Medium Business Blues

As I was heading to bed last night, I posted a question on twitter: “What should I blog about tomorrow”. My friend Joe Stump quickly came back with this:
What needs are not being filled by the web for medium size businesses?

It’s an interesting question that made it hard for me to go to sleep (thanks Joe). But I think I have an answer

It’s not just the web… it’s all of software

The web isn’t the problem. I think medium-sized (and a lot of small) businesses are really lacking in good software. Even worse, a lot of the software they use everyday makes what they do harder. Like most things, it’s partly social, partly technological.

Sally, the warehouse manager, gets a new piece of software, and because she’s always used other people’s stuff and never written her own, she’s used to “following the rules” on the computer, and ultimatly jumps through hoops instead of trying to find a better way. It’s not her job to try to figure out what the software should do. So she ends up copying & pasting into Excel. She figures out to wait one second before hitting enter in that form, or else it’ll beep and lock up. She uses the “location” field as the secondary inventory, because isn’t not being used.

It’s not your fault

Your core business is selling wine, not supply-chain management. Even if you could hire a coder or two to make your operations more efficient, you’d extract more value by streamlining the buying of wine than making your warehouse manager marginally more efficient.

Let’s take an example: Amazon. What’s their core business (or was a few years ago)? Selling?… Selling what? They started with books, but their core business was shuffling goods around. Supply Chain. So what’d they do? They wrote it themselves. Now they have teams of robots and the infrastructure to bring on new suppliers instantly.

Jeff Attwood (by way of Joel Spolsky) wrote about core business coding in Programming is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping!. The conclusion is that even if the software is out there, doing it yourself gives you an opportunity to have a unique advantage.

It is our (the computer folks’) fault

When I started at the Wine Library, there were about 20 employees and a really rickety old POS system. That POS system did inventory, registers, (very very basic) accounting, and exporting to the web. After 7 years, a lot has changed, but we still don’t have great software for ANY parts of our operation.

Software is hard. Let’s fix it

How do we get to there from here?

I think the Agile methodologies point in the right direction. Amazing folks like Amy Hoy are helping lead the way towards user-centric, easy to use software that can solve problems, and make everyone happier and more productive.

But, I’m a freelancer…

So? Find a local business that’s big enough to need you, and small enough to really dig the savings they’d get by having some major part of their day-to-day easier and nicer. Not a UX person? Find someone to team up with. Coding is the last step in the process. Drawings, storyboards, talking, paper-models, all that “touchy-feely” stuff is how great software gets made.

Eat the dog food. Use this “great” thing you’ve built and see where the sticking points are

Observe the people who know more than you do about this part of the business. See what’s hard for them. Just because you know how to navigate a form by keyboard, doesn’t mean they should have to.

What about the Web?

None of this stuff precludes the web. All kinds of formerly desktop software is moving over (and has been for years). Why can’t supply-chain or call-center software do the same? Just be smart! Use SSL where appropriate, don’t store credit-cards, try to break your software with bad input.

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