Sure, they're trying to sell you something, but that doesn't mean new technology programs and services from big companies aren't truly helpful.
Business owners are a hardy lot. It takes guts to get any business off the ground. And if you're still in business after the economic turbulence we've been experiencing the last few years, you're obviously made of strong stuff.
But even the toughest entrepreneurs can't do it alone. Corporate America has long offered a variety of programs and products designed to help entrepreneurs and small business owners. Some are substantive, others not so much. But in the last few weeks, I've talked to four corporate marketers who I believe are offering truly helpful programs or other assistance for business owners.
eBay Reaches Out to Brick-and-Mortar Businesses
Here's a startling statistic: As much buzz as there is about e-commerce, only 6 percent of retail sales occur online. In a step to enter the brick-and-mortar marketplace, last December eBay bought local shopping site Milo.com, and is now busy integrating Milo's technology into eBay.
David Ramadge, who heads local business development for eBay, came with the Milo purchase. He explains that currently, retailers using the top three point-of-sale (POS) systems (QuickBooks POS, Microsoft Dynamics RMS, and Retail Pro) can sign up for free at MiloFetch.com. The system then (in minutes) scans your inventory and creates a free Milo.com listing, allowing local customers to see what you've got in stock and how to get to your store. Within the next few months, he adds, Milo will enable local retailers to reach eBay's millions of customers.
The goal is to help local retailers raise their local profiles, and enable them to use online technology to increase offline sales. The system, says Ramadge, is "simple, silent, and seamless." (See more coverage of eBay on AllBusiness.com.)
IBM Offers $1 Billion in Financing
We all know technology drives productivity. But the economy has kept many of us from investing in new hardware and/or software, even though our businesses really need the boost new technology brings. To help, IBM just committed $1 billion in financing to "credit-qualified" small and midsize businesses over the next 18 months (See IBM Unveils $1B Small-Biz Technology Financing Program.)
Andy Monshaw, the general manager of IBM Midmarket Business, says IBM Business Partners, the resellers who actually work with small and midsize companies, told him that the tight credit market kept getting in the way of businesses investing in these new technologies.
So the tech giant ponied up a billion dollars and introduced a new set of software systems and services to help their customers invest in three crucial technologies: analytics, cloud computing, and security.
Intuit "Loves" Local Businesses
It's all too easy for corporate giants to lose touch with their customers. Ed Matlack, who's the social media and advocacy leader for small business at Intuit, says it's "hard to hear every voice out there." But Intuit's founder Scott Cook hasn't lost sight of the questions he started the company with: "How do we hear [small business owners]? How do we continue to innovate?"
One answer was to help local businesses promote themselves in their own communities, so Intuit launched a "Love a Local Business" campaign. Every month Intuit gives away $25,000 to a deserving local business; this month two businesses in two different cities will get an even bigger prize: $50,000. The community votes for the winners, a process that Matlack says helps local businesses raise their awareness on the local level.
Matlack is a former entrepreneur himself, so he understands the value of community, especially for small business owners who can feel isolated. I caught up with Matlack at the America's Small Business Development Center (ASBDC) Conference last week, where he was busy signing people up to join the Intuit Small Business Inner Circle. The idea behind the inner circle is to get input from small business advocates and evangelists about how Intuit can better serve its small business customers. And, yes, he talked me into joining. (See more from AllBusiness.com bloggers on Intuit.)
RatePoint Worries About Your Reputation
We all know consumers increasingly rely on social ratings and review sites before they consider doing business with any company -- including yours. So in addition to running your business, you now have to worry about your online reputation, and frankly who has the time?
You have to make time, says Keith Cooper, president and CEO of RatePoint (and a serial entrepreneur). "The only thing a business has is its reputation," Cooper says.
The importance of these new channels is staggering, considering none of them really existed a decade ago. According to Cooper:
- 76 percent of consumers read online reviews before trying a business.
- Almost as many people (68 percent) rely on online reviews as recommendations from friends (77 percent).
- 66 percent of people are interested in recent reviews.
- Only 14 percent of consumers would go to a business that didn't have any online reviews.
The RatePoint system scans the Web for what people are saying about your company (and your competitors). And the company recently adopted a "freemium" business model to help more business owners assess, monitor, and improve their reputations: You can sign up for a free monthly report, or pay to get more in-depth services.
These four corporations offer very different tech solutions to help you grow your business. But really, what all four are doing is giving you more time to work on what's important to you. As Intuit's Matlack puts it, "Small business owners, by their very nature, are closer to their customers." One key to maintaining those relationships is to let technology work its magic.
Follow Rieva on Twitter @Rieva and read more of her insights on SmallBizDaily.com.