Technology has levelled the playing field for many small businesses, but as much as technology can be a powerful force for democratising competition, it can also be a challenge. How does the solo business owner or small business owner keep up with changing technology and trends?

Apart from more traditional business skills like finance and business planning, I’ve selected seven areas in which I believe all small business owners should invest in building their skills if they want to remain competitive over the next few years.

1. Collaboration — We’ve entered the “gig economy” in which small and micro businesses can hire talented freelancers instead of an in-house team to do everything from customer service and administrative tasks, to copywriting, graphic design, even sales. The upshot is that today’s small business owner is collaborating with a team of other small business owners and therefore must be a consummate collaborator

2. Social media — Whether your business uses social media directly for marketing or not, it pays to be social media savvy. Understanding how people use the big ones — LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and maybe Pinterest or Instagram depending on your business — can help you in many ways and keep your company current. In addition, if you employ or market to Millennials, you’d better know your hashtags from your filters.

3. Branding — In this age of selfies and status updates, everything is a brand, especially your business. Understanding that branding goes beyond your logo and working to brand every customer touchpoint is what sets apart businesses that get remembered and those that fade away.

4. Marketing / Advertising — Facebook in particular has brought advertising to the masses, making it simple and inexpensive to run your own advertising campaigns, and the other social channels are following suit. But small businesses would do well to educate themselves on the differences between marketing and advertising, and on best practices and case studies of these new advertising channels before putting money into a campaign.

5. Data and Analytics — At a digital marketing summit recently, I was amazed at how many of the sponsors had something to do with data and analytics. Big data is quickly coming to even the smallest businesses, and vendors are tripping over themselves to create the tools to help you access it. Whether you invest in a DIY analytics application or hire a vendor to help you, understanding the basics will help you make the best decisions.

6. Automation, AI and machine learning — As machine learning matures, everything from your tweets to your emails to your manufacturing processes can be automated. This is a real advantage for many small businesses who can use automation to replace the need for more staff, like employing an AI chat bot in place of a customer service representative on your website. But you must understand what’s possible before you can put it to good use.

7. Trendspotting — Becoming your own market and competition research department is a very good idea for even the smallest businesses. Find ways to stay on top of the newest trends in your niche and in the broader business world so that you can make educated decisions when presented with new opportunities.

How do you improve your skills in these areas — especially if you don’t have much money to invest?  When I say invest in these skills, I mean your time and energy more than I mean your money. Of course, there are paid courses, coaches, and classes for every one of these skills that a little light Googling will instantly uncover. But that’s not the only way to go.

Many communities offer small business education classes for free or low cost through the local chamber of commerce or other organisation. Basic skills like social media marketing, branding, and improving collaboration and communications skills can often be learned through these sorts of offerings.

Many universities around the world also now offer selected course programmes online for free. The website Coursera offers a simple way to search online offerings.  You can take Data Science from Johns Hopkins University, Business Foundations from the University of Pennsylvania, and Data Structures and Algorithms from the University of California, just to name a few.

Of course, there are also many, many books available on any of these topics, which a quick search of Amazon will turn up. Don’t discount digital-only books, as many have been written by entrepreneurs and business coaches with niche specialties to demonstrate their expertise and can be very affordable entrées to their body of work.

And finally, you can learn many important skills for free (or a small fee) from Skillshare. Courses on how to ‘Create a Stunning Facebook Page for Your Business’ and others are available for free to help you gain basic skills.

Whether you invest your money or simply your time, shoring up these business skills will put you instantly and measurably ahead of the competition who won’t bother.

Have you successfully used any of these skills? Tell us how in the comments.