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Tech forward – but not a tech company

Debbie Landa is raving about one of the most tech-savvy companies she works with.

Take a look at this, the Canadian tech entrepreneur and conference organizer says; these guys use everything, from cloud-based software to Web traffic-analysis tools.

In terms of the technological sophistication of the business, this is one of the most digitally forward-looking small businesses out there.

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The tech-savvy company that Ms. Landa is talking about doesn't make mobile apps or Web software. It actually sells RVs.

Over the past few years, a growing number of small and medium-sized businesses have embraced the Web and Web-based software tools not just as a peripheral part of their business, but as a fundamental part. In the process, they're starting to counter the conventional wisdom that only technology companies can integrate the latest digital tools and services into every aspect of day-to-day business.

"The term 'tech company' is very old," says Ms. Landa, founder and chief executive officer of Dealmaker Media, a San Francisco-based networking and conference company.

" Groupon, Yelp, these are not tech companies, these are businesses who just happened to have built their business online."

In previous instalments of these series, we've looked at various individual technology tools that small- and medium-sized businesses can use to help grow their companies – from Web-based telephony to mobile app-building services.

In this four-part series, we look at non-tech businesses that have managed to integrate a variety of these tools into their core business, transforming the way their companies work.

One of the most significant changes that has helped spur the tech overhaul in many small businesses is the plummeting cost of many basic Web-based tools.

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An average small company can now buy and install a whole suite of productivity tools (such as word-processing or spreadsheet software), accounting software (such as cloud-based invoicing services) and Web-building applications for less than what just one of those tools would have cost five years ago.

"[Small business owners are] not seeing it as a cost, they're seeing how much Web tools can save," Ms. Landa says. "My entire business runs on Google Docs and spreadsheets ... Most of this stuff is free."

Still, many traditional business owners have been reluctant to completely overhaul their companies in a way that makes new technology a key component. But the ones that do make the leap tend to quickly reap rewards, usually in the form of cost savings.

As an example, Ms. Landa points to a hair salon chain whose owner recently set a goal to double profit.

The first thing she did, Ms. Landa says, was to adopt a cloud-based point-of-sale system. In the process, the entire chain of hair salons has gone paperless.

Now, the same owner is looking at launching smart phone-based deals as a way to capitalize on the time customers spend at or near a salon waiting for an appointment – the idea being that such customers are much more likely to make another purchase from the same hair salon, since they're already engaged with the business.

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In the next three instalments of this series, we'll look at individual examples of traditional businesses that have embraced new, low-cost technology as a means of cutting costs or boosting sales.

In many cases, the biggest hurdle for such companies is overcoming the initial reluctance to adopt a new, relatively unproven technology, such as cloud-based software or mobile apps.

However Ms. Landa says this isn't the first time that small businesses have had to get over such reluctance.

"Back in the day, Microsoft Word used to be new technology," she says.

The series continues next Thursday. Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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