Small Business Plus New Technology Equals Big Output

April 3, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Internet networking sites have created a growing buzz in the business world, but they are just one of many technological tools available to small businesses.

Nancy Boese, business tools specialist for the Michigan Small Business Technology and Development Center, listed five items she feels are important tools to help smaller companies manage their businesses. MSBTDC is a nonprofit organization focused on aiding small business through counseling, training, research and more.

Boese said one handy tool to enable a company to run more smoothly is an accounting program like QuickBooks. Another tool is customer relationship management software, which tracks customer information for a company.

She also suggested companies use "internal portals," which allow employees to access documents and information from anywhere at any time.

"We just did a survey, and about 90 percent of the people said this was the best thing we ever did," said Boese. "I think that it really will replace the generic drive."

She said the portals are especially useful for those who work from home or travel long distances to work. Portals are also cost effective. After the initial setup, they can be personally managed and changed.

Finally, Boese spoke about "dashboards." Dashboards are used to "establish metrics for aspects of their company and have that (information) readily available to all employees to know how the company is doing." She said that one use of a dashboard is to track individual goals, giving the example of following a person's sales numbers. Dashboards are very visually oriented, she said, and usually include graphs.

Boese commented on peer-to-peer sites like LinkedIn, a networking site for professionals. While her personal verdict is still out on such sites, she sees them as being the most useful for people looking for work or for companies looking to hire.

Grand Rapids-based I-Core Networks LLC has hit on several high-tech tools while adding a networking twist with its new Web site, MyCitySources.com.

"It provides different resources for small business that they may not be able to provide on their own," said Donna Wilson, co-owner of I-Core Networks.

Some of those resources are mass e-mail and postcard capabilities, forums, an open gallery for artists to post their work and receive feedback, and both internal and external business calendars. The external calendar allows companies to list events for public viewing while the internal side can only be accessed by employees.

Members can create their own Web site and publish it for viewing outside of MyCitySources.com. Wilson said members can create sites using html coding or applications that are more of a "cut and paste" style.

"Even somebody who has never been on the net before can actually go in and build themselves a little Web site," said Wilson.

For members with existing Web sites, their MyCitySources.com site will have a link leading viewers to their other site. However, the most notable attribute of MyCitySources.com, Wilson believes, is the "recommended business directory."

The recommended business directory promotes referrals and allows members to get background information on people. Each member has their own directory to which they can add names. MyCitySources.com also compiles these individual directories into one list.

"We're trying to make relationship decisions on everything. We're trying to take the business and social networking sites to the point where every time you call somebody, you've called them because you know somebody else or because somebody else referred, and you get a little bit of a feeling of what that person is all about," said Wilson.

Although the site has seen interest from many well-established companies, it was originally created for start-ups and small businesses. Through networking, Wilson found that many people needed help putting resources together for their business, but didn't have the money to do so.

"I wanted to create something where I could continue to do networking and what I love in helping people, and yet provide a service to help these people get what they could never afford," said Wilson.

Once Wilson had the idea for the site, she presented it to Lynn Crow, owner of Milync Digital Design. The two partnered to form I-Core Networks and created MyCitySources.com. They plan on adding new features to the Web site such as file sharing, white boards for online meetings, and education clips for people selling training videos or CDs. Wilson believes this will add to the relational side of the site and help companies make sales.

"You've seen a face, you've heard a voice, so it takes away the cold call and makes a hot lead," she said.

MyCitySources.com takes advantage of what Boese feels is the strongest application of the Internet: its ability to connect people. Creating a successful e-business is one of the biggest things businesses can do to help themselves, said Boese.

She said cities can help by pushing for different types of high-speed Internet connections such as broadband, wireless, T1 and T3. Public libraries and schools also play a role by allowing Internet access to people who otherwise would not be able to connect.

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