How to sell small businesses on the internet of things

Restaurant kitchens could use the internet of things, too!

It’s no secret that the industrial IoT is where folks are hoping to make the big bucks. Investments in platforms, security, middleware, and even esoteric analytics software will continue to make headlines in 2018. However, there’s a secondary enterprise IoT market to consider: the small-to-medium business (SMB) market.

This ranges from mom-and-pop dry cleaners and restaurants to small IT firms or home services companies. These businesses are everywhere. There were 28.8 million small businesses in the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, accounting for 99.7% of businesses in the country. Despite their ubiquity, however, sensor and technology providers have two challenges. The first is building a solution that someone without an IT staff can implement. The second is reaching these businesses.

I have some ideas. Late last fall, I gave a speech on IoT innovations in the restaurant industry to the National Restaurant Association. As part of my prep, I spoke with the managers and CIOs at both large and small restaurants chains. They all had the same two primary concerns: temperature control in their freezers and fridges, and inventory management. Other, smaller concerns centered around workforce efficiency and using voice in the kitchen.

However, from an IT perspective restaurants are terrible clients because they are one-off, work-intensive implementations. I spoke with the head of a large IT shop’s IoT team who told me that it’s hard when selling industrial IoT to figure out which clients you can build a solution for that can then scale it to all of their operations, and which clients require an 18-month-long design and implementation process and then a similar effort for each of their subsequent locations.

SMBs fall into this latter category. But there are ways to make it easier. An association that covers a particular industry could design a framework for connecting its members’ operations. So, for example, the National Restaurant Association could work with IT firms and its members to define a specific hardware and software package for measuring fridge temps. It could then market that package to its members, thereby solving both challenges at once.

I came across another option for getting SMBs access to the internet of things when I was at CES this year. It was from a meeting I had at the conference with Sprint and a company called MyDevices. Like so many other firms, MyDevices had been making an “IoT platform” consisting of devices and code that folks could use to tie into the MyDevices cloud in order to get a connected product working.

The team quickly realized that it was easy to prototype using their platforms, but building and then implementing a project was still too hard. So they focused on creating a few packages for specific IoT use cases, such as temperature monitoring or pest control (connected rat trap, anyone?). MyDevices also made it easier for manufacturers of connected devices to add their own products to the MyDevices platform. The result is that anyone building new, industry-specific packages can select sensors or tools from a drop-down menu.

So MyDevices solved the problem of getting industry-specific IoT solutions by making them easier for developers to build, then solved the non-expert installers problem by helping developers make their products idiot-proof. The final hurdle is getting those products to the right market without spending millions.

To do this, MyDevices has teamed up with Sprint, which also provides the cellular connectivity to get the resulting sensors connected. In April, Sprint will launch a storefront of IoT products aimed at its business customer. It will include asset-tracking options, pest control, and temperature monitoring packages. Having seen both the development process and the installation, I can say that it really does look easy.

And with Sprint acting as a sales channel, millions of SMB owners could find and buy a product appropriate for their needs, and later build on it by shopping with Sprint. I can see MyDevices or perhaps Sprint signing partnership deals with organizations such as the National Restaurant Association or plumbing associations to create more sales channels.

Some of the buyers will be driven by a desire for efficiency, and others, as the IoT becomes more common, by legislative mandate. The key will be keeping installation easy and providing solutions that are custom enough for a specific industry, but not so custom that they can’t scale to a wide number of players in that industry.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

The core skills needed for businesses adopting Internet of Things technology

It’s clear that the Internet of Things (IoT) offers many exciting opportunities, from increased efficiency to enhanced customer engagement, and that now is the time for businesses to get involved. However, a huge challenge in implementing IoT technology will be gathering all the necessary skills together.

It is highly unlikely that the existing workforce will be equipped with the many technical skills needed, which means that trying to carry out the transformation in-house will involve a significant investment of time, resources and money. Typical IT providers may find themselves at financial risk if they attempt to navigate the transition to IoT alone. The solution lies in finding partners to collaborate with and use your existing skills.

IT partners support customers on their journey of transformation. They can create bespoke sensors for specific applications adapted to the business, and provide the support from design and testing all the way to mass production. They also provide valuable support by working closely with software developers and data analytics experts, to augment data created by the sensors with other data held in applications elsewhere in the organisation. By doing so, a digital dashboard of insights could be created, to give a holistic overview of data from different applications, making it easier to analyse and interpret.

Technical skills

To unlock the full potential of IoT, a broad range of technical skills is required. The process can be incredibly complex due to the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary. Businesses need to be well-versed in a vast array of different technologies, including sensors, gateways, networking, security, analytics, cloud, digital applications, software integration and API management, workflow and storage. Those leading the technical transformation need to have a deep understanding of these technologies, how they are used and how they will benefit the business.

Technology experts

IT providers and resellers need to look for technology experts who have unparalleled knowledge of the many different elements of IoT. They need to have a deep understanding of the intricacies behind each piece of technology being deployed and how it will help customers. Crucially, they must be able to talk to the board of an organisation about the technology in depth, sharing their vision of how applying it to the customer’s business will be transformational. In a sense, they have to be visionaries – able to guide an organisation through its IoT journey from start to finish, communicating their vision in a way that is as compelling as it is credible. 

Partner training

To get the best possible outcome from an IoT solution, it is essential to have up-to-date knowledge and expertise. This is crucial when we consider how rapidly technology is advancing and the sheer number of new IoT technologies being piloted every day. For a partner to fully understand IoT and its many business implications, good quality training is essential, as change leaders may not already possess this technical knowledge within the context of their existing roles. Partner training and certification helps IT providers learn the best way to deploy software and hardware solutions in complex real-world environments for their customers.

By ensuring they have the latest skills and certifications, true IT professionals can benefit from partner training in two key ways. Firstly, they can distinguish their own company from rival firms – having the latest skills provides a competitive edge, the ability to create better IoT experiences, quickly. On a personal development level, having access to first-class training will help IT professionals to build fulfilling careers in their industry.

The transformation process and onboarding of new IoT technologies present a major challenge, so technology partners have a crucial role to play in guiding businesses and navigating the challenges they may face along the way. Technology experts need to accept that in the IoT world the required skillsets are wide ranging; it makes no sense trying to do it all alone. You need a partner who has the technical knowledge as well as access to the right technology for your unique deployment. It is important that they encompass the skills your IT team doesn’t, to fill the gaps and answer the questions you can’t – you should be able to draw on their expertise from both a technical and a business point of view.

Having access to a good technology partner provides credibility. Credibility is what allows an IT professional to walk into the boardroom and justify exactly why a particular technology is needed for the profitability and productivity of the business.

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