Small Business Technology: Even the Odds on a Budget

For many a small business, technology can be used to compete with bigger businesses in the same markets. Be one of those small business technology innovaters and leave your larger rivals in the dust.

March 7, 2012

For the most part, my work experience has been limited to small businesses. Except for a three year stint at a large, investor-owned, multinational corporation, I'd never worked for a large company. I left in 8/2017 — there was WAY too much stupid going on there. I like several things about small businesses. In large businesses, people in suits seem to throw money at software solutions that totally suck. Desk as a trouble ticket system (actually, Desk as ANYTHING) comes immediately to mind.

But small businesses usually don't have loads of cash to toss around. Owners have to be a little more picky about what kinds of small business technology they invest in. While some may look at this as a hindrance, I think it's more of a benefit. People on a tight budget tend to get more bang for their buck. Small business technology has to be affordable. Owners should be looking at things that are not necessarily used by the "status quo" people read about in Forbes.

I worked at a small lumber yard, and one of our vendors offered a new way of placing orders with them. Instead of the usual hand held Windows gun 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. And the owner of the lumber yard and I both had Android phones, so we were all set. The scanner worked fine. Because we weren't paying for the Windows gun every month, the bluetooth scanner paid for itself in six months. I've written about the scanner over here if you're interested. But WAIT! There's more…


Home Brew Small Business Technology

Historically, someone walked around outside looking at lumber piles before they placed orders.These piles were often quite a ways from the computer where a purchase order would get created. The person walking around the yard made a list of what MAYBE needed to get ordered. Afterwards, they went back inside to compare what they thought they needed with what they actually needed.

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 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 could create quite a little app do just that. On the fly, whoever was doing the ordering could 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 ended up with a pretty powerful tool for figuring out what they ought to be ordering. And if the information currently available wassn't quite what the purchaser needed, all I had to do was tweak the database query and the php script to show the different data. 

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 ran in a browser, any browser) and may even have come with expensive hardware that would have been 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.

Sadly, in 2017 the lumber yard migrated away from the ERP that allowed this software to run. They are now using a cloud based Windows ERP. Any open source software, whether something downloaded or something I cooked up, is gone. They are completely at the mercy of their ERP provider now.

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