Blockchain, cryptocurrency, digital to–kens. For small business leaders, it can be tempting to view these innovations as big-business concerns, light years away from impacting Main Street America. And in some sense, yes, the technology is still years away from disrupting the small business market. But changes will be coming.
We’re at the outset of what’s being called the “digital asset revolution.” Like the information technology revolution before it, blockchain will fundamentally transform the business norms we know today through the digitalization of assets.
Governments and business spent $2.1 billion on blockchain implementation in 2018, and that number will leap to $9.7 billion in 2021.1 Meanwhile, emerging markets may come out ahead as technology innovators, as these countries are increasingly turning to blockchain and cryptocurrencies to solve basic banking challenges and even create a universal identity.
Eventually these innovations will come to bear for small business in the United States. In the same way Netflix swept away Blockbuster, Uber devastated the taxi industry and Amazon revolutionized retail, blockchain innovations will disrupt the market — somehow, someway.
Business leaders, in companies of all sizes, need to stay aware and informed of what’s coming.
A short primer on blockchain
If you’re struggling to wrap your head around blockchain, you’re certainly not alone. The technology, which exists only in a digital sense, is perhaps best described as an accounting ledger.
On the blockchain, transactions are verified and then permanently added to the record. You cannot change a blockchain record; you can only add to it. (Essentially, you have “blocks” of data strung together in a “chain.”) Permission tools control who can view and add to your information on the blockchain. But no one can delete or edit an existing block.
While most databases are housed and managed by one database “owner,” the blockchain is a distributed database. Because data is stored, duplicated
and synced across a wide network, it’s considered unhackable. You can’t tamper with the data, because it isn’t held in just one place.
Early uses and what’s ahead
The first applications of blockchain involved cryptocurrency. Blockchain eliminated the need to use the traditional banking system to exchange value.
In its next iteration, blockchain technology is being applied to other data exchanges, such as executing agreements and automating certain business processes. Blockchain can be used to record transactions, verify identity and create a permanent record of a contract, without involvement from financial services or lawyers, or perhaps even title companies.
By creating a verifiable, uneditable record — one that exists outside the world’s established financial and recording systems — business networks can create whole new ways to exchange goods and services with greater security and lower costs.
Even within the traditional bounds of business, blockchain has significant promise to lower security costs and make it far more efficient for partner entities to reconcile records and make sure everyone’s data is in sync.
Many business software providers such as QuickBooks, Intacct and NetSuite are looking at how blockchain could integrate with their systems and make business processes easier for small businesses.
One tool that’s already entering the market, to some extent, is the use of smart contracts. Smart contracts, as built on the blockchain, can automate workflow. When Party A provides an-agreed upon service to Party B, payment is automatically triggered, eliminating the need for companies to invoice and issue payment.
What you can do right now
As a small- or medium-sized business owner, your role right now is to stay informed. Encourage your local chambers and industry networks to hold training sessions. Talk to your technology vendors. Read online resources. Subscribe to the Chamber of Digital Commerce, a blockchain advocacy group that publishes a regular newsletter on blockchain policy and emerging government regulation.
Blockchain is coming to your business — it’s just a matter of time.
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Girish Ramachandra is one of the leaders within Wipfli’s technology consulting division, focused on helping companies transform their business through technology innovation. Leveraging vast experience with and knowledge of FinTech, he helps financial institutions, FinTech startups and/or scale-ups, and investors to collaborate and establish sound business working models.