When it comes to automation, whom you pick to guide you matters as much as what you choose to install

Deciding what kind of information technology (IT) is best for your business is no easy task. Should you install IBM-compatibles or Macs? Do you need custom-made software, or will an off-the-shelf accounting package do? Are a network and E-mail in order, and if so, which providers should you choose?

Consultants may not be the ones to go to for answers. According to the research firm Dataquest, Americans will spend $9 million on computer consulting services in 1995, 38% more than they did two years ago. But only 4% of people who use computer consultants, says a recent Business Intelligence survey, are satisfied with the help they receive -- help that costs anywhere from $40 to $150 an hour. The combination of big bucks and less-than-optimum advice may have more and more company owners turning away from "experts" and to laypeople they trust -- everyone from mothers-in-law and college whiz kids to business managers and local retailers.

We asked half a dozen entrepreneurs to tell us who guides them in their search for new or upgraded systems. Their choice of technology gurus may surprise you.

* * *

Jos Kleynjans

CEO of Pittsburgh-based Trading and Manufacturing Industries (TMI), a strip-door manufacturer with $5.3 million in sales

If a technology decision will affect the whole business, then we make the decision as a group. For example, when we were thinking about automating, we discussed the decision with everyone who would be involved, no matter what position he or she held in the company. My wife, Annie, who is TMI's controller, played a large part in the process, too. She attended a six-week seminar on automation that was a valuable source of information.

After we had a general meeting and everyone agreed that we were ready for automation, I appointed one person -- a salesman who had sold computer systems before joining TMI -- to write a description of every document we had in the company. I also asked him to make a flowchart showing how long documents were used, when documents were destroyed, and what each document's purpose was. That gave us a complete outline of what we needed. Then we invited four computer suppliers in, told them what we wanted to accomplish, and gave them 30 days to give us a proposal for a system and an explanation of why we should choose their system.

Next, the suppliers came to TMI and gave a presentation to our seven department heads, each of whom already had a copy of the price quotations. After the presentation I asked the department heads to let me know their preferences.

Five of the seven chose the same supplier. So we invited that company and the second-choice company to make another presentation to our group. This time we asked more pointed questions. When the second-choice company couldn't tell us why we should choose its system over the first-choice company's, we decided to go with our first choice.

I trust my department heads to make technology decisions because most of them have worked for other companies where they've had to make similar judgments. Often I make a technology decision in my own mind but don't express it until the group reaches a decision. If I don't agree with the group members, then I challenge them. If they can prove me wrong, I accept their decision. But sometimes I prove them wrong.

* * *

Robert Jacobson

President of Worldesign Inc., a virtual-reality design studio in Seattle

We have only five employees, so we pass the responsibility for technology decisions around, depending on what the particular need is. For example, we finally decided to network our computers. At least three of us had opinions on the subject, so we met and discussed them. First, we compared the technical capabilities and prices of different systems. Peter Wong, our vice-president for applications and development, listened to all the opinions. Once we had a general agreement on what type of system we needed, he took all the information and made the purchase, because he has a background in networks.

We would never have one person act as a technology czar. If you don't make decisions by consensus, people become unhappy and may go out and buy their own equipment, which would lead to chaos. For instance, when we bought word-processing software, we all agreed it had to be a package with which we were familiar and that was readily available and affordable. Then someone who had time bought the package.

The only drawback: the process can be slow. If we ever reach total deadlock, I could use my authority and make a decision alone. Thankfully, we've never reached that point.

* * *

Stan Wetherell

Cofounder of the sign franchise Sign It Quick and co-owner of the $1-million Sign It Quick store in Columbia, S.C.

Primarily, I make the technology decisions. I have an associate's degree in engineering, though most of the technology decisions I make don't relate to my engineering background. I got my degree in 1972, and times have changed.

So I do make mistakes. I hired a man who's been selling us computers for a long time to put in a computer system for graphics. He's also knowledgeable about software -- specifically, point-of-purchase and accounting software. Turned out he didn't understand what the requirements are for a graphics computer. I spent $3,800 apiece on two computers he said I should buy, and they were not as good as the $2,000 computer I got from Best Buy a year later. I put the three computers side by side, and the ones I'd spent the extra $1,800 on were slowpokes. I've ended up using them around the office for bookkeeping and to record sales data, but they're far beyond what we need for those functions.

The next time I go outside the company for help in a technology decision, I'm going to talk to several computer experts and make sure I get references from people, preferably those in the sign industry, who've used the recommended products.

* * *

Dale R. Alldredge

President of $5-million Technic Tool Corp., a manufacturer of outdoor power equipment in Lewiston, Idaho

When we decided to put computers on every employee's desk, we contacted a local retailer, located only five minutes from Technic Tool, to help us determine which hardware and software we should buy. I'd known that particular retailer socially for 20 years and trusted him. He and his staff had worked with a large corporation in town, and the people I talked to there reaffirmed my confidence in his ability to help us make IT decisions. When I called, he sent people over immediately, and we told them what we needed. They in turn asked us a hundred questions. They then recommended specific hardware and software, and later installed it for us. Even today we call the store when we have problems with the system, and someone is here within 15 minutes to help us.

A short time ago I borrowed money for the company. The bank that made the loan required compiled financial statements, and we had to use external accountants to prepare them. The accountants at the local firm I chose looked at our records and realized we didn't have an automated accounting system. We asked them what kind of software to buy, and they suggested a package.

I called up the retailer I'd been working with on our other technology purchases and told him about the accounting software. If I decided to buy it, I wanted him to sell it to me so I could rely on his store for technical support. He researched the software and then ordered some samples so his staff and I could test it. Finally, I bought it from him. I could work with out-of-town suppliers, but I like using local companies to help me make technology decisions.

* * *

Shane Jones

CEO of Ace Personnel, a temporary-placement service in Overland Park, Kans., with $6 million in sales

In the early days I usually called my mother-in-law, Sally. She'd studied computer science in graduate school and so could give me the necessary information most cheaply. When I got my first office, a six-by-nine-foot closet, Sally appeared with all the software I might need for my business. She loaded some of it on my new computer -- I didn't know how -- and showed me how it worked. As time went on, though, I began to feel guilty about relying so heavily on her. I should have been calling to tell her what her grandchildren were doing. Instead I was calling at all hours of the day and night with technology emergencies.

In the beginning I did my payroll by hand. Toward the end of the first year, I had to turn in 250 W-2 forms to the IRS, for all the temporary employees we'd placed that year. I panicked, because I knew we'd never finish the W-2s in time, and even if we could, the IRS would never accept them -- the agency requires the information on a magnetic media disk. Anticipating the problem, Sally gave me an early Christmas present -- an accounting-payroll software package. It enabled us to get the information to the IRS in time, thereby avoiding a $12,000 fine, which would have shut down the company. We still use that software now, six years later.

Back then I also had a college student named Steve working for me, who had a strong technology background. He always bought the latest technology for his personal use, and he'd been programming since high school. He suggested we buy a 386 PC with a speed of 24 megahertz and a 40-megabyte memory. His proposal sounded like a foreign language to me -- my knowledge of computers ended with the 80-88, one of the first PCs to hit the market. I'd gone to buy my fourth one and found that the model was obsolete. So I took Steve's word and even let him make the decision about where to buy the computer -- from Gateway 2000.

Steve now programs for Microsoft. I would have loved to have kept him at Ace, but when he graduated, we had only 3 or 4 computers and just couldn't afford to hire a dedicated computer person. Now we have about 40 computers and enough profits to support a full-time systems manager to handle our technology decisions.

* * *

Bill Ward

Founder of the Magic Bean, a 20-employee restaurant and hostel located in Quito, Ecuador

When I first started the business, I hired Byron, an Ecuadoran with experience in hotel and restaurant management, to help me with the paperwork and the daily operations of the restaurant. Most important, he suggested a way to get our phone line fixed when it was down: go to the phone company around closing time, wait for people to come out of the building after work, and ask if they want to fix a phone for some extra money. The phone service here is government run, and it's awful. The first person we talked to came right over and fixed the line in 10 minutes for $10.

I brought a Macintosh with me when I came down here, but everyone was using IBMs. I realized that if I wanted any kind of software, peripherals, or technical support, I too would need to buy an IBM PC. My current manager, Britt, is an American. Because my computer knowledge was limited, I let him make the decision about which PC I should buy.

I told him exactly what I needed a computer to do -- accounting, inventory, graphics, and so on -- and he decided that a 486 would be more than sufficient for us. He's also shown me how to computerize most of my daily business operations, such as tracking the restaurant's daily sales receipts.

I didn't know Britt had a technology background when I hired him; I realized it only when he asked me if I had a modem and whether I was connected to the Internet. He said he'd researched the Internet in Ecuador and found three companies we could use to go on-line. In early 1995 we began subscribing to Ecuador's EcuaNet.

Britt also helped me personally: he taught my dad, who lives in Britt's hometown, how to use E-mail. Now my dad and I can "talk" every day.