Opinion: Small Businesses Need a Bigger Digital Safety Net

Digital Safety Net
Pexels.com photo by Artem Beliaikin.

Maryland’s small businesses are weary and perhaps still in a state of shock, more than seven months after COVID-19 blew up the economy.

Quarantines, closures and shutdowns have forced state employers to get creative about identifying new customers and keeping workers on the payroll. These are tough times, but small business owners are working harder, cutting costs and doing everything necessary to power through the pandemic.

More small businesses than ever before are using free and low-cost digital business tools, like online advertising, e-commerce, digital accounting and social media. These services comprise the Digital Safety Net, and they are helping small businesses everywhere navigate through COVID-19.

We recently put out a report that underscores how Maryland’s “digital drivers” – small businesses which invested in digital tools the soonest – expect four times better revenue for 2020 compared to small business owners who are digital skeptics. Thirty-eight percent of Maryland small business owners are “digital drivers,” 32% are “digital adopters” who understand the importance of digital tools and are starting to embrace them, and 20% are “digital maintainers,” or skeptics. Seventy-five percent of Maryland small businesses have increased their use of digital tools during COVID-19, and another 50% plan to use more digital tools in the future.

Companies like Google, Amazon, Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, QuickBooks and Etsy provide small businesses with the Digital Safety Net, which has become much more important during the downturn.

Going digital doesn’t guarantee that 2020 revenue will equal or exceed 2019 revenue, but every customer matters and every dollar counts for the floral and gift boutique in Lutherville-Timonium that embraced online ordering and curbside delivery, and the antique store in Annapolis that hustled to create an online store.

Our data also shows that more must be done to ensure small businesses have the kinds of tools they need. Small business owners often are overwhelmed by software options, so technology companies must provide skills training and easy-to-use support materials. Policymakers can help by creating and funding public-private partnerships that address education and digital adoption barriers that can hurt small businesses when the economy takes a nosedive.

Maryland leaders are working hard to keep citizens safe and strengthen businesses before winter. The governor’s office announced a $250 million fund to support small businesses, and some of that money will help restaurants upgrade online ordering capabilities and help retailers power new e-commerce tools.

It is unfortunate that amidst a small business crisis, so many in Washington, D.C., seem hell bent on crushing the technology companies that provide Maryland businesses with Digital Safety Net tools. One House of Representatives committee recently called for Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to be broken up. The Department of Justice recently sued Google, and rumors are that Facebook will be sued shortly.

These enforcement actions do nothing to help small businesses or consumers.

It seems that Washington does not understand the value of small business digital tools. As COVID-19 is surging, this is the worst time to over-regulate small businesses by attacking the companies that provide them with affordable and valuable support.

Maryland’s small businesses need results instead of political grandstanding, and they really need more digital business support so they can survive the pandemic and rebound stronger than ever.

— JAKE WARD

The writer is president of the Connected Commerce Council (3C), a membership organization for digitally empowered small businesses that receives contributions from Amazon, Facebook, Google and Square.