Small business reality checks

The summers are too hot, the winters too cold, the wind always blows, and the terrain is as flat as the bottom of a cop's shoe. That's South Dakota.

The summers are too hot, the winters too cold, the wind always blows, and the terrain is as flat as the bottom of a cop's shoe. That's South Dakota. That's home.

Every year, I make the trip there to lend a hand with my parents' small business. They own and operate a successful choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm, and each fall they hold a harvest festival. I take the opportunity to not only help them prepare for the festival, but also to watch a small-small business up close and personal (it's just the two of them, plus seasonal help between Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Last year, I helped them computerize the business, and reported on the impact that one piece of technology made on their ability to keep in contact with their customers. This year, I didn't have a laundry list of technology chores to do for the business. But I did come away with a handful of small business lessons, which you can use to improve your bottom line, your productivity, and your creativity. Reality check #1: Sometimes simple is what you need The latest and greatest gizmo may be tempting - especially to technology-addicted small businesspeople - but don't ignore the simplest solutions to problems.

My clients (Dad and Mom) were frustrated at the peculiarities of their tape-driven answering system. They wanted a way to stay with each other — and during their busiest times, with their seasonal help on the business property. My first tech suggestion was to add voice mail and call forwarding to their phone service, then bring in one or more cellular phones. Incoming calls could be shunted to the cell phones when they were out of the shop, while the phones themselves would keep the owners in touch. But it was too much money and too much complexity.

Instead, we separated the problems. A new digital answering machine with multiple mailboxes - one provides directions to the business, another is for incoming messages, for instance - replaces the old analog machine. And short-range communicators from Motorola, with no monthly fees, substitute for the cell phones. Reality check #2: Customers are cash It's always harder (and costs more) to acquire a new customer than to keep one you already have. That's why your customer mailing list is such an important business asset.

Although my clients computerized their business just a year ago, they already wonder how they did without the PC's ability to manage and manipulate their customer mailing list. But they weren't backing up that database regularly enough. We implemented a regular backup schedule: both to another folder on the hard drive, and in case of hard drive meltdown, to floppy disks as well.

More important, they mistakenly thought they were locked into using the database as it had been originally set up: to identify their most recent customers. They intended to mail a money-off coupon only to those customers who had purchased in both of the previous two years. (Customers patronize their Christmas tree business just once a year.)

Instead, I suggested that they mail to their entire list (some 1,000+ names), rationalizing that customers who had not returned last year were the ones we most wanted to recapture. A few changes to the database and some new reports and filters made that possible, and made the mailing list management more flexible, too. Reality check #3: E-mail is primo My clients haven't done much with the Internet. Their business is listed on the site of an association they belong to, but that's it. And still they proudly tell people that "we're on the Internet."

No they're not, and for the moment, that's the way it'll stay. They have their hands full running the business and assimilating the technology they already have.

But they're missing out in at least one potentially important area: they don't have e-mail. For most small businesses, e-mail is the single best reason to go online. Not so much for customer contact (although a few customers have begun asking if the business distributes news and information via e-mail), but for communication with other businesses like theirs. Presently, the only contact they have with other tree growers is at annual meetings and conventions, or through paper-based newsletters and magazines. If they had e-mail, however, they would be able to share marketing techniques, ancillary sales tactics, and other information. Reality check #4: What's your reality? I learned my lessons. What about yours?

It's likely that your business hides some reality checks, too. Share your favorite small business reality checks with the rest of us. They don't even have to revolve around technology if you don't want to think about computers at the moment.

Share your lessons with me at And use the TalkBack box below to share them with everyone, and see what others have learned.