How Small Businesses Can Find And Use The Data They Already Own

Dane Atkinson SumAll

Photo: Dane Atkinson

The world is becoming increasingly data driven, and it’s important that small businesses don’t get left behind. Small businesses have data. Those that work online have a lot of it, but often don’t know how to retrieve it.We spoke to Dane Atkinson, the CEO of SumAll, a company that’s working to solve exactly that problem, providing a free data tool that accesses and uses what businesses are already produce.   

It’s not the same sort of big data approach that large companies use to target ads and promotions to individuals, but it’s incredibly helpful for small businesses to know average order size and value in real time, or what percentage of their sales are from discount programs. 

Below is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation

So small businesses have created their own data, the idea is to make it accessible to people that aren’t analysts?

They’ve created the data just by the fact that they’re selling and existing in this modern world. But they don’t have any of it. Most merchants and small businesses that we’ve talked to, their best view of the data is a monthly report that comes from the provider, when larger entities are dealing with things in microseconds, changing pricing, changing ads, changing everything in real time.

Our first mission was to get that data back in the hands of its owners, in this case mostly small businesses, so they can actually make some choices around it. Certainly without needing an analyst degree or an engineer, which has been a real barrier for tools like this in the past. They’ve required small businesses to hire somebody to get the data out, and usually required finding somebody to interpret the data, because it’s so overwhelming once they get it. We aren’t as deep as a lot of great tools that are out there, but we do get the majority of the information these businesses are creating back in the operator’s hand. That’s been huge for us, our usage for a business tool is rather outstanding, people spend 40 minutes a day in our application on average, so there’s definitely a need for it.

How can small businesses use data in a different way, what day to day decisions are affected? 

There are obviously other tools they use, but for us we’ve seen some immediate impact. One of the things we’ve done for our customers is to break out their customers into different cohorts, a principal one being returning customers and new customers. Shockingly, businesses that are usually under 5 million haven’t actually spent the time to understand things like the lifetime value of a customer or which customers are have already bought from the firm and which are  new customers. 

So seeing that in a tool like ours they have a major behavioural shift where they understand that their marketing dollars are going into one bucket versus another. One of our favourite customers is a company named Diamond Candles. They’d been spending a huge amount of effort just trying to acquire new customers, not realising that the bulk of their customers were returning. Just seeing that simple insight suddenly allowed them to realign their marketing effort towards their old customers and quickly increase revenue by not spending all of their time trying to acquire new customers. So, they sort of split their world into those two parts, which led to greater efficiency right off the bat.

Is there a particular data tool that you’ve provided as a result of feedback from small businesses?

One thing that we were really surprised to find is that people that are selling or running businesses online are much more splintered than we originally thought. When we started, we thought that if someone had a store on EBay, that was how they’d run their business. It turns out that If someone has a store on EBay, they also have a Square account which they’re using to sell on the weekends at the mall, they have a Shopify store with different merchandise, they have an Amazon store, they’re pretty much all across the board. That obviously creates a much bigger data train for them, and caused us to change the way were dealing with individual customers, to allow them to pull all of those different data sets in when we originally planned on there being just one transactional data source.

How easy is it for businesses to get started with this? I think the idea of moving from one monthly report to something you have to adapt to every day can seem a little intimidating.

We’ve done everything we can to make on boarding easy, it usually takes under a minute. Our system is all credentials based. So a customer comes on and they put in their user name and password for Google, for instance, to get their analytics file, and they add in their PayPal user name and password, that’s all it takes to get all of the data. We definitely display a very thin layer at first, so at first they’ll just see their total sales, then they can dig into that down road and understand their products and skews and stuff like that, but it starts out light. Obviously we have a lot of stuff in our training services. Trying to educate people on what’s important in a dataset is a big part of our mission. 

One of our other discoveries is that customers are extraordinarily smart. Everyone we’ve interviewed who is striking out and building their own small business is sharp, aggressive, hungry, the best kind of people. But they usually have very little data, very little maths experience. So crossing that chasm and connecting the dots where, if you see this trend, that usually means that this customer group isn’t doing something, and you might want address it this way has been a big part of our mission.

It sounds like the two advances that made this kind of thing possible are the frequency and amount of data and the ability to make it visual. Are those the steps that make it easier to use for small businesses?

Yeah, I think that’s the big revolution that’s happening right now. The data’s all available. Most tools that people use online have access via an API, so it’s extremely easy to get to your data right now if you use a partner like us. The tools, particularly ours, are extremely visual, and are in that of era where tools should be as easy to use Facebook, or actually easier, Facebook can be pretty complicated. You get lines that are easy to understand with a lot of clues as to what’s going on. We’re hoping that it’s not just us, that more and more companies will go down this road. If they make data beautiful, if they can create the culture where people are making choices based on information, then that tends to be better in the long run.

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