In today's competitive market, computer technology
can be a great equalizer for small businesses.
Businesses that employ technology in a
cost-effective manner may find it easier to compete
with organizations many times their size due to an
increase in productivity. A small organization also
may use computer technology and automation to
respond in a timely manner to a changing
marketplace. Organizations of any size that make
poor choices when implementing computer technology
will find that they have done much worse than just
spend money; they have created a resource-consuming
monster. Once this happens, the monster often
becomes a permanent fixture in the business; the
owners typically feel that they have "invested" in
the monster, and therefore must live with it.
Thus, this monster drags the business down twofold: not only does the
business suffer because of wasted resources, it also suffers because poor use of
technology does not make employees more productive, and in fact can often do
just the opposite.
All organizations, whether large or small, must balance the worth of
technology against its cost. This balance is especially important to the small
businessperson, however. It is easy to become convinced that implementation of
technology is the answer to all one's business problems-that somehow a
disorganized, poorly defined process will be magically transformed by the right
machinery. Computer technology does offer definite benefits, of course, but it
is not necessarily an instant solution to a business' problems.
At some point in the 1980s, people stopped asking whether a business had a
fax number, and simply started asking what it was. This is quickly becoming true
with email addresses as well: electronic mail is becoming a mission-critical
means of business communication for many organizations, regardless of size. In
its simplest form, email is nothing more than a text message sent from one user
to another. The recipient of the message may be within the sender's own
organization or anywhere in the world. Email may be used to provide traveling
executives or managers with a method of staying in touch with their offices.
Email has an advantage over voice communication in that it is not
time-dependent; as a sender, I do not have to worry when I send an email message
whether the recipient is in their office or capable of communicating with me at
Importance of email
For a small businessperson, the ability to send and receive email 24 hours a
day can be extremely important. Many small businesspeople are too busy with
current clients during the day to spend time talking to prospective clients and
venders on the phone. They may find that they are able to catch up on their
correspondence by using email to respond to inquiries during non-business hours.
People who haven't used electronic mail may consider it a very impersonal
means of communication. While it certainly is not as personal as meeting someone
face to face or talking with them on the phone, it is the most convenient method
of communication, and it is generally very reliable. You even can send email
messages with a receipt attached, so that you will be informed when the
recipient opens the message. Compared to using voicemail, which offers no way to
tell whether or when the message was received, this can be very handy.
Electronic mail also is superior to voicemail because a "conversation" or
group of messages can easily be stored and tracked. Email can also be used to
communicate quickly among a group of people, or to bring someone up to date on a
discussion. By comparison, voicemail typically is not easily stored for later
retrieval, and also does not allow multiple messages to be easily tracked.
Current email systems have gone far beyond just sending text between users.
Email systems such as Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise, Lotus Notes, and
Lotus cc:Mail contain integrated calendaring and scheduling features. These
features allow a user to invite other users to a meeting, linking their
responses to the email system. New add-ons to these packages allow Internet
users to check their schedules and email messages as long as they have a
connection to the Internet.
Most email systems support some type of forums or bulletin boards, which are
public areas used to provide announcements to end users, or to create a
discussion-group area regarding a specific topic or project.
Importance of Web presence
Whether by successful marketing or sheer momentum, proponents of the World
Wide Web have terrified many business people with the threat that if a business
doesn't "get a presence" on the Web, it'll be left behind while its competition
takes over the market. Unfortunately, getting a presence on the Web means
creating a Web site-which can cost anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of
dollars-and taking on an obligation for ongoing maintenance costs.
Before you implement your own Web site, you should spend some time on the
Internet taking a look at some of the millions of sites already there. No doubt
you'll run into many that seem unwieldy, or completely useless. Keep notes about
these sites, especially regarding what you didn't like about them. This is a
good way to make sure you won't find yourself making the same mistakes when it's
time to design your own site.
Many organizations seem to think that having a Web site will automatically
increase their business. This is not necessarily true. The Web may be a good
place for advertising and possibly even selling your products, but unless you
have a well-known organization, you must make people aware that you have a Web
site in the first place. This means placing your Web-site address, or URL, on
your business cards, letterhead, and whatever other means you use to advertise
Keep in mind that many potential customers will see your Web site before they
ever call you, meet with you, or purchase any products or services. This means
that your Web site should reflect the same level of professionalism you would
exhibit with other forms of marketing; for example, brochures, letterhead, and
Leave the publishing to the professionals
Unfortunately, many people have the same attitude toward Web publishing that
they had toward desktop publishing in the mid-to-late 1980s; namely, anyone can
do it. That attitude resulted in some of the most hideous-looking documents ever
published, and now threatens to do the same for Web pages. The
desktop-publishing revolution ended with the realization that publishing should
be left to professionals. Unfortunately, Web publishing, still in its infancy,
has not gotten this far.
Having a Web site doesn't have to cost you a lot of money, however. You don't
necessarily need your own onsite Web server or dedicated Internet connection,
for example. These options are very expensive, both in terms of initial hardware
and setup and in terms of ongoing monthly Internet access and maintenance.
Instead of setting up a Web site from your office, consider using a Web
"hotel" service such as those provided by many Internet service providers. ISPs
will bill you a monthly storage fee to host your Web site for you. The site does
not typically need to be at the same ISP from which you get your email
connectivity, so feel free to shop around. The universality of the Web means
your site can be hosted from anywhere in the world.
Your Web site should offer potential customers a way to contact you, both
electronically and by phone. It is relatively simple to add a "mail-to" form,
which allows customers to automatically send electronic mail to your Web site.
You should also be prepared to respond to queries coming from the Web site.
Remember that the Internet is worldwide, and that you will most likely begin
receiving inquiries from other countries, including many outside your target
market. But such information isn't necessarily useless. You may find that these
inquiries are useful to your venders, for example, and that by passing the
information along you will strengthen your relationships with those venders.
Email can be very inexpensive for a small organization to implement. Many
application suites and operating systems contain email clients, and many
shareware and freeware packages support email from various platforms. Domain
names-that is, your company's own email extension, as in
"firstname.lastname@example.org"-are likewise inexpensive to establish. And organizations
that do not wish to establish their own Internet connections can still receive
email and surf the Web through commercial services such as CompuServe.
If your organization's security requirements preclude transmitting email
across the Internet, you can still implement direct email "gateway" connections
to your customers and venders. Gateways used to cost a lot of money, and were
therefore used only by larger organizations, but today small to medium
organizations can afford them too.
Compared to the cost of most other forms of communication, email can be
remarkably inexpensive, especially for a small business. If your small
organization must communicate regularly with customers and venders, you owe it
to yourself to look into the different email alternatives available. Once you
have become accustomed to using email, you'll wonder how you ever lived without
Small-business owners have many options for becoming connected.
Unfortunately, all of these options can make it difficult to decide which one is
best for you. Five or six years ago, the computer industry offered only a few
ways to solve any given business problem. Today, you might find dozens of
solutions. Choosing the one that's best for you requires research. Local user
groups, bulletin boards, or Internet newsgroups might be a good place to start.
They are often populated with people who have been through the same experience
Cost is of course always a consideration, especially for smaller businesses.
The right kind of technology or online presence, however, generally pays for