I’m sure most of us are happy that 2020 is in the rearview mirror—I know I am. But what will 2021 bring small business owners? To find out, we asked entrepreneurs and experts to share their small business insights and predictions for 2021.


Jon Fasoli, Vice President and Business Segment Leader of Small Business, Intuit
A Continued Need for Capital: This has been a challenging year for small businesses. When COVID-19 upended the small business community, QuickBooks used its fintech experience to help customers get more than $1 billion in SBA-approved PPP loans and save hundreds of thousands of jobs. In 2021, small businesses will still have a need for capital and alternative lending options to help them gain ground lost in 2020. Working capital loans through products like QuickBooks Capital will be especially important to underserved, young small businesses who often struggle to get access to traditional loans and may have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.

e-commerce is King: With many cities and states still in lockdown, consumers are continuing to shop online now more than ever, and it’s unlikely that these new shopping habits will change. Therefore, small businesses need to support how their customers want to shop, whether in-store, online, or across multiple digital marketplaces. A recent QuickBooks study found 28% of small businesses are selling more products and services online in 2020, and 94% say the coronavirus influenced this change.

Growth in Payments: Alongside small businesses leveraging more ecommerce channels is the need to accommodate a variety of online payments options. A recent QuickBooks study found that 17% of small businesses increased their investment in online payments systems this year and of those who invested, 91% said that decision was influenced by the coronavirus. In today’s online shopping and coronavirus world, small businesses are moving away from check and cash payments. In 2021, we expect the growth in online payments to continue. This will be coupled with a growth in online-only banking solutions, like the new QuickBooks Cash offering, that link to online payments capabilities and provide immediate and next-day access to funds resulting from sales.

A Preference for All-In-One Solutions: In 2020, small businesses were stretched thinner than ever before and don’t have time to manage disparate tech solutions. In 2021, there will be an increased need for more holistic tech solutions that can help with everything from payroll to payments to accounting, all in one central hub.

Cecilia Frew, Senior Vice President, Visa Direct at Visa
Sustained demand for EWA: Hourly workers want to be paid out immediately, fueling the popularity of Earned Wage Access programs. The demand for real-time access to funds will continue to grow, and we will continue seeing a shift towards employee expectations favoring EWA opportunities. In fact, according to a study with HR Dive, 89% of surveyed workers said they’d be willing to work longer for an employer that offered EWA; 79% would be willing to switch to an employer already offering it.

Marketplaces are becoming blessings for seller payouts: Mainstreet SMBs continue to say t cash flow shortages are a primary concern, and they can no longer wait several days for their money. As marketplaces enable orders from around the world, innovations in the payments space will continue to open up to simplify cross-border money movement in a seamless, fast, and secure way. In a study with, we found 76% of U.S. SMBs have reported struggling with cash flow shortages in the last few months, with 91% expressing interest in real-time settlement capabilities.

Brock Blake, CEO, Lendio

  • Expect more mergers and acquisitions in the small business lending sector. Some lenders will be acquired while others will look to aggressively capture market share
  • With Kabbage and OnDeck now acquired by larger companies, other privately held lenders will capture additional market share and step into the independent role that OnDeck and Kabbage once held
  • Congress will take action to curb the losses that small businesses are experiencing nationwide and will push through another round of PPP funds [this starts this week]
  • Banks and credit unions will finally go digital. During the initial PPP rush last spring, we saw what happens when banks and their processes are slow to evolve: customer loyalties shift. The banks, credit unions, and lenders that responded quickly during PPP drew in new customers and became the heroes to business owners in desperate need of relief funding.


Maria Melo and Vince Dinh, Senior Small Business Advisors, Yahoo Small Business

  • Video communication will become a have-to-have: 2020 has rendered many previously effective marketing strategies and tactics obsolete, and as a result, consumers have grown accustomed to new and creative forms of marketing and customer engagement, with a specific focus on video. With many customers still craving human connection and many states re-implementing stay-at-home orders, SMBs will increasingly use video communication to build relationships with their customers—for example, for a business selling electronics that customers may have trouble installing, video conferencing with shoppers to provide support; or a business selling apparel and accessories, hosting a virtual runway show. Virtual, experience-based marketing will become key to successfully engaging customers in the new year.
  • SMS marketing will make a comeback: In addition to newer forms of customer communication like video, SMBs will take it back to the basics as SMS marketing makes a comeback. Similar to email marketing, consumers will adopt SMS marketing through a transaction or by entering their mobile number to receive special offers. Online retailers should use caution in using this marketing strategy; however, limiting SMS use only to exclusive sales. In the COVID-19 era, SMS marketing will be used to notify customers of inventory updates and when products are in stock.
  • Effective marketing must be built on technology: In addition to helping SMBs to pivot, amid the challenges of COVID-19, technology has also enabled the use of data to fuel more targeted approaches to attract, retain and retarget customers—and this will grow in importance. As retailers integrate technology into their marketing strategies, they turn to technology to better target (and retarget) customers, monitor real-time engagement, traffic, and sales, and optimize campaigns through A/B testing.

Rich Rao, Vice President, Small Business, Facebook 
Small Brands Go Big, Elevated Brand Marketing in 2021: Now more than ever, small businesses must bring their brands to life to create lasting impressions on their customers. Brand building is no longer a thing meant just for “big brands”. In 2021, we’ll continue to see smaller shops around the world get creative showing what differentiates their company.

Small businesses will make connections that matter online, using tools like personalized ads, online communities, on-demand videos with Facebook Live and more one-on-one, direct communication with customers. Similarly, we will see small businesses take an elevated approach in how they feature products from their catalog in their digital storefront, and customize the look and feel of their shops to showcase their brand. In doing so, small businesses in 2021 will get more personal and start competing with marquee brands through compelling brand marketing that creates loyalty and ongoing engagement.

Bodhi Debnath, Sr. Director of Marketing, J2 Global Campaigner
Hyper personalization: Overall, marketers will start taking advantage of personalization when building their customer journeys and marketing strategies. Personalizing email campaigns, content, landing pages, etc., isn’t necessarily new to marketers; what’s new is how marketers can take it to the next level. Business owners have an endless supply of customer data, but many aren’t sure how to use that data to their advantage. Building targeted personalized email campaigns, for example, can yield substantial results. Subscribers will receive content and offers that they are interested in. Each campaign will be tailored to fit the needs/problems of that person instead of a one size fits all approach.

Incorporating SMS with other marketing channels: Over the last year, SMS marketing has become widely popular among business owners, more specifically, retailers. The average open rate of a text message is about 99%, with 97% of messages read within 15 minutes of being sent. Many business owners are homing in on this and incorporating SMS with their other marketing channels, such as email. With automation tools, users can build out intricate email workflows that include email and text messages. SMS is a direct, immediate channel. If you cannot reach them via email, there is an excellent chance that they will open up a text message. Gaging the SMS interaction allows you to learn more about your customers and provide you with the data you need to strategize your next marketing campaign.

Brick & mortar shops shift to online shopping: COVID-19 took the world by surprise, and many brick-and-mortar stores were forced to either shut down or get creative by shifting to online. 2021 will be no different; small business owners have now learned about online selling and have taken up social media and email to drive revenue for their stores. Many shops have opted for the click to shop feature on Instagram that allows people to go from Instagram to the shopping cart in just one click. Providing their customers with easy access to their products online provides them with the opportunity to continue selling if we are forced into lockdown once again.

Influencer marketing: Gone are the days of using celebrities to endorse a brand. Brands are now utilizing bloggers and influencers to drive sales for their products. Whether it is an app, banking site, clothing, beauty/health products, influencers are on the rise and are a cash grab for the brands they promote. Many with more than one million followers share products and services they love for commission. In return, their beloved followers hit up the sites and hit add to cart. Items have sold out in minutes for some online retailers.

SEO optimization: This is nothing new to any marketer trying to rank #1, but with everyone at home sitting in front of their computers, it’s become essential to have a tight lid on your website’s SEO. Organic search can be much more effective and powerful than you may think. With the right strategy and on-page optimization done correctly, your web traffic and performance can increase from zero to hero in just a short time.

Content marketing taking the focus: Content has always been king, but have you ever really thought about how effective content marketing can be for your business? With the right engine, content leads can even replace paid media to some extent. The key is to build out a content strategy for your brand. What can you create for your prospects or customers that can help them solve a problem? By providing them with helpful content in the beginning, it will show you care. This will also keep them engaged long enough for them to develop a soft spot for your brand. Once they have hit the sweet spot in your content engine, hit them with the offer to sign up or buy. By nurturing them through a journey, they begin to trust you, and more often than not, it turns an MQL into a SQL then finally into a happy customer.

Suhaib Zaheer, SVP & GM, Bluehost
Small businesses will double down on email marketing and SEO investments to engage with customers and reach new ones.
The tried-and-true way to engage with new and existing customers is through email marketing. Email consistently outperforms other marketing platforms in return on investment (ROI)—with a 122% ROI. Additionally, 83% of consumers prefer to receive business communications via email, and it’s a cost-effective option.

SEO is another cost-effective tool small businesses will invest more in. When done correctly, SEO drives significant traffic to a business’s website and assists with generating brand awareness. SEO is critical to reaching new customers because consumers rely on search engines to help make their decisions. According to Google, 64% of people use search when they want to buy something, and a relevant search influences 39% of shopping decisions.

John Orlando, CMO, Endurance International Group
Social media
Consumers irreversibly shifted to online shopping in 2020, and social distancing has forced us to replace face-to-face interaction with conversations on video and social media. We’ll finally see the convergence of these channels as brands seek to provide a more seamless online experience that allows users to shop directly through the digital platforms they now use every day.”

Redefining the Small Business
Currently, we define small businesses by employee size. Yet, as we’ve seen in 2020, the mandatory shift to a digital-first economy means that a small staff can still reach a large number of customers if the business is selling online. With an established digital presence, email marketing, and social media strategy, their power to reach consumers is even greater. In 2021, we need to redefine what a small business is and decouple its potential from its physical workforce size. Research shows that consumers often prefer shopping small to visiting large retailers, and I don’t expect their desire to buy online to fade. The world of online marketing has gotten a lot flatter this year, and it’s time for us to recognize the arrival of small businesses—because they’re not so small anymore.

4th annual CMO Predictions,  PAN Communications
Pan shared predictions from Larry Kim, CEO, MobileMonkey; Tamara McCleary, CEO, Thulium; Matt Heinz, President, Heinz Marketing; and others who say the fundamental way that we connect with our audiences must change, starting with a few key themes:

  • Empathy and compassion are no longer an option. Values and customer challenges must come above all else or risk falling tone-deaf. This includes taking a stand for social justice issues through internal and external comms.
  • Focus on delivering experiences, not generating leads. The shift away from in-person events has forced marketers to consider new ways to drive revenue during this economic downturn. Many are turning to PR and content to play a more supportive role.
  • Customer connections are about more than data. Whether you’re gathering customer insights, combatting misinformation, or looking to build credibility, combining emotional marketing with data-informed insights will create hyper-personalized experiences.

For additional guidance on how to recover from the pandemic, visit PAN’s resource center.

Hank Frecon, CEO, Source Digital
This is a great time to go with some purposeful goals. Every person who owns a business or who manages one should take the time to pause and create a plan for the future.  

  • Renew your commitment. Start the year off by reminding yourself why you do what you do. Remember the purpose, the why, and renew that commitment you made when you started the business or took on the mission of promoting it.
  • Improve your advertising. Too much time and money are wasted on ineffective advertising and marketing. One of the most critical moves you can make in this area is to focus on making your video advertising more productive. With video advertising being the hottest route, it’s essential to get it right.
  • Try something new. It’s important to adapt and be willing to try new ways of doing things. If a business can adapt to changes, it will have an easier time thriving.
  • Share your story. When people get to know your story, they make a connection. Those connections will add lead to a strong sense of loyalty from your customer base. Use social media and other routes to let people know who you are, your company’s mission, why you do what you do, etc.
  • Focus on customer satisfaction. Most businesses focus on profits, but that’s not the best route to take. Instead, focus on providing the best customer service you can. When you do that, the profits will fall right in line. A highly satisfied customer base will always lead to healthy profits.
  • Focus on what works. Get tough with yourself and ditch what isn’t working. Take stock of what works and what doesn’t and ditch the things that don’t work. They only serve to slow you down and take energy from those things that could make your company more successful overall.

Shift7 Digital, a digital agency for manufacturers
According to a recent report from investment firm GP Bullhound, the shift from physical to digital stores has accelerated by four to six years due to COVID-19, but many were forced to adapt on-the-fly.

Andrew Walker, CEO
ROI Value: As with all business decisions, investments in digital can’t be made without clear benefits. And the business case for digital channel expansion is undeniable. Define targets to be sure that your digital investment is hitting its KPIs and working to drive impact for the brand.

Randy Higgins, Chief Strategy Officer
Channel Prioritization: It sounds simple, but prioritizing your digital channels matters. It’s not about doing everything on every channel you can find but finding and prioritizing the ones that are being embraced by your customers and make sense for your business.

Nick Schulte, EVP, Technology
Product Content: Your product information, and the rich way it’s presented to your customers, is crucial to your digital success. If your products aren’t discoverable in an intuitive, easy-to-use way, your buyers may opt for an alternate brand; those making purchasing decisions must be able to find what they’re looking for and recognize its value quickly.

Derek Van Horne, VP, Executive Creative Director
Modernizing Marketing: More likely than not, one of the things you’re aiming for is measurable, scalable growth; if you haven’t rethought your digital marketing techniques in the past few years, now is the time to do so. Growth-focused manufacturers are taking a page from the consumer marketing playbook, prioritizing customer acquisition tactics, and branded experiences in their own B2B way.

Joe Anzalone, VP, Salesforce Technology
Customer Centrality: One of the most important things to always keep in mind is why you are making all of these changes and decisions: ultimately, to serve your customers. Offering online B2B transactions will improve your customer relationships and lower your cost of serving them.

Retail Marketing

Greg Sterling, VP of Insights, Uberall
Growing awareness of the fake reviews problem: The growing problem of review spam and fake reviews will burst into mainstream consumer awareness. This will require the major consumer platforms to implement new reforms and safeguards to bolster their content’s credibility. This issue will be most acute for Amazon and Google in particular, moving forward.

Google My Business gets deeper into online commerce: Google has offered online booking and food ordering for a few years. By seeking more ways to help local businesses and solidify its position as a mediator between online and offline experiences, Google My Business will continue expanding e-commerce offerings and enabling local merchants to sell products directly through their local business profiles on Google. Also, commerce and online fulfillment options for service businesses will expand in 2021.

E-commerce reaches 20% of total retail: Following a record 2020 holiday quarter, I believe that e-commerce will stabilize at 20% of total retail sales in 2021 in the U.S. If the pandemic persists well into this year, I think the number can reach 22%.

Deeper integration of online and offline, including real-time inventory and pick up in-store: E-commerce and traditional retail have mainly been separate channels. Going forward, the hallmark of successful merchants will be deeper integration between online and offline assets. This includes the distribution of real-time product inventory online. Roughly 40% of online purchases will be picked at local stores. The ability to search for a product, buy it online and pick it up the same day or the next day locally will become a permanent feature of the customer experience for major retailers and a key success factor.

Voice and ‘conversational commerce’: Voice search and virtual assistants continue to gain adoption and usage. In the U.S., smart speaker adoption will surpass 100 million users. We will start to see meaningful use of smart speakers as a marketing channel by enterprises and as a commerce and buying channel by consumers. Messaging and chat adoption continue their gains as critical tools for sales and customer service across consumer platforms.

Social commerce accelerates: Social media will become a major e-commerce channel in 2021. Buying on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, and even TikTok will grow. Expect messaging to become a key aspect of some of these experiences and significantly compress the funnel.

Social responsibility is a permanent feature of brand identity and messaging: Following the protests and pandemic of this year, sustainability, social responsibility—including diversity—and ethical behavior have become permanent and critical features of brand identity. This will become even more prominent, as younger consumers will increasingly require brands to commit to values they believe are worthy of a purchase consideration. Brands with purpose will also find it easier to recruit and retain employees.


Mike Katz, Executive Vice President, T-Mobile for Business
SMBs will increasingly adopt 5G to boost productivity, support employees working from anywhere, and better serve customers

SMBs rely on connectivity for business continuity and resiliency more than ever, accelerating the demand for more robust networks. According to IDC (Report: SMB Telecom Emerging Services Survey, 2020: Broadband), SMBs’ demand for improved broadband connectivity speeds over 100 Mbps has increased nearly 11% year-over-year. Faster broadband access ranks as the second-most important technology investment in the next year, behind improving internet security. 5G wireless and 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) will offer significant improvements in speed and reliability, enabling SMBs to serve customers better and increase remote work productivity. 5G FWA will provide a more robust alternative to businesses located in rural areas where speeds are less reliable, and service provider options are limited. With a predicted 36.2 million Americans working remotely by 2025—an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels—employers of all sizes will want to ensure their teams are tapping into an awesome home broadband experience like 5G FWA for videoconferencing, software-as-a-service solutions, and collaboration tools. And for workers on the move or at remote field locations, enhanced mobile broadband powered by 5G will provide a reliable high-speed experience from anywhere.

SMBs will prioritize security with a mobile-first mindset: As SMBs shift their resources to digital channels and deliver more touchpoints to customers, protecting confidential customer data is even more critical. SMBs that want to earn customers’ trust must mitigate the increasing number of cyberattacks using more sophisticated and automated tools designed to attack at scale. According to IDC (Report: SMB Telecom Emerging Services Survey, 2020: Broadband), improving internet security is the No. 1 technology investment priority for SMBs in the next 12 months. With the rapid growth in the use of mobile apps, SMBs will need to prioritize security with a mobile-first mindset. Organizations can turn to a comprehensive set of tools to improve mobile security: device and app protection, threat detection and blocking, recovery solutions, and security for mobile connections. According to the mobile industry trade association GSMA, 5G’s “Secure by Design” principles offer built-in controls that address many of the threats we faced with 4G networks. And by joining 5G networks like T-Mobile’s, SMBs will gain enhanced security.

CIT Group
For middle-market and small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the vital importance of investing in new technology, facilitating remote work, and maintaining the tech-savvy workforce needed to make it all happen, according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll for CIT Group Inc.

The survey found most small (89%) and midsized businesses (97%) managed to stay open when the pandemic hit. But what did the study reveal about SMBs’ plans for 2021? [We’re going to focus on small business in this post.]

Investing in Tech: Compared to a year ago, 81% of small business owners agree technological investment is an ongoing business requirement. Most small business leaders (68%) wish they’d invested more in technology over the past 12 months, 79% say tech is key to their survival, and 84% of SMBs plan to invest as much or more in their businesses over the next 12 months.

“Small businesses don’t always have the financial resources that larger enterprises often enjoy,” says Ken Martin, managing director of CIT’s Small Business Solutions group. “In cases where investments are imperative, borrowing or leasing may be the right solution to acquiring the technology needed to remain competitive.”

Remote working: When it comes to tech upgrades, investments that make it easier for employees to work remotely are a clear priority. Over the next 12 months, 31% of small business leaders who plan to invest will spend on technology that facilitates remote work.

Many businesses are likely to keep operating remotely even after the pandemic—28% of small businesses that transitioned employees to working remotely during the pandemic expect (28%) this change to remain permanent after COVID-19 subsides.

Among those who can operate with remote employees, 53% of small business leaders say their companies plan to allow employees to regularly work remotely permanently after the pandemic subsides.

Gaurav Sachar, Client Partner- CPG, Fractal Analytics 
Artificial Intelligence
With the pandemic disrupting all business plans for 2020, there has been a shift in what users want AI to do for them. The demand for getting longer-term forecasts and predictions is becoming lesser by the day, and the demand for insights that can help navigate in the current situation is becoming more relevant.

There will be a bigger push to have AI incorporated in all operating decisions and less reliance on AI for strategic decision making. AI managed operations is a trend that is likely to surge in 2021. The key shift would be AI’s role from being an enabler to a decision-maker in running the operations for a large conglomerate. The pandemic has given a major push to digitization of operational activities. This is likely to create more data, structured and unstructured, in the near term, which will be useful to build in the context and human intelligence further into operational decision making.

Kwasi Asare, Senior Manager Startups, and Channel Marketing, DigitalOcean
Small businesses and startups will adopt the cloud faster than large enterprises.
The pandemic has driven cloud adoption among startups and SMBs, allowing them to embrace the change even faster than before. Because they don’t have the same red tape and on-prem legacy systems large enterprises have, startups and SMBs can build cloud-native businesses right off the bat. Because of this, startups and SMBs will adopt the cloud at a faster pace than large enterprises—and cloud vendors will need to begin paying more attention to this underserved market to keep up.

Magnus Wingmark, General Manager, Sweden, STANLEY Security
More than ever before, organizations want access to real-time data that provides a deeper look into operations, compliance, device status, threat level, and more. Not only that, but they’re looking for more ways to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to extract the right data, identify patterns, and gain intel that can ultimately help them improve processes, increase efficiencies, and make more informed business decisions. Big Data allows organizations to adapt and stay agile, which could mean the difference between them staying in business and not, especially in today’s environment.

Mike Owen, Chief Business Officer, Spiketrap
Quantifying the cost of a bad decision is not a pleasant experience, particularly for smaller businesses that have a lot on the line. As companies search for a path forward amid tumultuous times, expect audience understanding to take center stage.

Every day, people express themselves through millions of conversations online. Companies that can tune in to the conversations that matter will be best poised to make smarter decisions earlier in their growth. While chatter around brands in the stealth or startup stage is typically minimal, the opportunities to tune in to organic conversations around a given industry, competitor, event, and so on are more robust than ever. For instance, we’ve seen accelerating cross-functional adoption and utilization of AI-powered conversation analytics and competitor reporting at Spiketrap. Regardless of job function or title, more people are finding value in listening to their audiences in new ways.

As we look ahead, expect the businesses that prioritize conversation understanding at scale to thrive.

Nitan Shimpi, CEO, and Manjusha Madabushi, CTO, Talentica
In 2021, companies will modify their approaches to developing technology and products. The hype of Artificial Intelligence, Microservices, and Low Code – No Code platforms have played out, and companies will adjust to decrease complexity and increase efficiencies.

Microservices Adoption to Recede: Microservices will decline in adoption where managing triple constraints of time, cost, and quality is a prerequisite. As an architectural pattern, it is overhyped. It introduces unnecessary complexities and should be adopted for large technology teams only if agility to business trumps over the iron triangle.

Low Code – No Code Platforms Will Consume 30% of IT Budgets: Enterprises and entrepreneurs will turn to Low Code / No-Code platforms for small and medium complex implementations without investing in a development team. This approach gives companies the freedom to try new things, automate what is being done, and circulated through Excel and Stitch workflows—all without coding knowledge. While the applications built by these tools might not have the most impressive user experience, they will have a substantial impact on the IT spend and could consume 30-40% of IT budgets over the next couple of years.

Startups Will Adopt a ‘Lean AI’ Approach: More startups will follow a ‘Lean AI’ approach by starting with traditional statistical methods for problem-solving and then move on to machine learning and deep neural networks as they collect more data.

Blockchain Will Power Web 3.0: Blockchain technology will start playing a major role in the decentralization of the web. We will see Blockchain powering Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web by ensuring a highly connected, secure web that is decentralized.

Extracting Insights Without Challenging Privacy Regulations to Go Mainstream: Multi-party computation (MPC) techniques and ML Algorithms over encrypted data will move from academic research to mainstream business applications. With increasing privacy regulations, these techniques will find more takers to deliver useful insights while maintaining acceptable data privacy.


Chris Wayne, CTO, Yahoo Small Business
Small businesses must increase investment and education around cybersecurity in 2021

  • In 2020, COVID-19 pushed the small business community online by making digital transformation paramount to survival. This, in turn, created a huge migration of people getting online for the first time and a boom in the online ecosystemThis new wave of online businesses has created a significant need for cybersecurity to protect companies operating in an online environment. As digital transformation continues to occur in 2021, there will be more opportunities for bad actors to exploit small businesses. Small business owners must remain vigilant to avoid dangerous attacks, as many do not have the same resources to protect against, mitigate, or recover from cyberattacks as larger corporations. What’s more, 43% of cyberattacks target SMBs specifically.
  • Keeping data safe will be more difficult—and more critical—now than ever before. To help protect against cyberattacks and maintain good cyber hygiene, small businesses must invest in security tools and software to prioritize security, provide email security and 2FA, malware protection, data backup strategies, and more. For small businesses without dedicated IT staff, outsourcing security management, or working with a partner company can be a strategic way to become cyber resilient.


Kevin Phalen, Head of Global Business Solutions, Visa
Digital Marketplaces are the new Main Streets for SMBs. Small business owners continue to look for ways to branch out beyond their local communities, especially now when in-person shopping and COVID-19 regulations have drastically altered how small businesses stay connected to customers. In 2021, the addition of digital marketplaces as a new “Main Street” for small businesses will be imperative to their survival. They will use marketplaces to gain exposure and reach new leads, provide 24/7 access to products, and create new customer service experiences for digital-first customers.

Jason VandeBoom, CEO, ActiveCampaign
Continued Shift to Digital Makes CX Top Priority for SMBs: The stakes have never been higher for small businesses, but so have their transformations and creativity. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen more SMBs shift to a digital strategy by opening online stores, conducting more customer engagement through digital channels, and doing more with fewer resources.

Bringing the authentic customer experience that makes SMBs unique into the digital world will be the most important priority for companies in the new year. Personalization is SMBs’ greatest asset and what sets them apart from large retailers. By 2022, e-retail revenues will almost double from 2019, and those sales will continue to be a top revenue stream even after shoppers can return to brick and mortar shops. Optimizing customer experience automation will allow business owners to capitalize on e-commerce as a long-term strategy for success.

Maria Melo and Vince Dinh, Senior Small Business Advisors, Yahoo Small Business

  • SMBs will reprioritize conversion rates: For most online sellers, the onset of COVID-19 positively impacted consumer habits toward online shopping. However, many businesses selling online—especially SMBs—spent much of 2020 adjusting to the surge in traffic and sales, often at the cost of a lower conversion rate. To avoid “leaving money on the table,” there will be a big push by online sellers to improve their conversion rates. These are some of the questions they should be asking themselves: Is their website fresh and modern, are their social channels fueling engagement, and is their digital ad spend effectively driving traffic and sales? In 2021, outsourcing marketing or working with e-commerce consultants versed on usability best practices and ways to improve conversion rates will increase.
  • Transactional mobile traffic will increase: According to McKinsey, 30% to 60% of consumers worldwide report an intent to shift online for holiday shopping. With consumers spending more time on their devices, this makes an optimized mobile experience crucial. As transactional mobile traffic continues to rise, online sellers will seek to enhance their mobile design, usability, and site security.
    • The rise of social commerce: In parallel, we will also see a continued increase in demand from customers making purchases via social platforms. Increasingly, online sellers are working to ensure their social channels are set up to either allow purchasing from directly within the social channel or seamlessly redirecting to the website storefront for easy purchase. New strategies will include providing special discounts and pricing to the most active followers, the ability to opt into text messaging for personalized recommendations and links to buy, and giveaways to drive engagement and upselling.

Lisa Marie Fortier, SVP, ENGINE Insights
By now, we all know that the retail landscape has changed—and is still changing. ENGINE Insights has been monitoring consumer thinking related to the events of 2020 to try and understand what the road may lead to in the near and long-term futures.

What is interesting is that people are either totally in alignment or differ greatly in their feelings. While consumers are universally concerned about COVID-19 (83%)—only half of Americans believe we will need to continue to avoid crowds, schools, and businesses for longer than six months. That means the other half thinks we can begin moving toward what we consider “normal” behavior.

It will be a while before everyone is back on the same page to move about our world as we once did. And key for small business owners will be taking the time to understand where their customer base is at—and getting aligned with them.

Raj De Datta, E-commerce Expert & CEO, Bloomreach
Some experts think that there won’t be a place for brick-and-mortar stores in a post-COVID-19 world. I disagree…

“Physical retail stores will be expected to be an Apple Genius Bar type of experience. There may not be quite as many retail associates, but the ones who are there will be asked, “Where can I find XYZ products right now?” Because buyers may ask an in-store retail associate what they can’t figure out online.

Additionally, some stores may become more of a warehouse, with some of the space in less pricey locations being used to stock inventory versus being a showroom.

Matthieu Le-Taillandier, General Manager, France, STANLEY Security
With health and safety considerations top of mind for many organizations, we expect to see a surge in demand for touchless and mobile-first solutions. For many organizations, there’s an eagerness and excitement to get back on-site to collaborate. And, while normalcy will look much different in today’s environment, there’s a desire to implement solutions that can help solve two challenges: preventing the spread of germs and creating a faster, more frictionless experience that still provides for safety in the workplace. As a result, touchless and mobile-first solutions—such as touchless doors, mobile credentials or NFC-powered access control, automated screening systems, and more—will undoubtedly gain popularity even more in 2021.

Janine Pollack, Director of Integrated Marketing, MNI Targeted Media
The pandemic is presenting new and, in some instances, increased opportunities for entrepreneurs in sectors such as telemedicine and direct-to-consumer. Companies embraced technology to make interactions with consumers easier and safer. For example, patients could see doctors via Zoom, and diners now view menus via an AR code. These adaptations and innovations will likely remain valuable in 2021 and beyond. The reality is that the shift to e-commerce has never been easier, and while no one likes why businesses had to adapt, the changes have evolved businesses to the next level. Businesses of all sizes have adapted, but the ability for small companies to adroitly adapt to change—to embrace click-to- brick—can be the difference between staying open or not, even for touchless delivery.

Future of Work/HR

MBO Partners’ 10th Annual State of Independence in America report shows COVID-19 has shaken but not destroyed the resilience of independent workers; 48% are doing ok financially while 32% are living comfortably— hiving and nomadism are top strategies to survive and thrive in the new world of work

The COVID-19 pandemic ended the longest U.S. economic expansion in modern history. While independent workers have felt the pain of the economic fallout, they remain happy, healthy, and secure, according to MBO Partners®.

The company recently released its 10th annual State of Independence in America report, the country’s longest-running end-to-end study of the American independent workforce.

5 key trends emerged from the study:

  • Independent work becomes the new blueprint for the American dream.  There is no question that the carnage in the pandemic labor market forced many people who prefer full-time payroll jobs into independent work. Between 2011 and 2019, the percentage of independent workers saying it was their choice completely rose from 55% to 67%. In 2020 this trend was disrupted, with 59% percent saying it was completely their choice. One in 11 Americans say they want to go independent, signaling this is the new American dream.
  • There’s a sinkhole in the workforce, and it’s swallowing women. The share of women independents fell from averaging around 50% to 42% in 2020. This was likely because a significant number of women work in roles impacted by COVID-19. They were also more likely to leave or cut back on work due to COVID-induced caretaking requirements.
  • Underground independence has tunneled into the mainstream. Over the past decade, workers up and down the income ladder have found that their compensation simply hasn’t kept up with rising costs. In 2020, the number of side-giggers rose 5.3% to 15.8 million, up 51% from 10.5 million in 2016.
  • “Hiving” and nomadism emerge as COVID survival strategies.  Staffing and the office will never be the same. Independent workers are banding together in hive-like setups or teams, with some 19% of full-time independents and 12% of traditional job workers indicating that they have teamed up with other independent workers or microbusiness in the past 12 months. The office is also redefined, with 10.9 million American workers describing themselves as digital nomads, increasing 49% from 2019. Further, in 2020, the number of traditional workers working as digital nomads grew 96 percent, from 3.2 million to 6.3 million.
  • Skilled independent workers numbers are on the rise. Skilled professionals are among the fastest-growing segments of the independent workforce, with their numbers rising in each of the past ten years. In 2011, there were 4.5 million skilled independents, and in 2020 there are 7.7 million, representing a 71% increase.

In 2011, when MBO Partners launched this research, independent work was still something novelty, more often than not, a necessity driven by economic circumstances. Today some 48 percent of U.S. adults report either currently working or having worked as an independent during their career, and 54 percent will do so by 2025.

Independent workers are an influential economic force, with 38.2 million Americans in their ranks, nearly a quarter of the total U.S. workforce. Independents generated $1.21 trillion in revenue over the past year.

Further, independents have shown consistent growth in their ability to tap into global markets. In 2020, 28 percent reported they did business outside of the U.S., up from 12 percent in 2013. Despite COVID-19 and fueled by the confluence of trends changing our future of work, independents are and will continue to be a force to reckoned with.

Kristi Arcurie, PHR, SHRM-CP, Client Advocate, G&A Partners

  • Shifting to a hybrid workplace: The workplace landscape has changed forever; most of the workforce worked from home—or a remote location—more than one day a week after COVID-19 lockdown measures were introduced. A hybrid model promises more flexibility for employees whose positions do not require them to work at a particular site. HR’s role will be essential and complex as companies adapt policies, procedures, recruiting and training protocols, and health and wellness programs in the hybrid workplace.
  • Employers should offer emergency assistance: Employers need to provide employees with emergency expansions of paid sick time, paid family and medical leave, as well as remote and flexible work options. Paid sick days help to reduce potential productivity loss and the risk of spreading infection.
  • From goalsetting to a D&I culture woven into the workplace: Businesses are weaving diversity and inclusion (D&I) into the fabric of their workplaces—taking substantive action in implementing D&I efforts and enacting real culture changes. Diversity officers and teams should work closely with HR to carry out actions that promote change, including educating employees, reviewing and revising policies and procedures to ferret out potentially discriminatory practices and develop sound hiring practices.
  • HR will help reinvent agility & workplace ops: As businesses continue to reinvent what it means to be “agile”  in 2021, HR will play a central role in adapting workplace operations that keep employees “whole,” including executing daily tasks (payroll, reporting, scheduling, training, recruiting, benefits administration); implementing health and wellness initiatives (mental and physical); communicating changing workplace policies and procedures; promoting productivity, and a cohesive, successful company culture.

Lisa Reeves, Chief Product Officer, Zenefits
The acceleration of trends already underway in the SMB market will continue. Remote working will embrace digital and/or touch-less models for work and increasingly extend into everyday life. This shift will be underpinned by focusing on total employee wellness—spanning across work and daily life.

SMBs will continue to explore new ways of working and/or business models as they adapt to changing economic and market conditions. As a result, there will be a focus on re-skilling/cross-skilling as people across the workforce transition to new roles and/or companies.

Digitization of the healthcare industry will accelerate as employees embrace a direct-to-consumer model. Employees will benefit in several ways, including the convenience of telehealth, improved healthcare outcomes, increased cost transparency, and improved healthcare delivery.

Tracy Cote, Chief People Officer, Zenefits
Remote work will increase, which will improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in companies of all shapes, sizes, and industries. The pandemic helped leaders and business owners realize that remote work works for many roles, and they will need to embrace flexibility and remote work going forward to ensure they attract and retain the best talent.

What goes down must come up: It has been tragic to see so many small and mid-sized businesses unable to weather the COVID-19 storm. But new companies will rise from the ashes, and they will be better prepared for whatever is next to come, having learned by observing what existing companies had to go through as they pivoted, or attempted to pivot, to meet the changing needs and challenges posed by 2020.

Politics in business matter. In a world that has become polarized by the red versus the blue, we will see more companies take a stand on political issues, human rights initiatives, and more. By doing so, companies will both cement and alienate customers, employees, and even local communities. My hope is this happens in a way that, rather than being divisive and antagonistic, is civil and encourages discussion and insight into new ways of thinking so we can all be better informed, good citizens.

Parijat Sarkar, VP of Product, Zenefits
The “blended” workforce will have a new dimension: hybrid in-person + remote teams. We’ve shown that remote teams can work in many situations (excluding scenarios that absolutely need in-person attendance). Even when people can go back to physical offices, blended teams will be the norm. People teams will have to adapt to set new norms and rituals to sculpt the best culture possible in this new normal. The reduction in relying on local workforces will also continue to open up larger talent pools for SMBs.

Greater peer empathy and tighter teamwork: During the pandemic, we’ve seen glimpses into people’s personal lives through Zoom/Teams (parents taking care of their kids, people displaying their personal passions such as musical instruments in their home office), and though we’ve been physically apart, these personal glimpses brought many teams closer. When people get back to shared locations, we will see individuals more as their “whole selves” and that will help bring teams closer together, especially for SMBs which have smaller teams in the first place.

With Prop 22 passing in California and similar bills being considered in other states, the notion of what it means to be a “contractor” will continue to evolve with innovative new solutions in the benefits realm being delivered to meet the ever-changing landscape. In this case, benefits aren’t restricted to just insurance options but extend to things like schedule flexibility and wellness offerings too, which will also need to adapt.

Here are five key lessons for company leaders to take into 2021, based on Perceptyx research.

  • Move Beyond Engagement: While engagement is, and always has been, a bellwether in determining the health of a company’s culture, right now, it simply isn’t enough. We cannot rely on outcome measures alone; we need to listen “in the moment” and respond quickly. As the working world shifts, it is critical to listen to employees to learn specifically what they need to succeed. Real-time data provides insights that help inform strategy and policy in a very significant and powerful way and help map the eventual return to the workplace.
  • Help Women: The hundreds of surveys Perceptyx has collected make it clear that organizations must do a better job helping women be successful. Women have been more impacted than their male counterparts during the pandemic, and every company risks moving backward when it comes to the progress that women have made in organizations globally. The answer is not more “programs,” but instead providing more degrees of freedom that will enable women to sort out their schedules and priorities in a way that works for them.
  • Prioritize Resilience: Resilience is a quality that has been critical to organizations during the pandemic, and it will continue to be essential going forward. The impact of COVID-19 to date and the uncertainty of the road ahead of us have had a fracturing effect on all companies.  It’s hard to maintain a culture when so many of us are working remotely. Many employees are hired and onboarded without ever meeting their colleagues face-to-face or setting foot in a company office. But making sure those new employees feel welcomed and invested in their teams is critical. All employees—new and current—need ways to build and maintain ties with co-workers to continue to innovate and collaborate with a shared sense of purpose.
  • Recognize Fatigue: The novelty of working remotely has worn off. Zoom meetings, wearing a mask, social isolation, online learning, family demands…all of this has taken its toll on employees. The longer the virus impacts our everyday lives, the deeper the fatigue sets in and starts to erode positive feelings about everything, including work and the organization in which they are employed. Be prepared for this fatigue to affect employees at all levels and recognize it for what it is. Listening to your employees is critical to overcoming this hurdle, as it will vary by industry, organization size, and of course, the individual.
  • Be Empathetic: Patience with each other is important across the board, but managers in particular need to demonstrate extraordinary empathy for their employees. Not every manager can do this well, however, and thus there is a need for HR to help managers learn to listen empathetically.

Deborah Wintner, Global Vice President, Human Resources, STANLEY Security
STANLEY Security’s 2021 Industry Trends Report
The global pandemic redefined safety in the workplace. It introduced a monumental challenge that organizations weren’t yet equipped to solve: How to identify contagious individuals and prevent the spread of illness. This led to a fundamental shift in the way organizations leverage security solutions.

Now, they’re looking at how security can help them ensure the health of their people—employees, customers, students, patients, visitors, and contractors. While this shift resulted from new safety protocols and regulations related to COVID-19, it will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the way organizations view and use security for the foreseeable future.

Raquel Rosenthal, CEO, Digilant
More companies will focus on hiring where the talent is rather than a company headquarters or office location. Due to the impact of COVID-19 on remote work in a growing number of cases, recruiting efforts are shifting to focus on attracting, hiring, and retaining the best and most qualified talent regardless of the individuals’ home base. Through this approach, companies, especially those located outside of major metropolitan areas, will gain access to larger and more diverse pools of talent that are attracted to their specific employer culture and brand versus a desirable geographic location.

Suhaib Zaheer, SVP & GM, Bluehost
Small businesses focus on adding more mobile workforce capabilities
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that businesses can expand even when employees work remotely. The popularity and prevalence of remote work will continue, even when the world starts to look like the “old normal. By 2024, IDC predicts mobile workers will make up roughly 60% of the total workforce. As such, more SMBs will focus on enabling their employees to work remotely, giving teams more flexibility and boosting productivity.

Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” The need to embrace innovation has never been more important. You’ll need to push your boundaries to stand out in the increasingly competitive online world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed even more businesses to get online, and the competition is fiercer than ever. Playing it safe may no longer translate into growth. Fortunately, small businesses are prime for innovation. They can execute ideas rapidly and pivot far easier than large corporations. By taking calculated risks, they can test things that haven’t been done before and have a better chance of giving their small business a path to developing a strategic edge versus competitors.

Jaime Bettencourt, Senior Vice President of Global Account Management, Mood Media
This year we can expect to see retailers leveraging all their channels as they strive to offer a holistic experience that will resonate with their customers. Given the regulations and restrictions in place, customers will be venturing into a store with a clear purpose. Therefore, retailers—especially smaller brick-and-mortar stores—need to prove their purpose and remind their customer base of their unique value, including by focusing more on digital and in-store messaging. With a renewed focus on messaging, retailers, big and small, will be able to connect with customers, making them feel safe and informed while tying them closer to the brand.


Sarah Casillas, Creative Director, Adobe Stock
Visual & Creative Trends Forecast
Last year, 90% of creators found trends and topics in visual culture evolved faster than ever. As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, the trends showcase how imagery helps creatives and marketers express compassion, boost moods, and provide an escape from our challenging environments and circumstances. With 49% of creators developing content with positive societal impacts, these trends reinforce the importance of uplifting and inspiring content.

  • The Compassionate Collective: Efforts should aim to support, represent, and empower all voices and identities through compassion following a challenging year.
  • Mood-Boosting Color: As social causes gain momentum, color has become a vehicle for consumers to express their beliefs, cultures, and values.
  • Comfort Zone: The distance between individuals’ social and private lives has changed due to COVID-19, making homes the singular space for all activities.
  • Breath of Fresh Air: The cultivation of nature, whether in the country, suburb, or urban center, has provided relief from the restrictions of indoor living and evolving responses around climate change, the environment, and sustainability.

 Shawn Rubel, Founder & CEO, Vecteezy
In the creative licensing space, we’re going to see content providers remove the barrier to entry that comes with dated, pay-to-play pricing models. We’ve watched the industry shift from rights-managed to royalty-free over the past 10 years. We know the next shift will be the freemium model. Platforms that balance affordable content with a payout structure that benefits contributors will ultimately win. Consumers will show loyalty to brands that offer easy access to content while taking care of their creative community through ethical business practices.


Sagar Shah, Principal Consultant-CPG, Fractal Analytics 
New human: With emerging disciplines, the focus on learning & creativity will become paramount for all kids and young adults more-so. Multiple careers might start appearing to be a norm due to volatility in economies.

New consumer: 2021 will see an ever-evolving consumer need, an unprecedented, personalized shopping season, pushing lifestyle choices to the limit, people rationalizing choices daily over changing priorities, enhanced moments that matter every day.

New Work: Technology-driven decisions, change management, growth mindsets, OKRs will become the new normal. The new CEO bullpen/cockpit will become digital—personality-driven working sessions with collaboration tools driving towards targeting and achieving strategic objectives, percolating to the rest of the organization.

New Enterprise: Firms will be forced to become agile, tech-first, and transformation friendly. There will be higher churn in top jobs with deviation from the cookie-cutter profiles to more dynamic professionals who can be game-changers.

Charley Moore, CEO, Rocket Lawyer
Recovering Economy in a Divided Country: Based on the result of the 2020 election, we face a divided government. So, it’s unlikely that there will be bold government intervention to catalyze strong economic growth. It’s more likely we’ll see moderate government intervention and correspondingly a moderate and slow recovery, similar to that following the Great Recession.

Biden Administration and SMBs: A Biden presidency will most likely affect SMBs initially in three ways:

1—Stimulus. Biden campaigned on a promise to provide economic stimulus to small businesses along the lines of a bill passed by the House of Representatives over the summer. Small businesses can expect the continuation of the Cares Act, including the popular PPP program, potential tax breaks, and other assistance. [The new PPP has already launched.]

2—Veterans. Biden has long been a champion for veterans. I recently participated in a veteran-owned small business training event hosted by Dr. Jill Biden and Senator Tammy Duckworth, herself a wounded warrior. So, I know firsthand there are plans to expand opportunities for veteran-owned businesses, potentially including greater access to capital, tax incentives, government contracting opportunities, and training to transition military experience into entrepreneurial opportunity.

3—Support for Education. Both President-elect Biden and First Lady elect Dr. Biden, have a long history of supporting education. In particular, Dr. Biden has been both a community college professor herself, and advocate for free community college for all. Education is the key to successfully launching and growing technology-intensive businesses in the 21st-century. Every business depends on technology acumen, so investing in education will produce more successful entrepreneurs in the U.S.

Landlords & Tenants: Millions of Americans depend on renting a place to live, and millions of landlords depend on earning an income from those rental properties. This creates [a need for] powerful public policy to help people keep a roof over their heads during times of high unemployment, like that produced by the COVID crisis. [It seems] public policy toward housing American citizens outweighs any public policies favoring landlords. My opinion is that public policy will continue to favor tenants while at the same time providing landlords with at least some measure of economic assistance. We saw such economic assistance to landlords in Cares Act, and also the Federal Reserve Loan program. I expect this balancing act to continue for the duration of the crisis.


Wimberly Interiors
In 2020, we fundamentally changed how we live. As we take a deep breath and reflect, we enter this new year with a deeper appreciation for the little joys in life. We were forced to take a hard look at how our spaces worked for us—they needed to be rethought for living, working, playing, exercising, learning, and virtual socialization.

Here are a few of Wimberly’s predictions on what you can expect in design in 2021:

1—Earthy Neutrals that Convey Calm and Comfort: 2021 will be all about calm and comfort. Natural and organic materials and cool neutral colors with touches of earthy tones are on the way in. Think stone, wooden finishes, recycled and plant-based woven fabrics, and touches of greenery. We’re also going to see more open, uncluttered spaces that balance a minimal aesthetic with comfort, warmth, and a feeling of ‘home’—especially in hospitality design. Objects that are both beautiful and functional, or possess special meaning rather than purely decorative, will take prime position.

2—Blending the old and new: Curated feature pieces will continue to dominate the interior design space. Over the past few years, we’ve seen consumers move towards buying better made, longer-lasting statement pieces instead of their faster, in the moment, or ‘on trend’ counterparts. Spaces should opt for layered and interesting over crisp and clean.

3—Sustainable Furnishings: The need for resilience in interior design is more than just a trend; it is gaining momentum and is ultimately about using materials—tactile, natural, honest, and, most importantly, local. Interior design is moving rapidly towards a sense of place and appreciation of available materials and products with a low carbon footprint. It is this availability of resources that is key to the future of design beyond trends.

4—Adaptation and Reinvention: 2021 will be the year of taking those left behind spaces and turning them into something new, exciting, and hopeful. Expect innovation and adaptation.

5—Wellness: Wellness has topped trends lists for years—not just in the travel and hospitality industries. As we begin contemplating our post-pandemic (or next-pandemic) world, wellness will be bigger than ever and take on a much more holistic form: health, safety, and resilience will become one, and we’ll see designers collaborating more freely with new and unexpected industries and professionals.

In the short-term, say goodbye to individually packaged plastic bottles for products or water and ensuring a better relationship between the indoors and out through integrated design. Expect spaces to put an extra emphasis on plants in any shape or form. These tap into biophilic design and transport us back to nature after being locked in for so long.

6—Furniture that Doubles in Functionality: 2021 will bring a consciousness of how we conceive private spaces by giving them more flexibility. Think ‘light furniture’ that adapts to different situations with concealed extra functionality to accommodate luxury, comfort, and purpose, such as a chair that doubles for dining and working.

7—An Investment in Art: As many continue to spend increased hours at home, the role of the artwork, textured and natural materials, and botanical wallcoverings will become extremely important—especially in spaces that have prolonged hours of use. As Joan Miró said, ‘A simple line painted with the brush can lead to freedom and happiness’.

2021 predictions stock photo by Linaimages/Shutterstock