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part four: digital overhaul

In previous instalments of this series, we've looked at non-tech businesses that are using digital technology to expand their customer bases, or generally make themselves more efficient.

In one case, we profiled a Toronto sports club that had essentially overhauled its internal operations to make them entirely digital, and, in the process, greatly improved the efficiency of the operation.

In another case, a Calgary recreational vehicle company made its rental service more alluring by building an iPad app that tells customers about nearby points of interest, and offers them discounts.

In both cases, neither company had much of a presence in the technology world before they decided to go next-gen.

But despite their different fields of businesses, and the varying extent to which they've embraced new technology, these companies offer important lessons that can apply to any small or medium-sized business looking to start going digital:

1) Don't be afraid to start cheap

Not every move to a more digital business model has to be comprehensive – and expensive. In the past few years, the cost of basic and cloud-based (meaning accessible from anywhere via the Internet) software has plummeted.

Perhaps the best example of that drop is Google Docs, the productivity suite that the search engine has been pushing hard to small businesses. But companies such as Microsoft Corp. have taken notice, and the new version of Office is also in large part tailored to getting small businesses to switch to cloud-based software at a relatively low cost.

As such, businesses no longer need to spend lots of money to begin upgrading their digital infrastructure.

2) Think long-term

It's difficult to gauge what the tech industry will do in a few months' or a few years' time. But that shouldn't stop small businesses from at least trying to future-proof their infrastructure.

Generally speaking, getting a developer to build software custom-designed for your particular business is one of the best ways to ensure that the digital infrastructure can scale along with the company.

The downside? Custom software costs a lot more money, and the true cost and productivity savings likely won't show up for a long time.

But in the long-run, more custom-fit software can make life a lot easier.

3) Target the most popular platforms first

Sure, there's no shortage of makes and models of tablets to choose from today. And ideally, a business that wants to create a tablet app will want to build one for each separate platform. But for a small company, that may not be financially realistic.

In the case of tablets, however, there's a simple compromise: develop for the iPad, which is by far the most popular tablet model on the market today, and then worry about the rest. For small businesses, reaching the biggest possible audience with the smallest amount of effort is key.

That's why so many small companies build Facebook pages and Twitter accounts first, and worry about other social networks later.

4) Small steps count

Not every good technology investment is a major one. Something as simple as a chiropractor's office allowing customers to book appointments online or a hair salon offering digital magazines on tablets in the waiting lounge can make a big difference.

There's no point spending money on expensive servers or tablet apps if all your customers want is a better contacts page on the company website.

This concludes a four-part series. Other stories can continue to be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website every Monday and Thursday.

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