Small Business Technology: Even the Odds on a Budget

I've never worked for a large company.  I think the most co-workers I've ever had was somewhere in the twenty people range.  There are several things I like about small businesses.  One is that in a small business there's way less bureaucracy to wade through.  If you want to try something new in a small business, technology is certainly easier to take for a spin than it is in a bigger business.  A recent illustration might help…

I work at a small lumber yard.  Often I'll just get sick of doing something the slow way and either go hunt for a solution, or make my own.  Lately one of our vendors mentioned a new way of placing orders with them.  Instead of the usual hand held contraption (one that ONLY performs tasks related to that vendor, and runs on Windows) with a monthly price tag, we could go buy a bluetooth scanner that works with Android.  With that, we could place orders using a phone or tablet.  The scanner cost us three bills, the owner of the lumber yard and I both have Android phones, so we're all set.  The scanner has arrived, works fine, and in six months will have paid for itself (no more monthly fee on the other handheld).  But there's more…

It's a pain sometimes to figure out what needs to be ordered at the lumber yard.  Historically, someone walked around outside looking at lumber piles. These piles were usually quite a ways from the computer where a purchase order would eventually be created.  The person walking made a list of what MAYBE needed to get ordered while they were out and about., then went back inside to compare what they thought they needed with what they actually needed. Perhaps a few phone calls to the other lumber yard were in order, to avoid both yards having too much of something.

I got to thinking, after ordering the scanner "What if we could scan items out in the yard and instantly know the sales history and on hand quantity (in each location) of that item?"  Wouldn't that make life a little easier? With the scanner and a little php web app running on a local server we can do just that.  On the fly, whoever is going to be ordering can see all the info they need on the phone (after a scan) know what needs ordering.

What if it was accessible from the outside world? Buyers at trade shows could make more intelligent buys with all that extra data at their fingertips and take advantage of the special deals offered at such trade shows., without bothering sales clerks about how much of something is in stock.

For three hundred bucks in extra hardware (but we were going to buy it to get rid of the other handheld rig anyway, remember?), a bunch of free software (Linux, Apache, PHP, and MySQL running on the server), and a few hours of coding, a very small lumber yard has a pretty powerful tool for figuring out what they ought to be ordering.  And if the information that's currently available isn't quite what the purchaser needs, all I have to do is change the database query a bit and tweak the php script to show the different data. I know, before you get going… Not everyone has someone that knows PHP on staff. Hire it done then. This wouldn't have been a very expensive app to hire out, especially if someone went to one of the Rent-A-Coder type sites where developers bid on a project.

What we didn't do is go buying proprietary software that may or may not have had all the features we needed, wouldn't have been customizable if it didn't, and would have probably been overpriced.  In addition, it more than likely wouldn't have been cross platform (mine runs in a browser, any browser) and may even have come with expensive hardware that will be outdated soon.

Small business technology can be every bit as powerful as what big businesses use; business owners just have to start changing where they look for it.


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