December 1, 2023

You’re the Boss Blog: An Old-Fashioned Business Copes With Modern Tech Issues

Tech Support

What small-business owners need to know about technology.

Shawn Reed, founder of form-function-form.Ian Jones Shawn Reed, founder of form-function-form.

This is one in an occasional series of posts that look at how small-business owners manage their technology needs.

The Business: form·function·form in Orlando, Fla., is a year-old leather-working business owned by Shawn Reed, 35, who makes products such as wallets and watchbands in a home studio. Forty percent of his sales last year came between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which coincided with the introduction of his “Button-Stud Weekender” watch (he designed the band). Mentions in Esquire, Dappered, Free/Man, AH Magazine and A Headlong Dive, as well as consistent business with Huckberry, has kept sales brisk enough, he said, for him to “scale responsibly and maintain quality.”

The Owner: In his previous life, Mr. Reed worked as a landscape architect. After 10 years, he left to get a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University and finished in early 2010, a time when the recession was lingering and his interest in landscape architecture was waning. A few years earlier, he had started working with leather, even tracking down a specific leather he wanted to make a bracelet from a tannery in Chicago. He enjoyed the process so much he taught himself to make other items.

Old School Tools: Mr. Reed begins by creating pencil sketches in a moleskin notebook. His studio is equipped with two large rectangular tables and a variety of hand tools for making holes, a beveler for rounding corners, X-Acto knives for cutting pattern pieces on leather and a burnisher — a small, hardwood wheel attached to a Dremel rotary tool that smooths the leather’s edges. The studio also has three hand presses. One, a larger hydraulic press, is a standard shop press that a local welder modified for Mr. Reed, who uses it to carve patterns into leather. “It’s like a heavy-duty cookie cutter,” he said. Two smaller hand presses made by YKK Snap Fasteners America set rivets and snaps. Everything is hand-stitched using large needles. There’s also an electric branding iron Mr. Reed uses to burn his logo into the leather.

New School Tools: After Mr. Reed sketches, he draws his idea on his Apple Mac Pro desktop using AutoCAD, an architectural drafting program he used in his previous career. AutoCAD lets him draw very precisely — to 124th of an inch — and then he prints the drawing full size and uses it as a pattern. When he gets exactly what he wants, he sends the drawing and corresponding measurements to a company in Texas that creates a heavy-duty cutter, called a die, for his press.

For his e-commerce site, Mr. Reed uses WooCommerce, a WordPress e-commerce platform, along with MaxCDN, a content-delivery network that speeds up his Web site by serving it from the closest location to a customer. “I got my load time down from 35 seconds to two,” Mr. Reed said. He pays $10 a month to use Outright for bookkeeping, he uses a free version of FreshBooks for invoicing, he uses Google Voice as his free phone service, and he pays $25 a month for ShipStation, which provides shipping labels and tracking information. Some of his corporate customers still use a fax, so he employs a Wacom tablet — another holdover from his life as a landscape architect — to “write” onto PDF forms sent to him and then he faxes those back using FaxZero’s free service.

Pain Points: Cutting out patterns on leather would be a lot faster with a laser cutter, Mr. Reed said, but it could cost as much as $20,000. He also wanted to sketch directly on his iPad, rather than in his notebook, but he couldn’t find a pen that would work well on the screen. Another sticking point has been Web hosting. Mr. Reed said that in hindsight he wonders if it was the best decision to use a hosting service, DreamHost, that requires a lot of management on his part. “I’m not at the point yet where hiring an I.T. consultant is worth it,” he said, even though keeping his site up and running is crucial. “I wonder if one of the managed shopping cart/Web server services like Shopify would have been a better fit for me at this point. I have paid less on paper, but the amount of time I’ve spent keeping the site up and working correctly has probably eaten into — if not completely offset — what I’ve saved.”

Thinking Ahead: Mr. Reed continually wrestles with his opportunity costs. It’s been difficult for him to figure out which tasks he should contract out. Just because he is capable of figuring out how to do all of the things that go into running a business, Mr. Reed said, doesn’t necessarily mean he should do them. “I need to budget wisely to maximize my productivity and, subsequently, profits,” he said.

What do you think? Should Mr. Reed automate — or delegate — more of his operational tasks? Should he change his e-commerce platform?

You can follow Eilene Zimmerman on Twitter.

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Bucks Blog: Negotiating Home Delivery of Your New Car

New cars for sale in Silver Spring, Md.ReutersNew cars for sale in Silver Spring, Md.

It might not be quite as easy as having a pizza delivered, but automotive site advises that you can have your new car brought right to your home, instead of going to pick it up at the dealership.

Why would you want to do that? Buyers can spend hours on location at dealerships finalizing the purchase and delivery of a new car, Edmunds says. By having the car come to you, you can “eliminate waiting times and also the inevitable hard sell for additional products and services that takes place in the finance and insurance office,” the site advises.

Negotiating for a home delivery works best when you’re shopping and bargaining for a car remotely—either online, or on the phone, says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at But it could also be done if you’re at the dealership, and it’s particularly crowded and you don’t want to wait around while the paperwork is finalized and the car is cleaned and otherwise readied for you.

The catch here is that you have to request delivery while you’re in final stages of negotiations, Mr. Reed advises. You could negotiate the deal and then, before finally agreeing to it, say something like, “Well, I’d be happy to buy it today if you’re willing to deliver it to my office or home. I just don’t have time to get to the dealership.”

Why would a salesperson agree to this? He or she is eager to make a deal. “The dealership is looking to make you very happy,” he said.

Edmunds offers the following tips for getting home delivery:

1) There should be no additional cost for delivery within 50 miles of the dealership. If a car has to travel beyond that radius, consumers can expect a delivery fee of around $75.

2) When the car arrives, verify that the vehicle is the year, make and model you chose and that it has all the agreed-upon equipment. There should be no dings or scratches and the odometer should read less than 100 miles.

3) Internet managers are increasingly more open to evaluating trade-ins sight unseen, so home delivery can be an option even if you’re using a trade-in. A price range is often given to the buyer for the trade-in over the phone, and the final price is locked after an onsite inspection — at your home. (The dealership will send two people—usually, a salesperson and a porter, who runs errands for the dealership).

If you’re skeptical that the trade-in portion of the delivery will go smoothly, Mr. Reed notes that online salespeople are getting quite savvy about pricing cars remotely, based on information like mileage (they can also get CarFax reports, showing the vehicle’s history). You may be given a range for the trade in, rather than a hard price, subject to inspection, in case there are dings or scrapes you didn’t mention.

Have you ever had a new car delivered to your home? How did it go?

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Square Feet: Providence Makes Itself a Home for Knowledge

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When Brown University opened its new $45 million medical school in August about a mile from its campus here, it was the institution’s first academic department to be located away from its home on College Hill overlooking downtown Providence.

Brown’s reasons were twofold: there was little room on its campus for a building large enough for an Ivy League medical school, and it would bolster a 360-acre so-called Knowledge District that would draw high-tech, high-wage jobs to Rhode Island, which was among the hardest-hit states in the recession.

The Warren Alpert Medical School is in a converted, four-story, 134,000-square-foot factory building that dates to 1928 and was once used to make watchbands. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony in August, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said that the Speidel Twist O Flex watchband was a Rhode Island innovation, and likened it to plans for the state’s biotech industry.

“The future is the double helix,” Mr. Reed said, “and that’s what this building is going to allow.”

The Knowledge District is three years in the making, and involves a combination of financial incentives, rezoning and coordinated planning among Providence’s major hospitals, colleges and universities.

In addition to the medical school, the toy maker Hasbro, which has its headquarters in nearby Pawtucket, and 38 Studios, a video game company started by the former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, are moving into existing buildings in the Knowledge District.

The state, through its Economic Development Corporation, agreed to a $1.6 million sales tax exemption for Hasbro, which said it would create 284 new full-time jobs, and a $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studios, which has promised to bring 450 jobs to Providence.

Several years ago, in what Laurie White, the president of the area Chamber of Commerce, called a “grass-roots effort,” prominent figures in the public and private sectors came together to create a strategy for Providence’s economic future. The city’s manufacturing base was waning, and the luster of the city’s so-called Renaissance in the 1990s, which focused on the arts as a means of revitalizing, was losing steam.

The resulting blueprint called for an economy based on “meds and eds,” as the hospitals and colleges are sometimes called, in a district with a lot of underutilized factory and office space, as well as vacant land. The state’s governor, Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent, has embraced this vision and called Brown’s new medical school a “terrific catalyst” for the new district.

“Good things are happening here,” Mr. Chafee said.

After he was elected in 2010, Mr. Chafee traveled to Baltimore, Houston and Pittsburgh to tour the University of Maryland Medical Center BioPark, the Texas Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, all of which were attracting high-tech and research companies. He said he came away from those trips impressed that growth was occurring there despite the sluggish economy, and was persuaded that Providence had the assets needed to make the concept work in Rhode Island.

In addition to Brown, other major institutions in Providence include the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Johnson Wales University, Rhode Island Hospital and Women Infants Hospital.

“It’s just a good fit,” Mr. Chafee said.

Hasbro chose to expand in Providence because the young talent it needed to attract to its gaming division preferred an attractive, urban environment, said Dolph Johnson, Hasbro’s senior vice president for global human resources. The toy maker, which employs approximately 6,000 worldwide and 1,700 in Rhode Island, also wanted to invest in the city’s future, he said.

For Brown, the decision to move its medical school into another part of the city came in 2007 after an internal planning process revealed that it essentially had no choice if the university wanted to grow, said Richard Spies, Brown’s executive vice president for planning. New science buildings, in particular, require a sizable footprint and significant infrastructure, two requirements not readily available in historic College Hill, he said.

“Our capacity to grow was not zero,” he said, “but it was clearly limited.”

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You’re the Boss Blog: Location-Based Services Can Put Businesses on the Map


An insider’s guide to small-business marketing.

Shane Reed of Strange BrewCourtesy of Strange BrewShane Reed of Strange Brew

Although Starkville, Miss., is home to Mississippi State University and the fighting Bulldogs, it’s not a large city with a dense urban epicenter — the typical playground for those who use location-based marketing services such as Gowalla and Foursquare.

But one small-business owner there, Shane Reed of Strange Brew Coffee House, says sales of The Albino Squirrel Latte — a signature coffee drink with white chocolate and hazelnut syrup, get it? — and other drinks have increased 34 percent this September over the previous September, which he attributes to his use of Gowalla and other social media sites. When customers check in with Gowalla at Mr. Reed’s coffee house, they are greeted with a 10-percent-discount off of any drink. They show the counter crew the discount on their smartphones and proceed to sip happily.

Mr. Reed is an enthusiastic user of social media, but he says that in terms of generating walk-in traffic, the location-based services trump Facebook and Twitter. “You can have a great Twitter account and Facebook page,” Mr. Reed said, “but if people don’t know where you are located and can’t find you, it’s really not doing you much good.” On average, he said, he gets four or five check-ins a day, but that number can jump to as many as 30 or 40 a day when Mississippi State’s Bulldogs are playing. And it doesn’t cost Mr. Reed anything, save the value of the discount.

There can be other advantages as well. When the users of location-based services see friends checking in on Gowalla, Foursquare or Yelp and making a comment about the business they are visiting, it can have an impact. The location services reward the businesses with the most check-ins by ranking them higher in their search results. Someone who types “hair salon” into a location-based app on a smartphone will get a list of the most popular places to get coiffed in the vicinity and the salon with the most check-ins will be at the top of the list with its logo, a link to its Web site and a map to take customers right to the door.

Foursquare says it has more than 10 million users worldwide and use of these services is expected to soar. To date, Foursquare’s core audience of 18-to-34-year-olds has skewed male. This may be the result of female security considerations or a greater inclination among males to take a cannonball approach to jumping in the social pool. However, Adam Ostrow, editor in chief of social media news site Mashable, says checking in won’t be necessary in the future to receive geo-targeted specials, and that may attract more female shoppers. “Every smartphone that’s shipping now is including location features so that creates an opportunity for these services to extend their reach and start pushing out offers based on where consumers are,” he said. “So consumers won’t have to share their location to get those deals.”

If you rely on local and foot traffic and you haven’t already claimed your page on these services, sign up. Strange Brew’s Mr. Reed prefers Gowalla to Foursquare because he finds the interface more to his liking, but he concedes it’s merely a personal preference. Once you’ve claimed your listing, cross-promote by adding links to your location-based pages to your Web and social media pages. Gowalla’s chief executive, Josh Williams, says small businesses can benefit from editing their listings. “Fans have contributed their impressions of a business on Gowalla,” he said, “so small businesses need to go to Gowalla and make sure your business information is represented correctly and add topical, timely info, like the type of coffee that’s roasting right now. The second thing is to encourage your fans or customers to come by and check in — if your business is a hot spot, it will rise to the top of the list of businesses in your area, and that’s a great way to stand out.”

While writing this post, I visited these sites and registered my ad agency. Door Number 3, though active on Facebook and Twitter, obviously don’t get a lot of walk-in traffic, but I figured that since we are just a block away  from the extremely popular Franklin Barbecue in East Austin, Tex., we just might get some additional exposure when people search for them and our name pops up in the neighborhood. Mr. Reed said he used his business name as his Gowalla user name so that when he checks in at other places — a Bulldogs game, for example — other Gowalla users see Strange Brew and make a connection to the man behind the business.

Foursquare’s manager for business development, Jake Furst, said the service offered a number of user-friendly apps to help merchants get the word out. “You can put a Foursquare Specials message in at 3 p.m., during a slow time,” he said, “and it will show up on a user’s phone within minutes. We’ve got a product called the Swarm Special.  Merchants set up promo criteria for groups, like if we get 24 Foursquare users here at a set time, everyone at the bar gets a free drink.”

All the services offer businesses free window clings and stickers to encourage check-ins to get specials and find friends. They also provide merchants with check-in data, giving businesses valuable insights about their customers. Foursquare’s merchant dashboard summarizes total daily check-ins, recent and most frequent visitors, visitors’ gender and most popular time of day for check-ins. You can also see how many of your customers who check in are broadcasting their whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook.

To determine which promotions will drive the most traffic, try scanning your Facebook and Twitter pages and those of your competitors to see what product or service people are talking about. Determine what you can afford to promote with discounts or freebies and target those for promoting. And when you sign up for these platforms, really commit to supporting them. Be sure you make time to work them, frequently pushing out updates and engaging with your audience.

And please tell us: How has your business used location-based services? We would love to hear from you.

MP Mueller is the founder of Door Number 3, a boutique advertising agency in Austin, Tex. Follow Door Number 3 on Facebook.

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Bucks: Selling Your Car? Try Making a Video

Thinking about selling your car yourself, instead of trading it in for credit toward a new one? Some amateur video recording and smart use of the Web may bring you more offers and a better price, advises the automobile site

In a recent post, Philip Reed, the site’s senior consumer advice editor, suggests making a video of your car and posting it on YouTube, which attracts millions of visitors daily. Most digital cameras and many phones now have video capability, so it’s easy to shoot a virtual “walk around” that mimics what salespeople do at dealerships to show off cars to prospective buyers.

A video ad, he notes, gives shoppers “the sense that they are standing beside your car, listening to you describe the key features and options while they enjoy total anonymity and no risk.” After you post the video, you can create an ad on a classified ad site, like Craigslist, and include a link to the video.

His main tips for making an effective video car advertisement:

  • Park your car in an attractive location free of noise or traffic.
  • Briefly rehearse what you want to show and say in the video.
  • Start your walk around facing the front left headlight and move clockwise around the vehicle.
  • Provide basic information, including the vehicle’s year, make, model, mileage and any special features or damage.
  • Keep it under 2 minutes.
  • Don’t mention price in the video; you may want to change that later without having to reshoot.
  • There are some caveats to do-it-yourself sales. Using the Web and meeting potential buyers in person raises safety issues, which Mr. Reed recently addressed in a separate post. Some highlights for playing it safe:

  • Vet callers on the phone by asking questions. If anything seems suspicious, hang up.
  • Don’t go alone to a meeting.
  • Meet in a public place, like a mall parking lot.
  • Tell the prospect you want to see a driver’s license before a test drive. If you’re uncomfortable negotiating with strangers, he adds, you may want to sell the car through a dealer. You may get less money, but you’ll have peace of mind.
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