Technology

Tech 'Solutions' Your Small Biz Can't Use


A lot of highfalutin software and gadgets aim to help you run your company, but too little of it is suited for a small business environment

I've used a lot of things that don't work as advertised. Maybe it's me or maybe it's bad luck. Or maybe it's just bad stuff.

I've never had any success with vitamins; I still get sick just as often. Teeth-whitening products have failed me. So has the Atkins diet. Rogaine shampoo? I just grew a little peach fuzz. Using my frequent-flier miles has always been a huge frustration, except for that one time I flew to Fargo, N.D., on a Saturday night in February. Baked potato chips? They taste like wood.

Unfortunately, the disappointment extends well beyond consumer products. My life as a small business owner has been littered with stuff that doesn't work as billed, particularly technology. We business owners are subjected to an endless array of tools that never fail to disappoint. We're promised. We pay. And we're let down. The list of overhyped and underwhelming technology changes constantly. So here's a quick snapshot of 10, in no particular order, that don't work. At least this week.

1. RSS Feeds

Bob, an electrical contractor, knows what RSS stands for, and I feel sorry for him. He had the misfortune of signing up for an RSS feed. This misnomer is designed to make us feel like we're getting a "feed" of data just like all the really, really important media people do. When he first tried RSS, he thought, "Wow, I can get immediate updates on product and industry developments, important news from Yahoo! (YHOO), and even get a new joke from The Onion, all as soon as they're published!" Instead, he was "fed" an endless stream of meaningless items displayed in an overly large browser window that winds up distracting more than informing. Like Bob, most of the business owners I know have abandoned RSS and gone back to controlling when they get their information. Still don't know what RSS stands for? Trust me, it's just not that important.

2. Spam Filters

I get this question at just about every presentation I give to business owners: "What spam filters do you recommend?" My answer: "None." They all suck. Let's face it: You're not going to eliminate spam in your business. Instead you're going to waste money on the latest filtering technology, which does nothing more than block that key e-mail you were awaiting from a prospective customer. Or you'll require a sender to complete a Sudoku puzzle before "allowing" their e-mail to reach your in-box. In the end, it's cheaper for your employees to just sort and delete spam as it comes in.

3. Antivirus Software

Betsy was looking for just the right technology to slow down her employees' computers and significantly degrade the performance of her business applications. Well, she found it, and it's called antivirus software. As an added bonus, this software prevents her from installing or upgrading applications without a team of NASA-trained IT consultants. Betsy's spent more money with her IT firm trying to work around antivirus software than she probably would've spent if she received an actual virus. What should a business owner do to avoid viruses, worms, and other evil applications that can wreak havoc in our systems? Our tools are still too limited. Even telling your employees, for the 900th time, not to open up suspicious files doesn't seem to work. I don't have a very good answer for Betsy's dilemma. But I do know the current group of antivirus software applications don't do the job for small businesses.

4. Blogs

Jamie! You started a blog for your business? That's dope! Now go out and get some accessories, like a pair of black-rimmed rectangular glasses and a Starbucks card. And oh, by the way, you'll need to set aside about 17 hours each day to keep it fresh. Dude, it'll be so viral. What's that, Jamie? You're not in the media business? You don't work for a software company? You just own a hardware store? Dude, that's a drag! If you don't have something new to say each day, no one's going to bother to stop by and check out your blog. It'll be, like, so lame. And if you do have something to say, just be careful you don't give away too much information. You didn't consider all this? You don't have the time? You're not such a great writer? Word.

5. Search Engine Optimization

You mean for $5,000 I can get my company's name on the very top of Google's search results? Where do I sign? Many business owners have been fooled by the allure of search engine optimization (SEO)—and I'm one of them. I forked over a bunch of dough to a firm in California that promised to get my company's name on "all the major search engines" when someone was looking for products that we sell. How did they plan to do this? I'm still not really sure, but it had something to do with spiders, black hats, and link farms. That should've been enough of a hint that witchcraft was involved. After a brief flirtation with page 47 of MSN's search results, I gave up. SEO probably does the job for companies with oodles of money, but not for the typical small business.

6. Mobile Applications

Before you buy into any software vendor's promise to "enable a mobile application" for employees to use on their cell phones, think really hard about the reality of that claim. Remember that time you used your phone to look up the weather in Chicago? Remember how the seasons actually changed while you were waiting for the forecast to load? Your customer may die of old age waiting for you to enter an order or look up an inventory item on a cell phone. Mobile applications will be a great thing…someday. Just like hovercrafts, telepods, and renewable energy. But for a small business on a limited budget, it's still science fiction.

7. Customer Relationship Management Software

Readers of my work may find this item a little surprising. I've always been a big proponent of customer relationship management (CRM) software. One big reason is that my company sells this stuff. And we have a lot of small business clients who have really used this technology well. Unfortunately, we have a lot of other customers who haven't been as successful. Fred, a manufacturer of roofing materials, is one of them. Fred and I both learned that a CRM system doesn't work for a small business without an internal "champion" who takes ownership of it. His $20,000 system just sat there. No one used it. At best, we hope it will become a glorified Rolodex one day. A CRM system can be a good thing, but it takes more than paying for the software and training. Without a substantial internal investment, CRM won't work.

8. AdWords

John's a pretty smart guy. He runs a company that sells specialty pet foods. He manages his own investments. He keeps an eye on his taxes. But I've found a way to turn John into a blithering idiot. I've asked him to figure out how to use Google's (GOOG) AdSense profitably. Are you interested in a mind-numbing exercise? Give AdSense a shot. Or Yahoo SM or MSN AdCenter. Don't you know how much to budget for "clicks" on your ad? Are you just a little suspicious as to who exactly is counting these "clicks" that conveniently turn into revenue for these companies? Like John, you've just entered the alternate universe of Internet advertising! Here's a word of wisdom: Leave the mass-market advertising to Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP). Small business owners should stick to less mystifying forms of promotion.

9. Online Video

I totally agree with that…guy…I think…who wants us to "leave Britney alone." And yes, Barack Obama is pretty hot in his YouTube video. But none of this means online video is a workable medium for small business owners. Ron, a reseller of computer software, thought his business would be perfect for online video, what with the amount of Web-based training and support he provides. Ron figured he could post some videos on YouTube to help his clients. He soon learned that the cost and complexity was just too high. Quality videos require production companies. Otherwise you'll have grainy, useless footage. And videos that run beyond a certain length aren't even YouTube-able. They need to be housed with companies that sell storage space. Ron soon got sick of the process. Online videos are great—if you've got the budget of Time Warner (TWX) behind you.

10. Web 2.0

Want to make a room of small business owners go completely silent? Ask them to define Web 2.0. The world is full of industries coming up with sexy terms to create buzz and mystique around their genius. Web 2.0 is no different. A Web guy will tell you, "It's the next generation of Internet technology." And how does this affect small business owners? I hear all these great predictions of earth-shaking developments to come. I hear words like "mashup" and "wiki," and I'm still trying to figure out how these affect my business. All I really see are the same accounting, inventory, and order entry programs from the days of Reagan, albeit with new window dressing. I think we're supposed to be using Web 2.0 technologies to do more work online. But unless you're running an online business, these tools seem to have little relevance.


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