Today’s question from OPEN Adventures in Entrepreneurship:

There are a number of institutions that small business couldn’t live without—FedEx, Kinkos, Staples, Starbucks. What new functions are
essential to small businesses today? Google? Ebay? What else?

I recently experienced something that I’d long since forgotten: what it must have been like to do business before the Internet age.

I pay a number of bloggers to write for my network of weblogs, and pay them a flat rate, per post, on a monthly basis. Each of the bloggers receives a different rate per post, based on a number of variables including how much Adsense or Yahoo Publisher Network ads are paying for that niche, the amount of traffic the site receives, the number of comments posted, etc.

The writer for the Business Opportunities Weblog en Español lives in Panama, and when I hired him, I didn’t imagine what a time warp I was stepping into. At the end that month, while I calculated what I owed him for the few days of posts he’d made, I emailed and asked for his PayPal address, so I could instantly send him payment like do everyone else. He replied that PayPal wasn’t available in Panama, and that I should wire him the funds. Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I agreed, and he sent me an arcane set of addresses and account information numbers.

The next day, I did something I haven’t done in nearly five years: I set foot in an actual, real live, bank. After waiting my turn in the snaking line, I strode up the teller window and explained that I’d like to wire some money. I was expecting a process only slightly more complicated than transferring money at an ATM or online, but instead was handed a three page form, given a pen, and asked to come back to the window when I was done.

Hunched over that form, desperately scanning it over and over, searching for anything I recognized, it was almost sad how alone I felt. Back at my desk, I’d have Googled the heck out of that form, and then read it, almost as an after thought. If Google hadn’t immediately turn up any results that explained everything for me in detail, there were still dozens of other unique search engines to try, or I could have messaged (or spoken online via Skype) with any of a number of contacts on my buddy list and probably found someone who knew what number went where.

Since I didn’t have access to any of these resources, I followed my instincts and did what entrepreneurs do best: I guessed.

Back at the teller’s window with my completed form, I explained that I had no idea what I was doing. The teller had obviously only seen a few wire transfer request forms, but with the help screens on her computer, she was able to decipher the confused data on my form, and eventually transferred the information into the computer.

Standing there, I thought about the differences between us: on her side of the counter, she had access to an entire world of information; from my perspective, though, her screen was hidden and I was clueless. She held all of the power in the situation. I felt naked the way a gunslinger feels with out his pistol. Access to information has become the great equalizer, and here, I had none.

PayPal charges 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction. I had no idea what to expect the wire transfer would cost, but I wasn’t ready when the when the teller said that it would cost $30.

“Thirty dollars to send one hundred and thirty-six dollars?” I asked to no one in particular. “There went my profit margin.”

In conclusion, there are a number of new systems that I rely on to do business, and although I can do without them occasionally, much of my advantage and most of what makes me a success comes directly from my access to those services. Without them, I’d probably be just another employee somewhere.

The really exciting thing about all them, though, is that my taking advantage of them doesn’t hurt anyone else. In fact, by using resources like blogging, or Google, or Skype, they actually become more useful for other entrepreneurs.

What is essential to your small business?

Post Script

I later went out and bought a Treo 650, a cell phone with a contact manager, web browser and email built-in, so I’d never be without my pistol again.

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The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.

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