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Which Tech Companies Are Really Helping You?

A VC has a candid talk with the owner of a local shop about her reaction to all the tech start-ups pitching their products to small business owners.
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Whatever task your small business faces -- be it payroll, accounting, shift scheduling, or social media marketing -- there’s a start-up (or 10) who wants to help you out.

That’s an abundance of riches for tech-savvy owners but also a headache. Which of this seemingly endless stream of products and services are worth your attention? How do you sort the genuinely helpful from the half baked or those that are a bad fit for your business?

Poised as we are at the intersection of startups and small business, here at Inc. we cover these sort of quandaries fairly regularly, but according to VC Hunter Walk, the media in general tends to focus more on the hot new start-up rather than the small businesesses they hope to serve.

"It feels like I rarely see the press actually ask a business owner about their tech usage and needs. We get relatively breathless coverage of how Startup X is going to disrupt something, but the person behind the counter who owns the purchase decision receives zero column inches," he wrote on his blog recently. To correct this balance, he had a chat with Emily Day, owner of local San Francisco bakery Flour & Co, who has big ambitions for expanding her business.

What did she say about the welter of tech options available to her? Here are some of Walk’s key takeaways:

Enter once, re-enter everywhere: Given POS as center of a retail store, you’d imagine that it would link seamlessly with all her other systems. Nope. Across the different providers there’s still a real lack of interop… there was a preferred vendor with an app which allows users to order ahead before they reach the store but no ShopKeep integration… There’s so much other work to do that once Emily’s made a system choice, she doesn’t want to go back and reevaluate so since POS came first, compatibility with ShopKeep drives a whole bunch of other decisions. Emily wants to find a loyalty program but so far none of them work well with her other platforms.

No one ever got fired for buying IBM: The large well-known guys still have lots of customers. She knows about Xero accounting and the wave of online pay systems but uses Quickbooks and Paychex for now. It works for her and that’s good enough.

Start-ups, your competition is sometimes a spreadsheet: At [Day’s previous employer] La Boulange they used shift scheduling software but for now at Flour & Co, Excel is working just fine.

Wants to do her own research before talking to a salesperson: Technology recommendations come from her own research and other store owners. Easy, simple comparison charts and good clear sales marketing pieces are what Emily wants to see; not a salesperson trying to get on her calendar for a 30m demo.  

What’s valuable here varies depending on whether you’re looking at the conversation from the perspective of the start-up of the shop owner. Tech company founders, no doubt, are calling their sales team to tell them to take a closer look at their comparison charts and scratching their heads over how to offer better integration. For more insights along these lines, check out Walk’s complete post.

The lesson for small business owners may be less specific but nonetheless powerful: you are not alone. Even the most tech-friendly owners are struggling to make sense of their options and get these tools to play nicely together. And you are also not alone if, in light of these hassles, you’ve opted for a bigger player of a lower tech workaround for now. Until the market sorts the best of these tools from the competition and pushes startups to ensure simple interoperability, this technology may seem like more trouble than it’s worth for many local businesses.

What’s been your experience with the new tech tools startups ate peddling for your business?

IMAGE: flickr/Ian Britton
Last updated: Sep 10, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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