Friday, August 17, 2012

Small businesses and the digital divide

A few years ago I was doing work in a New Jersey commercial district known for its community of mostly immigrant small business owners. The local economic development corporation had spent at least a year convincing one particular local restaurant owner that he needed to computerize - until then you would catch him pulling out wads of hundred dollar bills whenever he had to pay a vendor. Not only did the failure to maintain proper accounting controls likely affect his profit margin, making it more difficult to manage costs, it had another significant downside. When the business owner wanted to renovate and approached a local bank for a loan, he was soundly rejected. Without proof of income, banks were unwilling to lend to the business owner for a much needed renovation and expansion. Not only was his business growth stymied, the renovations would have turned a trash-filled empty lot into nice outdoor dining. This improvement would have signaled a real change for the district - and perhaps helped other businesses as well.

A new report out by the Center for an Urban Future entitled "Smarter Small Businesses" confirms the depth of this problem - one that is particularly acute many lower-income, minority communities. While nearly 9 out of 10 respondents report having a computer, as many as one in five low- to moderate-income proprietors did not. Getting bank loans is one thing, but the failure to embrace technology is hurting these proprietors in ways that they may not even understand. As more and more people look to the internet for shopping, dining and entertainment recommendations, the failure to have a website, or to engage with social media in strategic ways means missed opportunities to grow a clientele. What can commercial district practitioners do to reverse this trend? Here are a few ideas culled from the report as well as my own experience:

  • Greater education is key. Connect with resource providers who can offer classes in the basics, like Quickbooks or marketing through social media. For commercial districts with large non-english speaking populations, see if its possible to offer instruction in the languages spoken by local business owners. Get these providers to come to your district to offer these classes - making attendance for busy business owners a bit easier. 
  • Offer access to direct technical assistance. Considering hiring a professional technology consultant to help businesses develop and maintain basic websites, or to set up accounting in Quickbooks. As the report notes, not every business needs a website, but for many district businesses a website will help draw customers. Some businesses can by-pass a traditional website entirely and just go for a Facebook increasingly popular option. 
  • If your businesses don't have an on-line presence, create one for them. Use your district website. Make sure you have a district directory where their businesses are listed. If you have a twitter feed, offer to tweet their specials or sales to your followers.
  • Support peer-to-peer networking among your local businesses. Host mixers and invite speakers to meetings and breakfasts. Business owners are more likely to adopt tools if they see their peers using them. 
I encourage everyone to read this report - it is chock full of good data and insights, and many of you will likely find the stories and anecdotes extremely familiar. 

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