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posted: 7/21/2013 7:00 AM

Technology can provide a boost for small business

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  • Josh Morton boxes bottles of his Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur at his production facility in Brooklyn. Morton has expanded his market by hiring a social media marketer who has connected him with clients via Twitter.

      Josh Morton boxes bottles of his Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur at his production facility in Brooklyn. Morton has expanded his market by hiring a social media marketer who has connected him with clients via Twitter.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Small business owner Sean Hilty is getting more customers -- and more sleep -- now that he's ditched his pen for a keyboard.

The owner of auto repair shop HBH MotorWerks used to stay up past 2 a.m. writing his customer's invoices by hand.

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"I'm a chicken pecker when it comes to typing," says Hilty, 39, about his two-finger typing. "I thought it would take longer to type than it does to write down."

After some pushing from his kids, Hilty started using a web-based service to type invoices on a computer after writing them by hand for years.

"They're more tech savvy than me," says Hilty, who currently runs his business from his Bartlett, Tenn. home. "They said, "Dad, you're taking way too long to do that.' I grew up not even having a computer. I finally caved in."

Whether it's a web-based tool like the invoice system that Hilty uses, a software program, social media sites or mobile payment systems that allow them to take payments using a smartphone, small business owners are often slow to invest in, and use, technology. The vast majority -- 86 percent -- say they rely on word-of-mouth and customer referrals to drum up business, according to a recent Bank of America survey. Just 41 percent cited social media as an effective marketing tactic. According to a separate survey released earlier this year by American Express, as many as 52 percent of small businesses don't use social media.

Small business advocates say the avoidance of technology and social media is costing small business owners time, money and potential customers.

"They're stymieing their growth," says Ramon Ray, an author and editor at Smallbiztechnology.com, a media company that educates small businesses about technology.

Small business owners usually say they don't have enough time to look for ways to use technology to attract business or save time. But finding the right technology can be as simple as doing an Internet search, or asking others for advice, says Deb Lee, the founder of Soho Tech Training, a Washington D.C.-based company that helps small businesses identify which technologies it needs.

"Many are slow to just take a step forward," says Lee. "When you stall, you become less productive."

Hilty remained stalled for 15 years writing out invoices by hand until he found PlanetSoho, an online company that provides invoices, billing systems and other small business tools. He used to spend up to an hour hand writing out one invoice per car, depending on the repairs and the number of new parts it needed. Using the online invoice tool has cut that time down to 5 minutes per vehicle.

Business has jumped. Hilty has about 1,700 regular customers now, up from about 40 a year ago. He says the new invoices look more professional and make customers more willing to recommend him. Each invoice has a HBH MotorWerks logo on it. The handwritten ones didn't. Many customers keep their invoices in their purse or car, Hilty says. He has seen them passed around after church.

Hilty pays $4.95 a month for the PlanetSoho service, which he says is worth it. He now gets to bed by midnight, and his typing skills have improved, too. "I actually use more than one finger now," he says. Business has grown so much that he's planning to move his business from his home to a garage.

Like Hilty, Alicia Villarosa was slow to add technology to her toolbox. She started her personal training business 10 years ago, but only launched a website last year. "I wanted to seem professional," she says, about her reasons for wanting a website. "It makes me more official." She created AliciaVillarosa.net using IM Creator, an online website builder.

Besides looking professional, a website makes it easier for potential customers to find a business. Often people check out a business online first, says Shama Kabani, the founder of Web marketing company The Marketing Zen Group. .

Villarosa says the site was easy to build, but she struggled with uploading photos. So she asked her 13-year-old nephew to do that. "It's second nature for him," says Villarosa, 51, who trains her clients in Brooklyn, N.Y. "He Instagrams everything," she says, referring to the popular photo-sharing service. "I take my camera out once a year when I'm on vacation."

The website proves its value when she's working out with her clients in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. "When people approach me outside they're going to search me right there on their phones," says Villarosa. She says that about two out of five people who approach her follow up and make an appointment.

Social media networks can give small businesses a boost, too. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter or review-site Yelp, customers expect to find small businesses on the social media networks like they do for big companies and brands.

Josh Morton quickly learned the power of social media: It landed him a paying customer. Morton launched Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur, a ginger-flavored alcohol, earlier this year.

"I had never really used Twitter," says Morton.

So he hired Christine Kennedy, a social media marketer for alcohol brands, to manage the Barrow's Intense Twitter account. Since Barrow's Intense is made in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kennedy started following restaurants and bars in New York that serve locally made products. One of them was Cookshop, a New York restaurant that serves dishes made with seasonal ingredients from nearby farms. A day later, Cookshop responded on Twitter: "Thanks for the follow. Can you have someone stop by with a sample and pricing info? We support local liquor."

Morton went to Cookshop last month with samples, and Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur was added to the menu.

Last week, Barrow's Intense got another tweet from Cookshop: "Can you send me another 2 cases?

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