For years, we've heard the promise: Technology will help the little guy. Nonsense -- small businesses will help themselves, and take whatever tech they can get. They have to be more discerning than their bigger brethren, and wiser with their money, as well. Now that they're finally getting their hands on some truly remarkable tools, there's no telling what they'll do.
The companies on our list represent the most innovative original businesses, from every part of the country and every field and industry. It is, of course, too short. So think of it as a sampler: See what companies like yours are doing; learn from some that are very different; get inspired. And give credit where it's due.
15-year-old office supply and furniture provider
"When I first tell people that I work for an office supply company, they don't think it's very glamorous," says Matthew Fisher, an independent contractor on assignment for the past year and a half as the IT Guy at Apricot Office Supply in Miami, Fla., "but when I show them the things we are doing with technology, they say, 'That's pretty cool.'"
It is pretty cool that six months ago Apricot Office Supply set up an online business-to-business order center that, without a single employee ever touching an order form, phone, or packing slip, generates $50,000 a month in revenues. It's also cool that Apricot saved $65,000 in 1999 in labor and transaction fees simply by instituting an electronic data interchange (EDI) system that, at the time of order, automatically deducts payments from its larger clients' banking accounts.
Apricot's 35 employees generate more than $9 million in revenues annually selling office supplies and furniture to Florida's government agencies, universities, county school board offices, and businesses of every size. Fisher credits the company's willingness to embrace technology -- and spend money to make money -- with its success.
"We're not a value-added reseller selling services," Fisher says. "We actually do just sell pads of paper. We can only cut the list price of items in an effort to generate business to a certain point, after which we have to say, 'How else can we make money off these things?' We see technology as a way of saving money on internal processes to make more money off that pad."
On Apricot's business-to-business e-commerce site, its customers get a user name and password. They search an electronic catalog, click on the items they need, and they're done. Once an order is submitted, it goes to Apricot's system, which links to the company's suppliers and orders the items. "They arrive here that night, and they go out on the truck the next morning," Fisher says. "There's no human intervention at all."
The automatic payment EDI program also cuts down on human intervention. The old method of payment was the use of "purchasing cards," which are similar to credit cards. "We had one person dedicated each day to entering in those orders because the card did not get the line item details of what the customers were paying for. We had to manually enter each order, and there was a high transaction fee for each order," Fisher says. "Now it's invisible for us and them. The orders go straight from our system to theirs, and their funds go straight into our bank, and nobody has to key in any information at all."
In addition to using technology to interface with clients, Apricot uses it to give its employees the information they need to sign up new customers, make new sales, and improve internal communications. A company intranet allows employees to see memos about meetings, post templates to ensure that the salespeople are using the same type of quotes, and check out links to competitors. There is also interoffice GroupWare for people to schedule meetings and share documents, and remote computing capabilities allow executives and senior sales reps to work from the road or home.
"Apricot has really dedicated the resources to get these projects up and running and working for them," Fisher says. "They really understand that technology can make them money by saving them money."
"What we've done is seek out a niche market that wants efficiency -- in process as well as in the final product and service," says Basil Bernard, the company's chief executive officer. "We've always realized that there are companies out there with a lot more fiscal resources than we have. However, we can easily keep stride with them by just keeping up with technology."
--Angela R. Garber