One of the overriding themes emanating from the Standard Bank SME Summit, hosted in partnership with Business Day TV, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Sysdba and the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) in Johannesburg recently, was that successful small and medium sized enterprises solve a problem, provide a service and are able to grow even in a tough economy.

Discussing future trends and how to turn them into business opportunities, futurist and strategic thinker Dion Chang discussed the likelihood of air mobility in the future, pointing to a 2017 promotional video released by Uber Air, a consumer electronics show in the US in 2018 which featured flying cars and a number of companies testing potential air taxis.

In certain parts of the world, he revealed, property developers are looking at rooftops as the new gold in real estate.

However, it is digitalisation which has collapsed the traditional value chain, he explained, allowing start-ups to disrupt traditional industries. In the ‘on demand’ economy, consumers want services and products quickly and seamlessly.

Transient ownership, a big drive into veganism and non-alcoholic brands and increased concerns about environmental issues are driving a fundamental shift amongst consumers and the brands they support. “Consumers want to understand and trust the brands they support,” he said.

He advised small and medium sized businesses to be ready to pivot their businesses as they evolved in order to future proof them. “What your business starts out as doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what it will end up as,” said Chang, adding that businesses should think carefully about the data they have and how they could possibly scale.

Whilst SMEs need a growing economy to thrive, the economy needs the SME activity in order for the economy to grow. We therefore need our SMEs to grow in order to grow our economy and increase employment. Funding / lending is a critical SME growth enabler, says April Baloyi, head of business and commercial lending products at Standard Bank. He added that it’s essential and a sustainable growth factor for SMEs to shop for cheap funding/ lending and to maintain good transactional activity and relationship with the bank in order to enable quick and affordable lending at times of need.

Benefiting from more agility and flexibility compared to their larger counterparts, smaller businesses have a unique advantage, maintained business growth expert, Pavlo Phitidis. It is possible to grow a small business in a no growth economy, he added, if the business concerned looks to solve a problem. “Forget product, service or price as differentiators. If you can identify a problem and then solve it you have successfully differentiated your business.”

A panel discussion on how to use digital as a competitive advantage included Brett St Clair, CEO of Teraflow; Jonathan Smit, MD of PayFast; Rapelang Rabana, founder of Rekindle Learning; Chris Bamber, MD of SYSDBA; and Belinda Rathogwa, head of client solutions for small enterprises at Standard Bank.

The panel agreed that technology can be effectively used to create more efficient business processes, professionalise the business and create compelling customer experiences while e-commerce has created a more even playing field, irrespective of the size of the business. Not only is technology a very appropriate tool to help small businesses, it’s a tool which can be leveraged to create advantages for small businesses. There are currently a proliferation of technology tools available. Key therefore, is figuring out what tools will best serve your business.

Patent attorney, Thapelo Montong, a Senior Associate at Adams & Adams discussed challenges in patent inventorship in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He discussed the legal definitions of an inventor, and indicated that, albeit the definition differs by regions, it is generally accepted through most patent statutes and case law that an inventor must be an individual or group of individuals and can’t be a computer or an AI machine. He advised SMEs working on AI related inventions to cite the human creators of the AI generated invention as inventors on patent applications until there is more certainty in the law.

The value of sales and marketing was discussed during a panel session which involved Pierre Cassuto, global CMO and CEO for Africa of Humanz; Andrew Watson, the co-founder of Watson Ferguson Marketing Agency; and Phumi Mashigo, MD of Ignitive.

The panel agreed that having the right marketing fundamentals in place from the outset was a good idea and that digital has allowed advertising to become more affordable for SMEs while at the same making them more competitive. Disagreeing with the comments made by business growth expert Pavlo Phitidis in an earlier session, Watson argued that having the right product or service is imperative.

The panel agreed that having an online presence is critical for SMEs, particularly a credible website, so that potential customers can find you online. In a constantly changing world, they advised that businesses try different strategies and don’t put all their marketing eggs into one basket.

During the final panel discussion of the day, a panel of entrepreneurial CEO’s shared their learnings and business successes. Starting a new business can be really hard and require you to persevere through the tough times, said Ernest North, the co-founder of Naked, a disruptive insurance start-up which has managed to offer more cost-effective insurance as a result of automation and Artificial Intelligence.

Pointing to the growing role technology is playing in many businesses, he said it is not limited by boundaries and provides an opportunity for home grown businesses to build companies that can be scaled globally.

We live in an era, he said, where consumers are increasingly open to trying new solutions which means it’s becoming easier to break into new industries.

Another disruptive business is Fundrr which is disrupting traditional banks by giving SMEs access to funding with disbursements made in 24 hours. Co-founder and CEO, Idan Jaan pointed out the difficulties SMEs typically have accessing funding from banks. Jaan said a business partner who is a chartered accountant has played a significant role in the business’s success.

Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu, CEO of Lamo Solar, said his business has benefited from identifying the right sector from the outset and a business partner who compliments his skills.

The biggest advantage SMEs have, said Carien Engelbrecht, co-founder and director of operations at Aurik Services, is that large corporates are typically slow, sluggish and risk averse. SMEs, on the other hand, are flexible and agile, attributes which stand them in good stead during challenging economic times.