Time is of the essence in Allison Rosson's $1 million design and manufacturing business. Mike & Ally, in New York City, makes decorative purse, bath, and tabletop accessories. Early in the company's history, the founders knew they had to computerize, but didn't have the time to research the equipment. "There was no question that the big bang approach--closing up shop for a technology overhaul--was not for us," Rosson says. They decided to go digital at the height of one year's Christmas rush. Taking even one week off to automate would ruin the ship dates for 40 customers--$40,000 worth of orders. Hiring someone was out of the question. After all, the two founders were taking home only $25,000 a year each.

They had no choice but to computerize on an as-needed basis: buy hardware and software only when not having it would mean losing orders. A crucial part of the strategy was selecting products as much for the way they fit into the company's schedule as for their features and prices. For example, Rosson chose an accounting package based on how easy it would be for her to learn to use it. When a customer demanded electronic data interchange (EDI) capability, Mike & Ally paid a third-party service rather than invest hundreds of hours and staggering sums to bring the process in-house. Rosson dubbed her strategy "computerizing on a time shoestring."

The payoff is evident: The company maintained cash flow while speeding operations enough to expand the business. Since 1995, the company has taken on 900 new customers and added 11 new product lines.