Millions and millions of dollars have been spent by advertisers, exhorting businesses to get web sites. During the dot-com boom, the media jumped on the Internet bandwagon as well. And there are success stories. Yet fewer than half of the businesses up and down Main Street have taken their advice seriously. Why not? The answer will surprise you - until you think about it.
I am looking for business owners who are embracing 21st century opportunities as part of their strategy for growth. Companies who are integrating the Internet into their long established company. We have a collection of Business Owner Profiles on our web site now as a result of our interviews to date and we are looking for more. By now, if you believe the hype, you'd think that every serious company has an Internet strategy. But in reality that's not true.
So many in fact that I began to keep track of the reasons why not. One son-in-law of a business owner told me he was excited about how a web site would help them reduce overhead by putting all those frequently asked questions about their warranty procedures online, and by allowing customers to schedule warranty service via email. He got together with a web designer who put together a great PowerPoint presentation for dad. He told me that dad sat through the presentation asking few questions. He leaned back with his feet on the desk with the designers laptop perched a few inches away from his Red Wing boots. Looking back, "the boy" believes he should not have scheduled the presentation for 4:00 PM on Friday.
Dads response to the ideas presented? He stood up, reached for his jacket, and turned to his son-in-law and the designer and said, "Not with my money you aren't." I spoke to so many people with well conceived plans for developing an Internet strategy, but the idea was scuttled by the senior generation (the people with the checkbook). The decision to "wait for a while" was often supported by dad's cronies (who were resisting the inevitable too), and by others in the business who feel threatened by the idea of the Internet.
Why are these forward-thinking ideas being rejected? Half a lifetime spent working with family businesses has taught me about the fears, concerns, and motivations of America's typical family business owner. Here are a couple of observations. From dad's perspective, things are often going just fine without the Internet. One wholesaler I called, at the suggestion of his trade association, was so hard to reach I asked the receptionist if I could have his email address to stop the endless rounds of telephone tag and to see if he was interested in talking.
She, "Oh, we don't use THAT around here." When he and I did speak, his comments echoed what I'd heard from others. Things are fine the way they are so he was holding off doing anything. He said he had secured their domain name, just in case. He also seemed unconcerned about the effect on his successors as their competitors get online. Why? Fear of failure -- looking bad to their contemporaries and competitors-- that causes them to hold back.
"What if we start with a web site and then don't have the ability to keep up with it? I've spent 45 years in this business and am on the Board of the national association. I'm thought of as a successful guy, heck, I am a successful guy. I am not going to get involved in something which, if we don't handle it right, can make me look bad." He has always faced challenges, new technologies, etc. He and his people have learned and adopted them. But not this time, too much risk to his self esteem to turn something over to others who say they know what to do and hope for the best.
"What if it works too well? I'm trying to slow down, get to Florida a little earlier each winter and come back a little later in the spring. If this thing is as great as my son-in-law says, next I'll have to go to the bank for more money to grow or miss the opportunity and then look really dumb. I can't win." I've heard this over and over.
This fear is very real and never addressed by the experts. The facts are just the opposite. The nature of the Internet often allows companies to grow exponentially with very little additional capital. And if it works as well as the son-in-law believes it will, dad will be able to spend a lot more time in Florida, checking in via email both before and after his daily rounds of golf. Not only can the business grow, perhaps without the additional capital required for another store, plant, shop, or warehouse; it may provide opportunities for family members who would otherwise look elsewhere for their career opportunity. For those family members who don't see themselves fitting into the traditional roles the business provides, the Internet offers new opportunities for them to create innovative positions within the company.
This is valuable, because when more family members stay involved in the business, more revenue is likely generated. Integrating the Internet into the business provides added opportunities for smooth succession. The successful business owners we have profiled so far have all said the same thing, in different ways, "Jump in, get started whether you think you are ready or not." The opportunities available are unprecedented - never before have the tools for growth been as available as they are today. But only those who take the right steps at the right time will be the winners. A carefully planned Internet strategy is vital in making the owner's dreams for the business come true.
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Wayne Messick wants to interview business owners positioning themselves for success in the 21st Century. Click here for cutting edge leadership strategies for your business.