Adapt to Today’s Online Business Reality or Else!

The other day a former co-worker flew me to San Francisco for a meeting. I got to his office early so I stopped in a neighborhood coffee shop to wait. Sitting at the next table were three young men who appeared to be in their 20s, wearing jeans and T-shirts, and an older man in far nattier attire. He was talking about distributions outlets and fielding questions from the young men.

I wasn’t eavesdropping (really) but I heard brand names like Geek Squad, Radio Shack, and Staples being bandied about. I was instantly struck by a feeling of deja vu.

When I went to meet my friend, I was greeted by him — and a friendly dog wandering around a very open space office. A counter was laden with breakfast goodies. A refrigerator was full of free soft drinks. Another wave of deja vu overtook me and I said to my friend, “This is all so 1999.”

For those of you with short memories, or who are too young to remember, the late 1990s were the peak of that boom-boom decade — the years when entrepreneurship exploded across the country. The 90s were, for entrepreneurs, the best of times sandwiched between two worst-of-times recessions. I see hints of that 90s entrepreneurial optimism everywhere. New technologies emerge seemingly weekly, all designed to make our work (and play) lives easier and more productive.

Of course, we all know the 90s dotcom bubble burst, as all bubbles inevitably do. But hopefully we learned some valuable lessons we can use this time around. The trick is to combine the unbridled enthusiasm of the dotcom boom with basic and essential time-tested business principles. I knew quite a few companies in the 90s that measured success by how big, lavish, and ultimately uber-costly their launch parties were. Sure free food is, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing.” (In fact, according to a recent survey from Staples Advantage, employees say free food increases their productivity.) But boozing it up on the rooftop every Friday night is probably not a very good idea.

And as much as we’d all like to be guided by our gut and fly by the seat of our pants, it makes more sense to have a business plan and follow it — a formal one if you’re looking for capital, or a more “casual” version you can set goals and track your progress by.

Amidst this new era of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, however, there are still some dark clouds, one of which astounds me. Actual numbers vary, but most estimates say about half of all small businesses don’t have websites. In fact, the other day I was part of a panel for a group of counselors from California Small Business Development Centers. One SBDC counselor said he had a client who didn’t have the money to build a website, but wanted a Web presence. A fellow panelist told him his client could build what he needed on Facebook (guess what company he worked for?). And while maybe that’s true, I had to jump in and say, “No more excuses. It’s cheap and easy to build a website. Just tell your client to do it.”

Sometimes it seems like there’s a have and have-not small business culture. But the fact is, if you don’t have a website, if you don’t incorporate social media into your marketing plans, you’re going to end up a “have-not” — as in have no business.

I know we’re just emerging from a huge recession. I know you don’t have a lot of extra time to learn something new. I know you’re running a lean operation and likely don’t have the spare personnel to take on some of these duties. I know all that … and I don’t care. All of those things are just excuses. If you want to grow your business — or stay in business — you must have a website and use social media.

There’s a new generation of entrepreneurs out there that you’re now competing with. These Gen Y business owners are using every Web tool they can to increase productivity, reach, and sales. As Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and author of Never Get a “Real” Job says, “Technology has forever evened the playing field for startups, allowing businesses to more easily scale and manage their operations for minimal costs. SaaS [“Software as a Service”] is a growing trend that is helping droves of aspiring young business people enter the entrepreneurial ranks.”

Whether we’re experiencing, as Yogi Berra once said, “deja vu all over again” or the throes of a new era of entrepreneurship, you can’t afford to miss out on the action.

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