February 25, 2021

You’re the Boss Blog: The Tech Audit: Trying to Get I.T. Systems to Work Together

Chris Voglund didn't expect to run a Web store.Courtesy of Dave Mason, ISPhotographicsChris Voglund didn’t expect to run a Web store.

Tech Support

What small-business owners need to know about technology.

Another in an occasional series on how business owners are succeeding and struggling with technology.

The business: Artisan Electric, in Lafayette, Ind., is a five-person electrical contracting firm specializing in updating the wiring in historic homes and buildings. Artisan also installs high-end home entertainment systems, as well as wind- and solar-power units and back-up generators. It sells some of these products online, too.

The owner: Chris Voglund was working for a large contracting company eight years ago when it suddenly folded, leaving him out of a job. Determined to never again count on someone else’s business for his living, he founded his own. Having seen that competition for routine electrical contracting jobs was steep, he decided to focus on jobs that require special skills and care. “A run-of-the-mill contractor won’t touch a complete wiring update of a 150-year-old home, where the customer wants preservation,” he said. “They just want to go in, cut open walls and get out fast.” Mr. Voglund is willing to put in the extra time, and customers have proved willing to pay for it.

Sources of I.T. expertise: Mr. Voglund has brought in local Web-design and programming pros on a contract basis. But he also discovered that some of the best advice could be had for free from local business owners who have become information-technology savvy getting their own companies up to speed and are happy to help out a friend and fellow merchant. The owner of a local security firm has helped guide Mr. Voglund’s e-commerce efforts, for example, and a photography-store owner has advised him on social media. Now Mr. Voglund says he’s becoming fairly savvy himself — because he’s had to. “When I started I hired a lawyer and an accountant and figured I’d just pay attention to my craft,” he said. “Now it’s not good enough to be good at your craft. You have to understand what’s happening with technology.”

What’s working: One investment Mr. Voglund beams about is the $300 he put into a fireproof backup hard drive from ioSafe. “I have 650 active clients in my database,” he said. “It’s half the value of my company now, and losing any of it would be catastrophic. I back up online, too, but I like knowing my data is safe inside a metal loaf of bread bolted to a desk in my office.” He’s got everyone at Artisan using iPhones that are set up to notify them immediately of any new customer contacts on the Web site, so someone can respond right away — even when the office is empty. He also sings the praises of Magento, a freely available software package designed to make it relatively easy to set up and maintain an e-commerce site.

What the company has figured out: When his sales plunged with the 2008 economic crash, Mr. Voglund decided to listen more closely to his business-owner friends about the importance of social-media marketing. “We really threw ourselves into it,” he said. He and his employees spent countless hours building contacts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. They also made sure his profile appeared on Yelp and other sites that list local services. Artisan set up a blog and a YouTube channel with how-to videos. (The clips are often shot on an iPhone.) The company also started selling generators and other equipment online. “If you had told me three years ago I’d be running a Web store, I’d have laughed,” he said. “But the opportunity to bring in revenue without having to be physically present has turned out to be huge for us.” He largely credits these online efforts with the 20-percent annual gross-profit growth he’s seen the past two years.

What’s still causing pain: Mr. Voglund would like to have his invoicing, payment-processing, parts-ordering and accounting systems all working together seamlessly — so that when he’s at a customer site he can order a part on his iPhone and have that automatically reflected in his books and invoicing. But in spite of having hired a programmer to try to hook up his Intuit QuickBooks online accounting system to his PayPal-based payment system, he still feels far from his goal. He’s hoping that a new online system put up by one big supplier will provide a lot of that linkage for him. “I don’t want to spend a lot on custom programming,” he said. “That’s really cash out of my pocket.”

Well, maybe one of his local business-owner friends will figure it out for him. Or maybe you have a suggestion?

You can follow David H. Freedman on Twitter and on Facebook.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0680422b7b826fd520e5ec9a850dd29d

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