These days, “big data” is a big buzzword. Like any buzzword, it means different things to different people – and it gets thrown around more than some data analysts would like. For a sole proprietor, big data can seem like a big burden: there’s a sense these days that if you’re not using data, you’re losing out. But what can data offer freelancers and independent contractors?
A lot, as it turns out. And the benefits don’t require hours of poring over charts or investments in thousands of dollars’ worth of software. In fact, the process starts with keeping track of your hours.
A New Data State of Mind
Data scientist Mike Stringer, who cofounded the data-driven consulting and design firm Datascope Analytics, suggests that adapting big-data concepts to small-business practices is not as daunting as it might seem – in fact, he says, it’s more a matter of mindset than anything.
“More so than a set of tools, analytics is a way of thinking about a business,” he says. “If you try to start thinking more analytically or scientifically about your business, that can change a lot of the things you do.”
For example: one problem a lot of small-business owners have is finding enough time to do everything they need to do. At the end of a long day, they feel frustrated and helpless, thinking, “I don’t know where the time goes.”
But according to Stringer, with a data analysis mindset, that I-don’t-know-where-the-time-goes frustration turns into where-does-the-time-go curiosity. At Datascope, many employees have used the time-tracking software RescueTime. “After a couple of weeks, they were saying, ‘Wow. I spend a lot of my day reading the news,’” says Stringer. “Sometimes just seeing the data objectively helps you adjust where you focus, which can make you more efficient.”
In other words: looking at your time from a “big data” perspective can reveal exactly where it goes and help you figure out how to reclaim more of it for mission-critical activities.
What to Do with the Time Data
So what’s the next step once you see exactly how you spend your minutes?
Shawn Veltman, strategic lead at management and technology consulting firm Peritas Solutions, agrees that it’s crucial for small-business owners to invest energy in tracking their time. “The big trap that very-small-business owners fall into,” says Veltman, “is forgetting that their time is valuable, even when they’re not working: ‘But why would I hire somebody to do that for $30? I could do it in one of those four hours I’m currently wasting by sleeping!’”
With just a few weeks of time-tracking data, Veltman adds, it becomes pretty clear where “I don’t like doing this” overlaps with “lots of time spent.” “For many tech firms,” he notes, “that area [of overlap] is lead generation or sales.” (If you hate selling, check out these three sales tips for IT consultants that can help you boost your close rate by better qualifying your prospects.)
Doing More, Faster
When used right, “big data” can take the some of the stress and guessing out of major business decisions. As Mike Stringer points out, “using data to make decisions forces you to overcome your biases.” (You know, like your bias toward reading one more article before you go back to that project.)
One word of caution: the goal of using data is to learn something useful and actionable about your business. Shawn Veltman cautions that “vanity analytics” – those that offer lots of numbers but not much meaning – can actually be a big time waster for small businesses. If the data points you’re tracking don’t give you information you can immediately translate into action, it’s time to look at different metrics.
Data Tools for Small IT Businesses
Wondering where to get started with data tracking for your business? Check out these tools recommended by Stringer and Veltman:
- Google Analytics: Free tools let you track traffic to your website and see how users behave when they get there so you can make more impactful decisions.
- QuickBooks: Online software helps small businesses manage their finances easily.
- Mint.com: Online spending tracking software gives you a clear picture of where your money goes so you can find ways to keep more of it.
- Open data repositories (for example, the City of Chicago’s): Data powerhouses offer a wealth of information about the people and resources in your business community.