Ask die-hard skaters where you can buy long skateboards in Toronto and they'll probably point you to Longboard Living, a niche store housed in a well-located, albeit tiny, retail space in Kensington Market, a high traffic grunge-cool neighbourhood of narrow streets, eclectic shops and effortlessly fashionable people.
Ryan Rubin, Longboard Living's owner, got the idea for his business after being stopped frequently by people who wanted to know where they could buy a longboard similar to the one he was riding. Today, five years after he set up shop, Mr. Rubin is considered a mover and shaker in Toronto's largely underground longboarding culture.
"I basically created a destination for a specific type of skateboard," says the 27-year-old Mr. Rubin, whose company has two employees. "Longboard Living has become an established brand in a niche market."
Last year, Mr. Rubin felt it was time to take his business to the next level and opened an online store at longboardliving.com. But there was a disconnect between his e-commerce operation, his bricks-and-mortar store and his business back office.
At his physical store, Mr. Rubin was ringing up purchases with a point-of-sale app loaded on an iPad. All transactions were stored on the iPad but the data was not connected to any other business functions or to the online store.
This made it hard for Mr. Rubin to track overall performance for his business. Knowing exactly how much he had in inventory was also a challenge now that he was selling in-store and online.
Working with a small business consultant, Mr. Rubin put all of his critical business data in the cloud and connected them by building an integrated system that included programs for point of sale, inventory, e-commerce and accounting.
A big challenge for Mr. Rubin was the upfront cost of a turnkey integrated system – at about $2,000 and up, too steep for a small business like Longboard Living. So his consultant, Matthew Finch-Noyes, suggested that Mr. Rubin cobble together several lower-priced apps that can "talk to each other."
"Most small businesses have that challenge of not having a lot of free cash flow to pay for an expensive integrated system," says Mr. Finch-Noyes, who is based in Toronto. "But whether they understand it or not, they need a more sophisticated system."
Putting together a sophisticated – and effective – system for Longboard Living required months of research and testing, says Mr. Finch-Noyes. Fortunately, most app vendors offer free trials, allowing him and Mr. Rubin to download more than a dozen programs and try out their features.
"We were judging the apps based on several key criteria – they had to be cost-effective, they had to be able to deliver the functions and information that would help Ryan run his business, and they had to have the ability to integrate with other apps," says Mr. Finch-Noyes. "Finding exactly what you need is not easy, but the apps are out there if you are willing to invest in research."
An advantage with most cloud-based applications is that users can pick and choose the features they want – and pay only for what they use, says Mr. Finch-Noyes.
In the end, Mr. Finch-Noyes and Mr. Rubin chose to go with Vend for point-of-sale and inventory, and Xero for accounting. All sales – in-store and online – are uploaded to the cloud in real time and reflected in inventory and in the company's books.
"It tells us when certain products are at low inventory and allows us to place orders to our suppliers through our POS [point of sale] system," says Mr. Rubin. "The system can even create automatic reorders. Having a very tight and agile inventory is really important for a small business."
With his new integrated system, which costs less than $100 a month in subscription fees, Mr. Rubin can also see at a glance what's selling well and not so well, allowing him to react quickly by, for example, putting slow-moving products on sale or doing more cross-selling.
Having all his business data integrated in the cloud means less administrative work for Mr. Rubin, who admits he's not a numbers person. In the past, he had to print out and manually tally all transactions, and input data to update inventory.
With the freed-up hours on his calendar, Mr. Rubin hopes to spend more time connecting with his customers and building the Longboard Living brand. The best way to do that, he says, is for him to get back on his skateboard and onto the streets.
"When I'm out there, people can see me and see what longboarding is all about," he says. "The nice thing is I can actually monitor my business right on my iPhone and see real-time numbers even when I'm on my skateboard."