Think like a technology company, 3C webinar says to small businesses

One month after releasing its findings on the digital safety net for small businesses, the Connected Commerce Council (3C) hosted Iowa businesses, community supporters and State Auditor Rob Sand in a webinar exploring how small businesses and individuals used technology tools to stay operating during the initial COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. 

Moderated by 3C President Jake Ward, the session was co-hosted by the Technology Association of Iowa and the Greater Des Moines Partnership.   

“We are preparing to build forward and be more resourceful as we recover,” Ward said. 

The full seminar, “How Technology Is Fueling the Iowa Economy & Growing the Iowa Economy,” is available to view online

Community barrier: education 

Sixty-three percent of Iowans surveyed by the Connected Commerce Council this summer reported education as a barrier to adopting new technology in business. That extends to the Latino business community, said Joe Henry, a Central Iowa real estate agent and activist with the League of United Latin American Citizens. 

“For my Latino community, many of our small businesses still need to do that heavy lifting to get addresses online. That digital community is something that needs a lot of work,” Henry said. 

Without visibility online, businesses in real life are likely being bypassed by consumers who don’t know what options are in their communities. Small business owners in minority communities need resources to teach them how to develop an online presence and host products or service menus online, Henry said. 

“Those simple types of things cost money, there’s mechanisms both hardware and software … that has held hostage many small business owners within the Latino community and other communities of color,” he added. “Many small businesses are barely making it because they don’t know how to promote themselves other than encouraging customers to come to their door or call them on the phone, but that’s not going to be enough.” 

Thinking like a technology company

Marc Pichik of Dubuque-based Smart Retract Inc. credited an existing online advertising strategy through Google Ads as part of Smart Retract’s ability to continue business through the pandemic. The business manufactures safety gates for pets and children and keeps basic operations local, which helped the company avoid some supply chain problems common during the early days of COVID-19 shutdowns, Pichik said. 

“We source locally, we manufacture [for] ourselves. We’re a small team and we mostly ship products out, so we’re taking orders online,” Pichik said. “What played in our favor was the value aspect of ‘Made in America.’ … It was something that we started to take more advantage of.” 

What the company didn’t have before COVID-19 was an extensive team of sales associates. Learning how to leverage software and social media connected Smart Retract with consumers through their own devices. 

“There’s events sponsored by technology leaders where you can come into your local library and participate in learning about some of these tools. That’s a good place to start,” Pichik said. 

“This is a really difficult business environment,” said Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa. “From a service provider side, they are begging to get in touch with restaurants and small business owners to help create technology solutions.” 

One of the most popular recent seminars hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership focused on selling remotely, said Mike Colwell, executive director of entrepreneurial initiatives. 

“People are practicing different approach mechanisms. You might not be able to get a [venture capitalist] on the phone back in the old days of pre-COVID because they were flying around the country — now they’re more likely to take your call because they’ve got the time,” Colwell said. “Don’t assume all the old rules apply.” 

How private citizens can benefit businesses

Assisting small business through technology is not a limited responsibility for the business owner, as State Auditor Rob Sand told viewers. 

Sand launched the digital fund Iowans Helping Iowans on Venmo and Paypal in late March to help fund meals at local businesses for recently unemployed workers, self-employed residents and essential health care and grocery employees. Based entirely on donations from other individuals, the Iowans Helping Iowans fund gave away up to $40 per purchase to approved individuals who digitally submitted a receipt from a locally owned restaurant. 

Sand launched the project as an individual, not a state official, and used digital tools to launch Iowans Helping Iowans in a hurry so residents could start using the fund to support their local businesses, he said. That program quickly provided more than 600 meals across the state, and a steady stream of revenue for local businesses that were patronized. 

“It was a really successful program. We’ve all learned, and particularly small businesses have learned, that we’ve got to be nimble in a pandemic. We didn’t incorporate. This was not a nonprofit, nobody could deduct those donations, we didn’t open a bank account,” Sand said. “There wasn’t time in a pandemic to say, ‘Oh, we’ll get this rolling in three weeks.’ People are unemployed now. 

“Technology just helped a concerned citizen boost small businesses across the state, as well as give a pick-me-up boost to struggling Iowans,” he added.