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Chris O'Niell, managing director of Google Canada, thinks he know what's best for your small business.
Posted: December 11, 2013
by Rosemary Westwood

Q&A: Why Google thinks it knows what’s best for your small business

Google thinks it knows what’s good for small businesses.


It’s why the company has taken to promoting cities across Canada home to firms embracing its uber-connected vision of the future, via its eTown awards.


It’s why it has launched a new program, Google Partners, first tested in Canada, which certifies web agencies so that small businesses can get help maximizing online ads and web analytics from a Google-approved firm.


Even Google Canada’s managing director, Chris O’Neill, thinks he personally knows what’s best for small businesses. Which isn’t as grandiose as it sounds: O’Neill grew up working at his parent’s Canadian Tire franchise in the small town of Goderich, Ontario (population 7,500). He then spent a career helping retailers, and has presided over Google Canada’s expansion, and it’s recent effort to court the small businesses community.


Star Business Club recently got a chance to talk with O’Neill one on one about his insights into how businesses can grow, and why the web is a big part of that.


Your LinkedIn account is pretty detailed — it goes all the way back to your janitorial roles at your family Canadian Tire franchise. What did you learn about small business and entrepreneurship from working at your family’s store?


I often say everyone should work in retail. You learn a lot about people, about good customer service. Establishing real relationships with customers, and trying your best to satisfy their needs. I watched my parents as entrepreneurs work their butts off, so I learned about hard work. I also learned the importance of trying new things, whether testing a new product, or testing the way in which we lay product out on the shelf. They were always thinking about different ways to try and improve the business.


In university, you spent a summer working for WineShopper, an online wine store that was at the forefront of the ecommerce movement. What was that like?


I was at business school in New Hampshire (Dartmouth College). It was in the fall of 1999, and the founder Peter Sisson was back on campus for his 10-year reunion. He started this thing called It was going to be the Starbucks of wine, it was going to revolutionize wine. Ecommerce was going to revolutionize retail. So I convinced Peter to give me a job that summer. It didn’t happen until the summer of 2000, when the air started to come out of the internet bubble. A lot of businesses were funded and didn’t really have sustainable business models, and that was one of them. I learned a lot in that short three or four months about trying to establish ecommerce ahead of its time.


You’ve been with Google for eight years. And now we’re really seeing the company make a push into the small business market. Why?


Let’s start with the premise that all businesses, regardless of their size, need to grow. That’s attracting new customers to your products and services, word of mouth is great, advertising of all shapes and sizes is important. And we’re all about education and evangelizing that power of the web, how powerful and transformative this can be for people to grow their business and run their operations more efficiently. For example, Google Partners is a program we launched here to send smaller agency partners to educate small businesses on how easy it can be to get launched in the digital world.



We hear this all the time, but does every business really need to be online?






It used to be people use to get their news from a newspaper or television and that’s where customers spent the majority of time, and that’s just not as true as it used to be. People are spending the vast majority of their time online — Canadians spend over 40 hours a month online. So if you’re not there when consumers are searching for information on products and services, you’re missing out. Over 80 per cent of Canadians have access to high-speed internet, of those people 97 per cent are using search engines to find info. If you don’t have a website you’re not going to attract those customers. But it’s not just for ecommerce. That gets a lot attention, and it should, that’s a growth market, but the real story is actually the impact the website has on physical businesses, bricks and mortar businesses. People tend to use the web as a research mechanism before they go into a story or before they acquire a service, or before they look for a restaurant. Mobile technologies are transforming that even more. So for all those reasons companies that are not on the web, that don’t have a mobile presence, are really missing out on customers. I don’t care what business or service you offer, if you don’t attract customers, you’re going to have a harder time growing.


You’ve said many small businesses don’t have websites.


The number we have is 40 per cent of small business have a website, so 60 per cent don’t.


What do you think when you hear that?


Let me ask you: How would you think you’d run a business that didn’t have a phone? How do you find out information about a business then? It’s the same as not having a phone, in my mind. It’s crazy.


For those who are online, what are some of your top digital marketing tips?


Consumers are always on, they’re constantly going about their quest for information as they live their life. The first thing is to think about having those digital assets and then being there to capture demand when it’s being expressed — search engines, social media. Consumers use to just research big ticket items, now they research everything. The second layer is that the context matters as much as the channel. What I mean by that is someone on a smartphone, versus when they’re behind their desk, or when they’re on a tablet in front of a TV show. Consumers are in a different context in each of those situations, and as marketers you have a magical ability to get the right message at the right time in front of that person. That’s complicated and sometimes scary and daunting, but marketing has always been about influence and getting the right message in front of the right person. The last piece is always test and learn. The ability to test and learn, and learn quickly, we’ve never had better tools and platforms to do that.


What’s one key piece of advice you have small business owners who are focused on growth?


I come back to the idea of think globally. Let’s take Shopify. Our conversations with them are not about how we can grow in Ontario or now we can grow in Toronto, it’s like how do we grow in the world. And one of the wonderful parts of the web is it makes borders meaningless. You can think globally. You can import and export to markets that you just never could before. That’s the difference in my mind. You can have a wonderful small business that just targets a small market, or you can think globally and work backwards from there. That’s the distinction between companies that cross over from being small or medium into being large, and thriving.