Customers have an affinity for small businesses, because they can often see themselves in the proprietor's place, says Rahul Bhaskar, associate professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton. They like the attention they get from small businesses, but they also want the services that big companies can offer, often because of their investment in information technology. And, the management teams at small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) need good information at their disposal if they're going to conquer their markets. Even a single-location restaurant may have hundreds of employees, once all of the part-time shift workers are taken into consideration. It has inventory to control. It has suppliers to work with. Even a small business needs a good IT system to support its operations. And IT demands grow with the revenue.
And yet, too many small businesses are trying to do things with PCs, even though their businesses have grown beyond them. With careful planning, smart implementation that includes outsourcing and effective staff training, and a system that can grow with the business, SMBs can have big-company IT functionality that will take their business to the next level.
For every growing business still pulling management information from a spreadsheet, though, there's a horror story about a company that dropped big bucks on an IT system that crashed before it was turned on. How does an SMB justify and manage its IT purchases so that they lead to gold medal performance, rather than an easy win for the competition?
Looking to the Future
The key, says Stephen R. Crawford, vice president of information technology at Amarr Garage Doors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is to concentrate on where you want the business to go, because some of the necessary spending won't pay off right away. "Most organizations sell IT based on ROI [return on investment]," Crawford says. "We sell it based on how it will help us drive past the competition."
Garage door manufacturing is a high-tech, design-intensive business. Americans are spending money on their houses, and the garage is no exception. In most neighborhoods, the garage is right out front where everyone can see it, so homeowners want it to look as nice as the rest of the house. And that's why they are turning to Amarr's custom wood and steel carriage house doors. "IT is absolutely essential for us to manage our growth," says Crawford. "It drives the bottom line in our organization."
For most of its 55-year history, Amarr's products were sold through company-owned door centers. In the past, contractors and installers would have visited the door center to pick up a standard model for their customers. But now, homeowners are more savvy. They do their own research online and often visit the showroom with a special style in mind. Architects specify garage doors that are in harmony with the rest of the design rather than delegate that decision to a contractor. And in many cases, the door will be bought through a large retail store like Lowe's. "This has changed our thinking, not only about the applications we use, but also the infrastructure basis," Crawford says.