Ask business owners about the problems they face, and they'll tell you they are alone against the world.
The way they see it, no one else has had to struggle with the same tax, accounting and inventory issues they have to wrestle with all the time. Convinced that they are in this fix by themselves, they set out to find solutions from scratch, often ordering custom software programs to meet their needs.
But in many cases this means reinventing the wheel, at great time and expense, when perfectly good solutions are on the shelf for a fraction of the cost. What many Lone Ranger CEO's fail to recognize is that a growing number of private corporations, business schools and computer clubs keep records on software applications, making this information available to the small business community. One of the biggest sources is the Atlanta-based National Solutions Center, operated IBM.
"We maintain a data base of more than 22,000 computer applications that have been developed to aid management in a wide cross section of industries from beauty salons to electrical parts distributors," says IBM executive Thomas Kempton. "Most of the applications on our data base have been developed outside of IBM and are available through independent companies. We serve as a central clearinghouse, trying to steer businesses to the right software.
"Here's how small companies can make use of this service. Assume a merchant in the home improvement business is having difficulty managing seasonal inventories. By contacting an IBM sales representative, or one of our independent business partners, that merchant can gain access to our National Solutions Center, which can help to identify a specific program designed to solve his inventory problems.
"As part of this service, we will provide the company with the name of the application, the name of the company that produces it and references of companies currently using the program. This way management can see how the software works in the 'real world' before purchasing it. . . ."
Entrepreneurs seeking computer-based business solutions can also get hands-on experience at facilities run by colleges and universities. "At our computer learning centers, business owners have the opportunity to sit down at a computer system and explore various software programs," says Scott Daugherty, executive director of the University of North Carolina's Small Business and Technology Development Center.
"They can start with a demonstration module that gives them a 10-minute look at various applications," Mr. Daugherty said. "If interested, they can proceed further to tutorial modules that give them a comprehensive look at the programs plus the ability to interact with the software.
"The goal is to narrow the wide and often confusing range of software options for business managers by allowing them to focus their attention on a limited number of applications that we have found to be at the forefront of small business needs and requirements.
"The biggest thing entrepreneurs gain from this hands-on experience is that there are established methods for solving their problems. In a typical case, the owner of a company that manufactures and markets baked goods, found that one of the data base management systems he was experimenting with at our learning center had a built-in mechanism for helping to efficiently plan his production schedule. Not just on a routine basis, but also to juggle daily operations against the demands of unusually large orders that have to be filled on a tight deadline.
"Until visiting the learning center, he thought there was no way computers could help him deal with that problem. But when he saw how well the application served his purpose, it was like a light bulb went off in his head."
Sometimes the shortest route to good software is through a connection in your field or industry. In many cases, trade associations can direct you to peers who have already established highly effective applications and are willing to sell the technology to you.
"When we outgrew our first computer system, we started searching for a replacement, only to find that we were unimpressed with what we found in the marketplace," says James Risk, president of Kirby Risk Supply Co., an electrical parts wholesale distributor.
"That's until we discovered that another electrical parts distributor was putting together a very promising program and that we had the opportunity to piggyback on his work by providing input and on-site testing of the software. It has proven to be the ideal solution." By turning to experienced sources for guidance in the selection of computer applications, companies can cut short the process of automating, thus improving their productivity and competitive position.