Wow! Look How Much Small Business Has Changed In 20 Years!

There was no iPhone, no iPod, no iAnything; people listened to music on their Sony Walkman or Discman, and instead of staring down at their lap during a meal, engaged in something called “conversation.” Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were the hottest thing on TV.

Online, there was no Google, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Wikipedia, and Amazon still only sold books. “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” had recently been renamed Yahoo! and Microsoft had just introduced Internet Explorer 1.0. USA TODAY launched only a few months earlier.

Yes, the world was quite different when my USA TODAY column debuted in September of 1995. Originally, today’s piece was going to look at what has changed and what has stayed the same in in the world of small business in those 20 years, but the more I looked, the more obvious it became that far more things have changed than had remained constant.


The good news is that the things that have stayed the same are the good things, the important things. The usual suspects. Entrepreneurs are still

■ Passionate
■ Creative
■  Customer-centric
■  Visionary
■ Different
■  Risk-taking
■ Short on time

But what is really interesting is how entrepreneurs now execute on their visions, as it is fundamentally different than how it was done a generation ago. We are living through one of the most monumental shifts in business, ever. Period.

With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — How have things changed? Let me count the ways:

The Internet: Of course the Net changed everything. It is the 800 lb. gorilla and the Big Kahuna of change, all rolled into one. Not only has it drastically changed how most businesses and industries conduct business, but it put several types of businesses out of business )for the most part) — travel agents, video and record stores, and not a few book stores and newspapers. That said, it also of course gave rise to a plethora of incredible online businesses.

As you will see in the rest of this list, and as you already know from experience, the Internet’s tentacles reach into every part of our lives now.

Communication: In 1995, the main mode of business communication was still the telephone. Today, a business owner must master email, texts, tweets, posts, blogs, Skype, video, and whatever is next.

No discussion of the changes at work communication would be sufficient without underlining the undeniable emergence and importance of email (but please note, you do not need to email me anything about this take.) No one ever felt that they did email for a living in 1995, that’s for sure. The good news is that new solutions for email overload are coming online now. More on that soon.

Work: Today, as someone smarter than me recently pointed out, “Work is no longer some place you go, it is something you do.” As opposed to a generation ago, thanks to the Net, today people can, and do, and expect to, work when, where, and how they want.

But no, I don’t think this is altogether a change for the better. While we all like being able to work at places other than the office or shop, that it seems so hard to turn work off is a challenge we will increasingly need to deal with.

That said, one true advantage of this change is that the ability to work virtually, and with virtual strangers across the globe, is an amazing thing.

Globalization: A generation ago, only giant companies like Nike or AT&T could afford to be global businesses. Today, anyone with a screen and an Internet connection can be a global player.

Technology: Small businesses of today have so many more amazing, cool, and powerful tools at their disposal than they did 20 years ago. Whether it is cloud technology allowing you to stream services via the Web (SaaS), or automating solutions like payroll and inventory, or saving money by creating and printing your own marketing materials, computer technology has made it faster, easier, better, and cheaper to own and run a small business.

The cost on entry: Speaking of, one of the best changes that has come down the pike is the ability to get in the game at such a lower cost of entry. That to start a business does necessarily mean you need a brick-and-mortar store, lots of employees, and a big budget is great progress.

Marketing: One reason costs are lower today is that marketing is so much easier, and cheaper. Whereas 20 years ago you had a lot of expensive, and somewhat ineffective, big options like TV and radio, today you have lots of inexpensive smaller options: Pay-per-click, websites, social media, e-newsletters, blogs, etc.

Social media: Speaking of social media, we cannot fail to mention that it has also fundamentally changed the game. Because of it, you can now directly get your message and brand out to consumers without the filter of a middleman. Nice.

Honorable mentions: Even an Internet column runs out of room. Other significant changes: Mobile technology, easy research, online collaboration, e-commerce. Did I miss anything?

And so we wrap up 20 years and forge on in the face of all of this change. Thanks so much for taking the time to be here, and I sure hope that it’s been more than a lot of yada, yada, yada.

By: Steve Strauss

Senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible.

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