Each of us can probably remember back to a time in our lives when we were star struck with the possibilities that technology could bring to our lives. A day when hopes of hover cars or Dick Tracy communicator watches dominated our thoughts. A time when we wished more than anything that a loved one who was forced to live in a world without sight or sound would one day know the beauty of a rainbow or a child’s laugh.
Whatever it was, we all remember the moment when we first sat at technology’s knee and whispered our hopes for the future. And each time the world of technology would answer back, answer back with an affirmation, seemingly a promise, that yes, everything was possible. And even though we had never uttered a word aloud we felt as though our dreams had been heard. We truly felt that everything was possible and that one day, sometime in the future before our time had passed, we would truly see our hopes brought to reality.
As we grew older, there were those among us who made the choice to enter this mysterious world of technology. We were the ones who would have curiously peered behind the curtain at the Palace in the Emerald City. We were the ones who in days gone past would have raised our swords to fight the dragons of the day. But today, mostly, we are the ones who quietly take our place among all those who came before and all those who will come after, quietly coding well into the small hours of the night with the singular goal of fulfilling the promises that have been made.
As an incredible testament to the determination of these individuals, my childhood friend finally has his Dick Tracy watch. My wife very well may see her first robot butler within a few short years. And I truly believe that my co-founder and closest friend will one day get his wish of flying in space. But there has been a promise seemingly forgotten, a promise that led my father to buy our first computer, a promise that computers made to small businesses so many years ago. The promise that life would be better, that life would be easier, that the day to day struggle of running a small business would in some way be lessened.
In the beginning we all made progress towards this goal. Everyone agrees that word processors are a huge improvement over typewriters, and that the spreadsheet has become a truly indispensable tool for small business owners. Then came the seemingly legions of accounting software packages. Most marched right on past the small businesses in their search for Fortune 500 gold. The ones that remained consolidated over time leaving us with even fewer choices.
The argument remains, did these software packages deliver on the promise? Were our lives truly better or were they just different. I’m willing to say yes, we are better off, but at what cost? I have never heard anyone who uses Quickbooks say they love the software and look forward to using it.
I remember the time before computers my Father had a bookkeeper who sat in an office and worked on “the books”. At any time you could ask her and she would tell you how much any customer owed us at the moment. She knew the daily balance in the bank account and knew how much we owed each of our suppliers. And today, as I look around, in almost every small business today there is a bookkeeper who sits in an office and works on Quickbooks, and when asked can print you a report telling you each of these things. Better? Probably, even if only just for the bookkeeper. But mainly for the rest of us it’s just different, or is it?
I refuse to accept this, I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us. I just cannot bear to look upon even one more small business who after countless disappointments with software over the years has seemingly given up and returned to a life where Word, Excel and Quickbooks are the only software they use, a world where clipboards, paper files and schedules written on huge whiteboards dominate the landscape.
Sure there are companies out there that are developing tools that can help. But to those companies I have to say, you have to get out there, you can’t just expect these small businesses to find you. Pick up a phone, walk down the street, heck you can’t pick up a stone and throw it in any direction in this country and not expect to hit one of our more than 14 million small businesses. Have the courage to sit down next to the owners and office managers of these amazing businesses and listen to their story and share their pain. And, just maybe, if you listen closely enough you may just hear the faint murmurs that a much younger company whispered while sitting at the knee of technology.
For small businesses your challenge is to support these efforts, be willing to tell your story to this new crop of soldiers, try their solutions, and support their efforts with your wallet. Most web applications cost less per month than you spend at Starbucks in a week. Sure many of the applications will be lacking in some way in the beginning but most will get better over time, and if they don’t, feel no remorse in voting with your wallet. But don’t give up, hold on tightly to the hope that it will get better and be willing to try again. There is no way that we will ever get there if we don’t work together.
So the call to action is simple. Software developers, you must first listen before you ever presume to charge for your solution. You must get out from behind your computer and go meet your customers. Sit and listen to their stories and share their pain. And you must do this before you consider writing so much as a single line of code. Would it truly be such a radical move to stop reading Slashdot and TechCrunch for just a week so that you can volunteer to work side by side at one of these small businesses that you hope to help?
For small businesses we know that the stress and pace of running your business today is higher than ever, but you need to budget for these solutions. Budget time, even if only a few days per month over lunch, but be accessible so that we can ask you questions and get your opinion. And budget money, we’re not talking about a lot, it’ll probably be less than you spend on magazines for the waiting room. But reward those who take the time to listen to your needs. Be willing to try new things even though change is a true pain in the a$$, but most importantly don’t lose hope. By working together we can truly find our way towards fulfilling the promise that software made to small businesses so many years ago.
~ David Reed