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.