collaborative tools. These companies embrace IM tools such as Meebo, calling tools like Skypeand GoogleVoice, and simple hardware like webcams, Smartphones, and digital cameras.

It reads on your website that you’re an independent technology consultant. There are lots of people out there that would love to get into consulting, but aren’t sure about the first steps. What are some essentials for anyone who wants to get into consulting?

  • As I write in The New Small, many people begin contracting almost involuntarily. They’d like a full-time job but can’t find one in this economy. As for requirements, I can tell you about the essentials: a website, errors and omissions insurance, financial and accounting software, a healthy network of recruiters and friends keeping an eye out for you, potential incorporation, and the like. More than that, however, one needs to know appropriate rates. It’s hard to know what your worth and, admittedly, it’s more art than science. Sometimes you take less than you can get. Most important, you need to have a personality that accepts high highs and low lows. You won’t get a steady paycheck. Be prepared for the feast or famine world of independent life.

Historically, big technology had the advantage because it was safe and reliable. “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM” is the old saying. But now, it seems like small tech has the edge. How can that be? What changed?

  • Many things changed:
  • Broadband exploded.
  • Storage costs plummeted.
  • Freemium took off as a business model.
  • A massive wave of innovation occurred.
  • Other tech events and trends made the New Small possible.
  • Factor in a drop in job security and a desire for people to do their own thing and suddenly it’s hip to start your own company.

How realistic is it to want to start your own business in today’s world? What are some things to consider before starting your own business?
  • It’s very realistic. It happens every day. As I point out in the book, technology has drastically changed in the last five years. There are viable ways to minimize up-front costs, always a good idea when you’re hanging your own shingle. What’s more, social media allows companies to reduce often ineffective marketing expenditures.
Are there certain things in today’s world that make starting you own business a good idea?

  • Sure. The founders of the companies profiled in the book all were searching for something different—an alternative to traditional corporate life. There’s more flexibility being your own boss. You get a fundamental sense of satisfaction from working for yourself, and you can pursue ventures that you find worthwhile. There’s always been a sense in this country that you can succeed on your own terms. Technology today has made that easier, although the challenges of the current economy cannot be understated.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who have just started or planning to start their own business?

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment or fail. Einsten said something along the lines of, “If you want to increase your success rate, fail more often.” This couldn’t be more true today–particularly with respect to small businesses.  Also, get away from technologies that no longer meet your needs. Whether it’s ERP, CRM, a content management system (CMS), or whatever, see if there’s something better out there. Then try it out!
Do you have any tips for managing projects in the New Small?

  • Yes. Go agile. These companies do not use Waterfall-based methods. They can’t wait a year to see if something is conceptually sound. Throw something against the wall and see what you like and what you don’t.  Also, don’t reinvent the wheel. See what open source and off-the-shelf tools exist. Use existing APIs and modules to extend functionalty.
Could you please tell us, what businesses have inspired you? Also, what’s exactly this “new breed”?

  • In short, the owners of these companies inspired me a great deal. They weren’t afraid to break away from old tools and techniques that have worked for them and taken them to a certain point.  This new breed is open, experimental, and curious. They are constantly pushing the envelope and refuse to manage by routine. You’ll never hear “that’s not the way we do things here.” They’re a dynamic bunch of companies that, as you see in the book, is doing some amazing things.
In the first chapter of the book, which is available for free preview at your Web site, you call the present situation “the era of constant technological change.” In your opinion is there a difference between the way large enterprises and smaller companies respond to it? If so, what are the main challenges that small businesses face?
  • For political, legal, and financial reasons, big companies often cannot get away from technologies that no longer work for them. Small companies don’t have that problem. The world is their oyster. Yet, that very freedom can easily become chaos. Fortunately, the New Small is able to strike a balance, getting the benefits of amazing new technologies in the process.
Why do you think the emerging technologies, such as social media or cloud computing, are a perfect match for the needs of small businesses?

  • Many reasons. For one, they scale quite easily. No longer does a business need to predict “just how much” technology it will need. Second, success begets success. You can dip your toe in the pool before you jump in. Finally, with the Freemium model, you can test-drive technologies before making the jump.
What do you hope to impart on the world with The New Small?

  • In short, that it’s better to be small. Progressive small businesses are doing some amazing things. The book tells their stories; it’s not a theoretical or abstract text by any stretch. Once you see what these companies are doing, you’ll want to experiment with some of the same methods and technologies.
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