Navigating the field of technology
Experts offer tips on optimizing software, data and marketing tools

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

March 28, 2015

WAUKESHA - In 2015, being a savvy business owner means so much more than simply having expert negotiation skills or a strong work ethic.

Business owners increasingly need to stay on top of technology trends, including new software, marketing techniques and gadgets to run their businesses efficiently and provide the customer service clients expect.

While it may feel daunting for many small business owners who are short on time and financial resources to tackle the latest technology, area experts have tips on what technology components they feel are essential.

Marketing tools 

Pat McKenna, president of MojoWeb Productions, LLC, said he advises small business owners to focus on email marketing because it offers a greater return on investment than social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“I’m a huge proponent of email marketing not only because of its long history but it’s unfiltered,” said McKenna, an instructor at Waukesha County Technical College’s Small Business Center.

Facebook in particular filters business’s posts, McKenna said, resulting in a business reaching only about 10 to 12 percent of people who have liked their page.

To help small business owners manage their email marketing, McKenna recommends Constant Contact or a similar email broadcast provider. McKenna likes Constant Contact because it has an intuitive newsletter builder, 400-plus templates that have different focuses or appearances and the company offers a 60-day free trial with live support.

“There are lots of providers out there that deal with what Constant Contact does, but the level of value that they provide both before and after, it’s an industry standard,” he said.

Constant Contact also provides statistics to the business owner on how many people opened the email and if they clicked on the links.

Collecting data 

Paul Decker, Waukesha County Board chairman and founder of Maverick Innovation Lab, said harnessing that data is highly valuable.

Having a database to store a business’s statistics and data is crucial, he said, such as for products or services.

“That kind of data is gold,” Decker said. “It is literally gold and a lot of smaller business let it go.”

Having a good understanding of a business’s data allows its owners to make better decisions and investments, he said. Secondly, Decker thinks it’s vital that small business owners utilize a content management system. “I think the first thing is to have a good content management program and it has to be appropriate to whatever you are and your size,” he said.

McKenna also advises clients to use a content management system. He likes WordPress, which helps business owners create websites with free templates that are breathtaking.

“The most important thing that any small business should be doing with technology is not to cave to the hype,” he said. McKenna advises looking at popular software and applications and seeing if they are a good match.

New gadgetry 

As smartphones increase in popularity, Choton Basu said the hottest trend will be iBeacon technology, which allows a business to reach potential customers via a sensor and mobile phone alerts.

“They are calling this invisible technology,” he said. “It is not intrusive per se.”

Basu, a professor in the Information Technology & Supply Chain Management department at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, also consults on small businesses and technology.

An iBeacon is a small device that can sense if a smartphone is nearby and learn what the person’s interests are. For example, Basu is working with a parks and recreation department to install iBeacons at its baseball field and then to create a downloadable app so when parents are at the field, weather and game alerts can be sent to them, in addition to coupons and notifications from local businesses. A person must download the app before they can be contacted, he said.

Basu said he thinks small businesses should be tracking iBeacon technology because it will be the next big thing.

Securing data 

Decker said they have learned at Maverick Innovation Lab in Delafield how important it is to back up data and regularly update software.

“Don’t go cheap when you get a router. A good commercial router is really, really important,” he said. “You need speed and the ability to process data.”

Decker advises small business owners to hire an outside consultant to handle information technology because it will free them to run their businesses.

“The worst thing you can do as a small business person is to try and get into a skill set you don’t have,” he said.

He also doesn’t recommend someone trying to teach himself new software, which can eat up a lot of time, but to take an inexpensive course at WCTC.

McKenna said it’s also important for small business owners to make decisions based on their own operation and its needs and not what others are saying or promoting when it comes to technology.

Basu put it another way. “Don’t waste time because it looks cool, think of what decision it will impact,” he said.

Future trends 

Going forward, Basu said crowdfunding and crowdsourcing will become increasingly important.

Crowdsourcing allows a person to seek the help of someone with a task, such as solving a chemistry problem or creating a marketing campaign. He or she selects the person with the best idea and gives them a pre-determined payment for the work.

For crowdfunding, a person can raise money through websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo for a new business or project.