During the European Commission’s SME Assembly in Luxembourg, SME Insider spoke with Tristan Wilkinson, founder of technology support group Digital Citizens. We discussed what SME owners need to do to embrace technology, faster broadband for all, and why office space may soon be a thing of the past.
Tell me more about Digital Citizens and your role within the SME sector
I’ve spent 20 years working in the corporate environment, with the last two-and-a-half years of that working with Go ON UK and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) looking at all the digital issues affecting small and medium-sized businesses.
Over the past 12 months I’ve also been running Digital Citizens and realised that it’s really hard for policy makers to actually help SMEs, so that’s what I am trying to do now.
One issue that I have is that the voice of small businesses usually get heard through aggregators such as the IoD, CBI and FSB and that’s a very highly filtered voice and is inevitably heard through a political context, so I am trying to give small businesses another voice to use.
Do some business owners even need to embrace technology?
I think that technology in its basic form only does two things: it can either make existing processes more productive, such as an automotive production line in a car plant, or it makes the impossible possible. Technology allows millions of people connect really efficiently at such a low cost. It now costs nothing to start your own business.
For traditional businesses, they can embrace new technology if they really want to.
I’m working with a company that reinforces trucks in order to make them safer. This is a business that doesn’t use modern technology within their immediate product, but they are leveraging technology in other ways. For example, they use cloud software to do their accounting. However there are some companies that don’t use technology at all and if that’s what they choose to do then so be it.
More and more young people are using technology to create innovative products before they have even left school. Do you think that the higher education system is a necessity for children who could bypass university and go on to create a million pound company?
I would be afraid of living like that but my son might not share the same opinion. I grew up in an environment where a degree was everything – you wouldn’t even get an interview for most jobs without one.
In my opinion I feel like you need to get a proper education before you start an SME because not everyone is the same; not everyone can just leave school and become a millionaire overnight, it takes planning and a clear understanding of what you actually want to do in life and a university education can help you discover that.
Paint me a picture of what the SME space will look like in 10/15 years’ time. How will entrepreneurs use technology to create their own business?
I think we will see a continuation of the current trends. I live in a very rural part of the UK, but I now have 21mbps broadband speeds, something which I couldn’t say even a year ago.
Without superfast broadband, my wife and I couldn’t run our businesses from home. So I think in the future the need to work in an office will completely disappear. I think the new things that will become really exciting in SMEs is biometric technology, it may revolutionise the way businesses trade goods and the way they are protected digitally.
Speaking of broadband, the government have recently announced that they will roll out broadband with speeds of 10mbps for every family and small business in Britain. You alone have broadband which is twice as fast, so do you think firms will struggle with these speeds?
I’m lucky that I don’t have to justify myself to anyone any more, but I genuinely believe that the government is doing a good job.
However, broadband is the modern equivalent of a roadway network or a railway network, but just giving everybody the right to 10mbps per second is kind of a ‘so what’ to me. The infrastructure has to be in place. There are some companies that will need an unlimited amount of bandwidth, so not everyone will be satisfied with this announcement.
Once everyone has got 10mbps, what are they supposed to do with that? The government has to give more advice to small businesses.