India ended 2016 with nearly a third of its population online. At 422 million, India’s online population outstrips the entire population of the US, and is behind only China. What’s more, this figure is estimated to touch 730 million internet users by 2020.
Impressive as these numbers sound, a large part of the population continues to remain outside the digital fold.
As per KPMG, India has over 51 million small businesses, contributing over one-third of the country’s GDP, and employing nearly 40% of its workforce. Around 32% of these businesses are online. As per industry estimates, 10 million of these can be considered as technology-ready and under a million currently have a website. India has a domain penetration ratio of 1.1% with approx. five million domain names, compared to 43.6% in the US.
What is keeping the rest of the market, and a sizable one at that, from fully leveraging the power of the internet?
Internet awareness and education
A few concerns – some of them ill-founded – seem to be driving this reticence. For starters, there is the perception that the internet is meant for big businesses, and small businesses tend to believe that the internet is “not-for-me”. This highly misplaced and unfounded notion reflects a lack of awareness regarding the potential of the internet in driving business growth – irrespective of business size.
Even in cases where small businesses are aware of the internet and cognizant of its potential, they shy away under the misconception that getting online is inherently a complex and expensive procedure. The entire process of buying a domain name, setting up a website, promoting the website, etc. can seem intimidating to small businesses. Add to that the perceived notion of it being expensive. This perception tends to keep small businesses away from getting online.
Though there are several initiatives and campaigns like the Internet safety campaign, Digital India, Skill India and the Internet literacy campaign for rural women focused on education and awareness, they are, however, sporadic and fragmented. So on most occasions, small business owners often do not know whom to turn to for help and how to get started with their journey of getting online. This is where an ecosystem comprising of technology companies and their partner network can play a big role.
Intensive educational and awareness drives are the need of the hour – they can convey the benefits of using the internet for doing business, the ease and convenience of getting started, and a clear understanding of the costs and the value. And a vernacular approach would ensure maximum penetration and SMBs coming on board.
The entire ecosystem needs to play a part in fostering a conducive environment that small businesses can rely on, and have their confidence in the role of online in improving business reaffirmed.
Barriers to internet adoption
The second part to this problem is the adoption of internet and the execution. India is largely a Do-it-for-Me (DIFM) economy, where small businesses tend to rely on runners, vendors, and partners to help with a multitude of tasks.Whereas a more balanced approach would be to spread more education on internet so small businesses too have the right tools and skills to go online.
In the present scenario, a lack of availability of digital skills, and limited knowledge about the internet and IT are deterrents, which force SMB owners to rely heavily on the web developer ecosystem.
Threading the needle
This is where the government and technology companies must come forward and offer well-rounded and basic training programs and certifications. Such initiatives will empower small businesses with technical and IT skills that can aide them to start their online journey. Also, creating a larger pool of developers and web experts can accelerate the pace at which SMBs go online.
Training and learning should not only be limited to just technical skills and knowledge but also about the business and operational benefits of small businesses being online. This can go a long way in dispelling the myths of high cost and complexity of internet adoption.
Even with the right skillsets, small businesses need simple, easy-to-understand and hassle-free solutions. The sheer number of solutions, modules, and options available can overwhelm a small business owner. Providing easy-to-start and bundled solutions that contain multiple alternatives can make getting online easy and hassle-free. Tools like a website-builder, with great user-experience, intuitive interfaces allow small business owners to understand the solutions better and test the waters.
It is also important that small businesses have the right support and assistance as they take their first steps into the online world. This is where great customer support comes into the picture. Apart from detailed tutorials, guides, checklists, and other content in regional languages, technology companies, and solution providers need to provide 24x7 support, with representatives who can speak in vernacular languages, making it a hassle-free process for small businesses.
But the buck doesn't stop there. While there are clear benefits of going online, it is important to ensure it becomes more than posturing and SMBs are relayed the true potential of digital technology and how it can effectively improve business performance. So knowledge imparted should be free of segment or field constraints. Wherein players should put equal focus on every area that SMBs stand to gain in, such as finance, commerce, operations, etc.
The internet offers a world of opportunities for small businesses in the country! The support of all stakeholders can truly open up a new realm of growth and play a pivotal part in the growth of the Indian economy.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)