Guest column

Houston expert: How to use the power of data and analytics to inform ​small businesses​

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage. Photo via Getty Images

Starting a business in a digital era brings entrepreneurs unprecedented advantages with technology and tools designed to optimize a business' operation. Whether it is a B2C or B2B, business owners can gather almost any data and metrics to improve their performance.

Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business. It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era.

The challenge? There are countless analytic tools and resources available that can generate data, but you need people who can extract insights from the massive amount of data.

Hire a data science team vs. outsourcing

Many companies go to campus recruitment and scout bright data science talent who also identify with their business value. Hiring people with data science and analytic skills is optimal, but for startups that are not ready to hire an in-house team or have a short-term question, outsourcing is a better option.

Data science consulting

Many online resources can help you extract data, but you are probably wondering: where do I begin? Which tool should I use? Which exact metric should I track?

The Rice University's Data Science Consulting Clinic provides free, open to the public assistance to help clients with all of those questions. It can be for various business sectors, such as research and product development, cost predictions, analytic tools, acquisition decisions, and talent management.

Here are some of the data science aspects we specialize in:

Research & Development - Obtain data to inform a decision on what products to develop.
Data analysis of who your customers are, what they are interested in, and what product to develop is crucial for B2C and B2B. A recent example of how Rice's Data Science Consulting Clinic is making a difference is a client needed assistance with market research to help inform a startup on what kind of product they should create next. The client was able to use the data resources suggested by the student and faculty consultants to gauge consumer sentiment and examples of successful products. With the data collected, the client was able to identify the features that drive customers to purchase similar products.

Cost Predictions - A case study for an energy company
Businesses need to make crucial decisions to achieve business intelligence. CEOs and managers need to base their decisions on predictions and analysis. Another client from the Data Science Consulting Clinic was interested in predicting cost and analysis of the factors contributing to the most expense for the coming year. The client's main problem was to transform the data into a statistical model that could predict the cost. With the prediction model suggested by the student consultants, the client was able to reduce the cost by controlling factors that were likely to cause higher costs.

Acquisition Decision Making for Business Professionals
Clients from the Rice MBA program were interested in investigating the causes and effects of private equity (PE) acquisition. Specifically, the clients wanted to analyze the difference in practice habits before and after acquisitions. As a result of the consultation, the clients were able to determine what factors influenced the PE's decision to acquire new equity.

Longer term projects

It would be helpful to have a dedicated data science team who can work over a semester or year long to find the solution.

Higher education has placed a prominent focus on data science programs, especially capstone projects that provide students with real-world experience. As a business owner, you might not even think about working with an esteemed university to help you with data challenges.

The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, informally known as the D2K Lab at Rice University, is founded based on the mission to seek real-world data challenges for passionate data science students. Student teams have worked on over 50 sponsored data science projects with partners from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and community partners.

Advance data science and security

The perk of working with Rice University is that it provides the most advanced data science research tools and an interdisciplinary pool of student and faculty talent who are passionate about data science. Working with Rice University also guarantees a strong data security system and a comprehensive confidentiality agreement.

  • A cloud-based financial company sponsored a series of capstone projects on applying deep learning to reduce documentation errors and increase efficiency for businesses.
  • A fintech company sponsored multiple capstone projects on building statistical models to predict costs.
  • In the tech-med industry, the D2K Lab has partnered with the Medical Informational Corps, and researchers from Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to build algorithms to predict cardiac events.

The future of data-driven decision making

The digital era has become the norm for all businesses (large or small), and there's no way to avoid the power of transforming data into actionable insights. So start gathering data even before you build out a business and incorporate the culture of data-driven decision making into every sector of your business.

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Shanna Jin is the communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University.

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The biggest obstacle is a lack of open-mindedness and an unwillingness of people across the industry and across generations to work together. Photo via Getty Images

What’s the biggest obstacle between us and net-zero? Is it policy? Technology? Financing? All of these are important, yes, but none of them is what is really holding us back from our energy transition goals.

The biggest obstacle is a lack of open-mindedness and an unwillingness of people across the industry and across generations to work together.

In October of 2022, I was invited to speak at Energy Dialogues’s North American Gas Forum, a conference that brings together executives from across the energy industry. Over the two days of the conference, I was amazed by the forward-thinking conversations we were having on decarbonization, the future of clean energy, emissions reduction, and much more. I returned back to campus at Duke University, energized by these conversations and excited to share them. But rather than seeing the same sense of excitement, I was met with doubt, disbelief, even scorn.

There’s a fundamental distrust between generations in this industry, and it goes both ways. Experienced energy professionals often see the younger generation as irrational idealists who are too politicized to be pragmatic, while the younger generation often paints the older generation as uncaring climate denialists who want nothing to do with clean energy. Neither is true.

Over the past two years since founding Energy Terminal, I’ve met hundreds (maybe thousands) of people all across the energy industry, from CEOs of major energy companies to students just getting started on their career journey. Despite being so different on the surface, their goals are strikingly similar. Almost all can agree on three things: we want to reduce emissions, we want to expand energy access, and we want to do so while encouraging economic prosperity. The perceived barrier between generations in the energy industry is exponentially larger than the actual barrier.

For experienced professionals — take a chance to engage in conversations with young energy leaders. Understand their priorities, listen to their concerns, and find the middle ground. We are a generation passionate about impact and growth, and enabled with the right resources, we can do incredible things. The changing energy world presents unbelievable opportunities for both progress and profit, but without the next generation on board, it will never be sustainable.

For the young energy leaders of the future–listen to the experiences of the leaders that have come before us. Understand the balance between energy that is clean with energy that is secure, reliable, and affordable. We have brilliant ideas and an insatiable appetite for progress, but we won’t do it alone. Every person and every company has a valuable role to play in the energy transition, so consider how we can amplify our strengths rather than attack each other’s weaknesses.

If my co-founder, a climate activist from New York, and myself, the son of an oil and gas family from south Texas, can do it, so can you. This is a call to find the middle ground, to open up your mind to new possibilities, and to make real progress by working with each other rather than against each other.

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Michael Wood III is co-founder of Energy Terminal, a platform that aims to build the next generation of energy leaders and to bridge the gap between youth and the energy industry.

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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