Reinventing a Small Business with Simple Technology

reinventLast year I helped a friend of mine reinvent his business. The funny thing about this “reinvention” is that we didn’t really do much more than change his approach to using technology.

My friend owns a plumbing company that has been in business since the 1940s and has been passed down to him from his father and grandfather. Needless to say, the company has been successful enough to stay in business for over 65 years.

By all measures, this “little” plumbing company, which is what my friend calls his business, is doing quite well. He has ten employees. and they have multiple generations of customers who continue to come to them for all of their plumbing needs. While profitable, the business had only seen single-digit growth in revenue over the past few years, and my friend was looking for ways to jump-start growth.

The only real complaint that anyone could ever make against my friend’s business was that it was stuck in “old” ways of doing business when it came to technology. Employees carried around their “order books” which contained their schedules, work logs, invoices, and payments for the day’s activities. These “order books” had been in use in one form or another since the founding of the company. There was no question that the approach worked, but by using pen and paper, the business was stuck in an outdated and inefficient approach to operations.

My buddy called me up one day and asked for help. He wanted to replace the order book with technology. I’m a fan of technology so I happily helped him kick off a project to replace his business’ pen and paper approach with a technology solution.

The solution was a fairly straightforward one. We built a custom app that connected the business’ Quickbooks accounting software with a custom scheduling application that allowed everyone in the company to have a complete view of each employee’s schedule and activity for each day. Using iPads and/or iPhones each technician could then access their order book via a custom-developed app.

The driving force behind the success of this approach was the ability of employees to access and use the order book application in real time, regardless of their location. For their hardware, wireless and data access needs, we turned to Verizon Wireless to provide the connection and the iPads/iPhones. My friend and I have both been long-time clients of Verizon and felt it was in the best position to help his business the most.

With this new order-book application, the technicians can see at a glance what their days look like, even as their days change due to customer cancellations or new appointments being set. The technicians no longer need to call into the office after each appointment, they can now just refresh their order books to see what the rest of their day looks like. Additionally, all technicians have the ability to enter payments into their iPads or iPhones while with clients rather than taking checks or asking clients to call into the office with credit card information.

The new order-book system has led to much more efficient service from each technician, more timely payments from clients, and much faster and effective service. The business has seen a rise in revenue from service calls that can be attributed to the more efficient use of technicians’ time while in the field.

My friend no longer has to worry about whether his technicians will get all their paperwork turned in at the end of their shifts. He no longer has to worry about making sure invoices and service calls are logged into the accounting system at the end of the day. He no longer has to worry that he’s missing out on clients because the business can’t respond to their needs fast enough.

Now my friend only has to worry about where he’s going to find another technician or two. His business has grown about 30% over the last year, and it looks like he’s going to need to expand fairly soon. It is amazing what some simple technology can do to help reinvent a business.

This is brought to you by Verizon – helping simplify the realities so you can keep dreaming big.

Mobile Connectivity and Your Business

mobile-connectivityI’d like you to do a little experiment with me. I’ve got a little thought experiment that I’d like to run past you

Imagine being a small business owner today. Maybe some of you are small business owners so it’ll be very easy to imagine.

Now, imagine that you are looking to expand your business. You have a few employees and a great group of clients but you think there’s more opportunity for you out there in your field. For the purposes of this little thought experiment, let’s imagine that your business is one that requires constant mobility and client interaction in the field.   Your employees are constantly in their vehicles, at client locations and regularly moving around town.

In the mobile centric world of today, you’ve probably already spent some money on mobility initiatives. Your employees might have a smartphone that they can use to check in with the office or maybe you’ve even gone so far as to give laptops to your team so they can keep up with paperwork between jobs.

With everything you’ve done, you still don’t feel like you’ve taken full advantage of the benefits that mobility offers. You employees still do paperwork, fill out invoices and take payments in the ‘old’ way with checks or using billing statements to the client. You’ve not really taken that leap into the world of full-time mobile connectivity for your business.

You aren’t quite sure why. You know the systems are in place today to allow full-time connectivity. Your employee’s smartphones are always connected to the wireless network and you never have any issue using them for voice or data and they always ‘just work’. Your laptops that your employees use aren’t always connected but when they are connected to a wi-fi network, they give your team the ability to catch up on email, invoicing, billing or other necessary work that keeps a small business running.

You’re almost there though. You really are. Your team may not be connected full-time, but it won’t take much to get there. So why not make the jump?

Mobile Connectivity and Your Business

It is interesting to ponder thought experiments like this. In fact, this is much more than just a thought experiment, it is a reality of many small businesses. Most don’t think they have the technical knowledge to be able to put together an end-to-end solution to allow full-time mobility and connectivity.

While many small business owners aren’t terribly technical, they don’t really need to be. The mobile world of today is so much different than the one that confronted businesses just five years ago. Today, a business owner can walk into just about wireless carrier or electronics/computer store and pick up a tablet, smartphone or wireless device to add to their laptop and be completely mobile.

The infrastructure to be a full-time mobile business is in place today. The backbone is available and reliable to allow your employees to work from anywhere they are.

This is brought to you by Verizon – helping simplify the realities so you can keep dreaming big.

The People Challenge for the Midsize Organization

Smiling Group of ProfessionalsThere are many challenges facing the IT function within the midsize organization. Actually, there are many challenges facing the IT function within all organizations but there’s a particular challenge facing the smaller organizations.

The ultimate challenge for small and midsize organizations is finding the right mix of people and technologies for the things the organization needs to do. For example, for an organization to start exploring big data, they first need to find people and technologies that allow them to do the data collection,data storage and analysis that needs to be done. This particular challenge isn’t all about money, it’s about finding the right people with the right skills to do the work as well as finding the right technologies and systems to deliver the required functionality.

The challenge of finding the right people and technologies isn’t just an SMB challenge. It is faced by every organization, but small and midsized organization can have more of challenge on their hands because they can’t offer the same long career path to new employees.

Over on the Midsize Insider, S. Anthony Iannarino wrote an article titled “You are Hiring for Runway” where he talks about the need to hire for the right skills but also the right “attitude” and growth potential. He writes that organizations should hire those people who can bring a long-term advantage to the business.

That’s the difficulty for many SMB’s – it is often hard to keep people interested for a long career due to limited opportunities. The challenge for the small and midsize organization is, first, to find good people. Then, they need to find ways to keep those people interested and challenged.

WIth the right approach and mindset, small and midsize organizations can provide more opportunities to employees than their larger competitors.

IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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The Value of Data

big-dataI’m always on the look-out for stories of companies using data and analytics to manage their business. In a recent case study, IBM presented the story of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s use of data and analytics to better predict visitor behavior.

According to the story, prior to taking a data-driven management approach, the Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium would guess how many visitors they would have each day. They would then use these estimates to determine how many employees to have on staff and how much supplies they should order.

While these estimates were based on instinct and experience, they were never that accurate. The zoo already had a great deal of data collected and stored in their point-of-sale and online systems, but had no way of analyzing that data to gain insights. The key for their success was finding ways to connect to those data stores and then try to find other data sources to help in predicting visitor traffic.

Using this point-of-sale data combined with other external data (e.g., social media check-in data, weather forecasts, etc), the zoo was able to understand traffic patterns from past years and use that information to predict visitor patterns for the future. Combining weather data with ticket sales (and other data), they were able to better understand traffic patterns during all sorts of weather throughout the year.

This case study provides a great example of how any type of organization can use data to better manage their business. You don’t have to be a big company or have a huge data set to take advantage of analytic approaches to gain insights into your business.

Does your organization understand the value of data?

IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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Managing BYOD with Policies in the Midsized Firm

policyThere’s been much discussion of the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) over the last few years. While the topic has been written about by many bloggers and authors, there’s been very little discussion about BYOD in the small and midsize business space.

Many large organizations have the ability to deploy large and complex systems to manage employee-owned devices. While some small and midsized organizations might be able to find the budget to implement sophisticated BYOD management systems, most can’t hope to find money to implement these costly solutions.

Not having the budget for sophisticated solutions shouldn’t stop organizations from building policies to manage employee-owned devices and the data held or accessed with these devices. In addition, additional consideration must be made for the employee-owned computers that might be used to access company owned assets while employees are at home or traveling away from work.

To build quality policies, an organization must consider not only the technology used but also the data accessed and any legal issues related to any data that might be accessed and or lost due to a loss off a phone or device.

In an ideal world, these policies would be backed up with systems and solutions to ensure that all policies are followed, but with the budgetary constraints found in many small and midsized organizations, a policy is sometimes the only thing in place to manage the business.

Has your organization implemented BYOD policies? If so, how well are they working for you?
IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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Don’t Chase Big Data

Last week I noticed this little gem over on ReadWriteWeb.com:

Gartner highlights that only 8% of enterprises have actually deployed big data projects despite 64% declaring their intention to do so.

Word Cloud "Big Data"That’s a big statistic.

Think about it. Out of all the hype and discussions about big data, less than 10% of enterprises have actually deployed big data projects.

Why the disconnect between the hype and the reality? I’m sure there are plenty of reasons (e.g., how Gartner identified ‘enterprises’, who they interviewed, how they defined ‘big data projects’, etc) but I suspect the real answer comes down to the simplest reason of all…nobody really understands big data enough to put big money into it.

Imagine out of all the large organizations out there with good-sized budgets. Then, imagine those same organizations struggling to implement big data. What does that mean for the small and midsized organization? if the ‘big boys’ can’t figure it out…how are the SMB’s supposed to?

Actually…if you are a SMB CIO or leader, you really shouldn’t care what the ‘big boys’ are or aren’t doing. You should be focused on how your organization can use the data you have. You should be focused on how you find information (and ultimately knowledge) from that data. The same goes for any size organization…don’t get caught up in the hype and think you have to ‘rush’ into big data projects.

Gartner says that only 8% of enterprises have deployed big data projects – but don’t think for a second that most of those 64% that have declared intent to deploy projects haven’t been spending money and trying to deploy. Don’t get caught in the hype and try to ‘keep up’. Instead, find what works for your organization and then figure out how to make those approaches work best for your data projects.

IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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