Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Not on the Net? How and Why To Do Business Online

by Sidney Angelos

Your business is not on the Internet? What the heck is wrong with you?

OK, I’m kidding, of course—but seriously, if you’re not on the ‘net, you are losing opportunities and sales. Period. You may also be tarnishing your brand. As more and more consumers embrace not only online shopping, but also technologies that put them in touch with companies—social media platforms like Twitter and Foursquare, applications for mobile phones, and online knowledge bases or live chat software—they might be looking for you online. If you’re not there, chances are the customers will find your competitors.
Before we jump into the advantages of doing business online, a real life example will serve to inspire and motivate you, as well as help you think about how you could benefit from an online business.

Not long ago a friend and I had a lunch date, and we considered trying a local restaurant that just opened near my office. I thought that it was a casual place that served sandwiches and salads, but decided to check out their Web site to make sure. A Google search of the restaurant’s name yielded a surprising dearth of information. My next stop was the wiki created for my city, which has a directory of local establishments with reviews, but it didn’t include this place. I headed over to Yelp, and again typed the name into the search bar. Nothing. By this time I figured that Facebook and Twitter were a long shot, but I tried them anyway—nada.

I don’t like surprises. My friend and I ended up lunching at a tex-mex joint, where she was able to check in with Foursquare—earning us some complimentary guacamole. Not only that, but I was able to peruse the menu online beforehand and even see nutritional information, so I could plan my meal and not completely wreck my diet.

Maybe your business can afford to lose the equivalent of a $30 lunch. Maybe not. The point is that consumers across the world now turn to the Internet for information and recommendations, and unless you are a confirmed Luddite, why wouldn’t you provide those things to them through this inexpensive, useful medium?
It takes very little in the way of equipment and capital to set up your business online. There are numerous free applications that can help you establish a presence—WordPress or another free blog-hosting site and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, where you can easily communicate with customers and market your business. You can access these from your home computer or smartphone. If you’re a small business, that may be all you need to start.

If you’re a little more established—or would like to be—you might want to think about running your operations in the cloud. What this means is that instead of purchasing a server and additional hardware, you store your data and run all your business applications in the cloud. That way all of your employees can access the tools they need to do their job with nothing more than an Internet connection. Cloud computing offers you tremendous scalability, so if you anticipate growth but don’t have a lot of capital to invest, this is the way to go. There are tons of applications to choose from, or you can have one custom developed to fit your business’s unique needs. Either way, you’ll be able to streamline all your workflows and processes, from inventory management to contact management to sales forecasting—freeing you up to focus on creating and selling a quality product. Oh, and counting your profits, of course.