When it comes to technology, small-business owners face a universal challenge: They’re boldly going where many have gone before, but it’s still outer space to them.
Rare is the entrepreneur steeped in sufficient knowledge to know what software his or her business needs, let alone how to deploy it. And so it’s either open the checkbook and pay a consultant, whatever the situation, or else limp along with an inadequate system.
“People find themselves in an arena where they have no knowledge whatsoever,” says George Gendron, who chronicled the advances in small business technology from 1981 to 2001 as Inc. magazine’s editor-in-chief. “For a business owner, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than making decisions in an area where you lack all sense of control.”
Many who bring an IT person on staff settle for someone with limited knowledge, such as a nephew who’s a recent college graduate but who may not even possess a computer degree. When they do land a stellar candidate, many make the grave mistake of excluding the “tech guy” from the inner decision-making circle, squandering his or her knowledge, talents, and potential contributions.
Allbusiness.com spoke with Gendron and three other small business experts on why incorporating technology remains a struggle for small companies, and how small business owners can confront this challenge.
Babson College professor of entrepreneurship and public policy and former chairman of the New Hampshire governor’s task force on entrepreneurship.
“Technology helps your small businesses leverage scarce resources. You need to look at your core strength, and when you think about technology, about how it fits into your business. What are your overall objectives? Technology should enhance what you’re trying to achieve.
“You do have to put yourselves in the hands of so-called experts. Sometimes the best way to determine who is good and who isn’t is just word of mouth, getting recommendations from industry associations and other entrepreneurs.
“Technology people should be part of your strategy team. If they understand where you’re trying to go, they can help you get there faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.”
Founder of the San Francisco-based Small Business Technology Institute.
“The goal is to correctly plan, adopt, utilize, and absorb technology. More entrepreneurs understand that technology is a mandatory element of their business fabric. They’re rarely interested in the details, just how it works for them and plays into their picture.
“Outsourcing technology is no different than outsourcing accounting or payroll. If I hire an accountant to do my taxes, how well equipped is the average small business owner to audit that? You trust your accountant. That’s why in the ’80s and ’90s, the major accounting firms started technology-consulting practices. Enterprises that didn’t know anything [about IT] entrusted it to the people who were keeping their books.
“Small businesses need to develop a higher level of internal knowledge, not necessarily to deploy, but to evaluate the individuals who will perform the work. Our institute is trying to help build technology literacy for assessing needs and resources. We don’t teach what buttons to click in Photoshop to create a drop shadow in the background, but what software you could use to run your finances or how to choose a service provider.
“Technology is commoditizing, and its usability, availability, and affordability are coming closer into reach at the small business level.”
President of Chicago-based venture capital firm Gaebler Ventures.