How the Internet of Things is unlocking opportunities for SMEs

When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), devices seem to split into two camps. In the home, Amazon’s Alexa controls our lights and central heating. Meanwhile, big organisations build their own sophisticated tracking systems to monitor thousands of goods. But what does the IoT opportunity look like if you’re a small or medium business?

“IoT is rapidly becoming a technology for everyone,” says Jem Henderson, community manager of Digital Catapult’s IoTUK programme, a national initiative promoting the use of IoT. “There are around 1,344 businesses in the UK using IoT or involved in IoT projects right now. From retailers and manufacturers through to new startups looking to change the way we all do business.”

What is the Internet of Things?

Simply put, the ‘things’ are objects or devices that can ‘talk’ to each over the internet. And by joining these things together, you can gather data or even take action based on the information they give you. Think of a security camera letting you know it’s seen movement outside your workplace after hours. Or a connected car warning you or a garage that it needs a service. And a community rubbish bin letting the council know that it needs emptying.

IoT – and the data it produces – is set to be worth £322 billion to the UK economy [PDF: 5MB] by 2020. As a business technology, it can save you money by automating mundane tasks, freeing you up to concentrate on more important things. It can also create new opportunities.

And it’s not just the stuff that technologists dream up. One review [PDF: 861KB] found that 70% of SMEs are already looking at or using IoT platforms to improve current products by connecting them to the internet. And 52% see it as a springboard for launching new services. Think printers that tell manufacturers when they’re low on ink. With that information, the manufacturer can send new cartridges direct to the consumer, rather than waiting for them to buy a new one from a retailer.

Automating aftercare

Businesses that offer aftercare solutions have been some of the first to embrace IoT devices. Both the analytics and remote control that IoT offers lend themselves to improving customer service.

Manchester-based commercial design and construction company, Rische Group, uses IoT to tweak buildings they’ve built, long after construction is complete. They can adjust everything from heating and lighting to security. Not only does that mean they can offer better aftercare for their customers, but they can also free up engineers to work on bigger jobs.

“Clients love the prompt response, while we save the time, cost and trouble of having to send an engineer,” says Martyn Richards, Rische Group’s Managing Director.

If you don’t already offer an aftersales service for your customer, IoT could open new opportunities for you. Services like this can be highly profitable as they offer repeat revenue from both new and existing customers.

Finding new ways to work and save money

With the right tech, you could monitor your stock levels and make sure you're never caught short by a missing item when a customer comes orders it. Meanwhile, installing smart lighting and thermostats that adapt to your workforce’s needs could help to bring down your energy bills.

Real-time vehicle tracking has had a huge impact on large organisations. And now it’s more affordable for SMEs as well. It can help you manage your fleet and see where your vehicles are, so you can respond faster when a customer needs you. It could even help reduce the number of vehicles you need overall.

The range of IoT-related opportunities for SMEs is growing all the time. Christoph Burgdorfer, technical director at This Place, helps companies differentiate themselves through smart technology. He believes it can help companies track patterns in data over time. And they can use that data to plan for the future and deliver better services as a result.

For instance, motion sensors could help a hairdresser or bar owner monitor customer footfall over time, just as websites track visitors. “They could then … predict future customer behaviour and plan resources like staff and stock accordingly,” Christoph explains.

The result? Less waste, better service, greater profit. “With hardware and software for IoT decreasing in price these kinds of applications are becoming increasingly commercially viable [for small and medium businesses],” he adds.

How can you get started with the Internet of Things?

If you want to make IoT part of your business, there are plenty of ways to get started. While building your own tech in-house is an option, even an established engineering firm would have to spend a lot of time and money on research and development. Especially when 68% of businesses are struggling to recruit employees with the necessary skills

A quick and easier option is to use a third-party supplier, who can offer off-the-rack IoT solutions. You can even hire several vendors to develop proof of concept projects. Then after a few months, you can decide which approach is best for your business.

Want something more bespoke? Consider sharing the financial burden by partnering with another company. You could also consider reaching out to a tech startup. This might sound like something only Silicon Valley tech giants would consider, but it doesn’t have to mean a huge investment. And, by working together, you can develop new solutions quickly.

When it comes to connecting your IoT devices, having the right network is vital. Your best bet is to go with one that’s got brilliant coverage  Especially if you’re looking at a vehicle tracking or fleet management solution.

Connect and find opportunities at local IoT initiatives

Is there a ‘smart city’ initiative in your area? From Reading to Glasgow, you’ll find them all over the UK. They’re working to improve how they manage traffic, use energy and offer everyone free wi-fi. Working with local businesses and universities, initiatives such as CityVerve in Manchester may be able to introduce you to potential partners. Some smart city projects even offer additional perks, like hosting free workshops on how to use enterprise IoT platforms.

For advice on internet options that can support your business when you’re considering Internet of Things opportunities, take a look here. After all, having internet your business can rely on is critical to keeping everything connected with IoT.