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The Old Man and the Internet

1296108013 49 The Old Man and the Internet

I started out as a retailer. as time passed, I realized and struggled with the fact that I was also a manufacturer. Eventually, I expanded into being a distributor, a direct-sales organization and now a Web marketer. the first three evolutions were slow and painful, but I figured them out. this latest twist, becoming a Web marketer, is different. this time, it is not just about people and problems. It’s about understanding the realities of a whole new world.

It crept up on me, this whole Internet thing. It’s probably the most powerful development since the Industrial Revolution, but I was a little slow to see it coming. I was slow to realize, for example, that I needed a better Web presence for my custom picture-framing business. still, in the last five years, I have started to get up to speed. my home furnishings store has a Web site and is now selling a nice amount of furniture and accessories on the Web — although most of the traffic still comes from the mentions we get in home décor magazines (we have cool stuff).

In addition, I have a site that sells wholesale moulding to framers and two Web sites that sell artwork for offices (one that offers art consulting and one that carries a line of framed images ready to ship), but they are not reaching their potential. and I have a Web site for my personal speaking gigs that gets some traffic but does not generate the business I think it should. I also have one other related site that I am working on.

This is the picture that I recently laid out for my new business group. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the insights gained from comparing notes with other business owners, in different businesses, can be phenomenal. after describing my business structure and explaining that I have come to understand that I have to become more Web-driven, the computer geek in the group — I say that with all due respect, admiration and appreciation — responded, “you need to hire a director of Web.”

In about a nanosecond, I realized he was right. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew he was right. you see, after several meetings with our computer geek, I have learned that he speaks a different language. he has different powers and insights and ways of looking at things. he is from another planet, and I am just an earthling. but it goes both ways. While computer guy has been extremely helpful to the members of the group in explaining the intricacies of technology, we old guys have been valuable to him in dealing with organizational issues, real estate and other problems that come with a fast-growing company. this is not a support group; it is a get-smarter group. the driving philosophy: stop trying to figure it all out on your own.

Anyway, back to my revelation. I now understand that I am operating in a vastly different business environment, and I need to make some adjustments. the Internet, social media and whatever else I am missing are all changing fast, and I need to conquer them. here is the problem: Business people like me do not know what is going on behind the curtain. sometimes, we think we know, we want to know, we need to know, but how could we know?

No one who works for me has ever worked in a technology company. when I returned to the office and mentioned my business-group revelation that we needed to hire a director of Web, two of my key people said the same thing: we need to rethink our entire organizational structure.

I should have figured this out a year ago, but I was focused on moving my production facility and cutting costs. this illustrates the reality of today’s business environment. We are s-l-o-w-l-y coming out of a terrible recession, and we are all watching every dollar that we spend — but we should be spending more money on technology. Contrast that to one of these venture capital-fueled tech warehouses we’re always reading about, and you can see why established companies like mine are not just scratching their heads but holding them.

I will soon have seven Web sites — three are e-commerce, the others marketing — and we know just enough about building and maintaining them to be dangerous. We believe we are doing enough of the right things, but I have realized that this goes against my general business philosophy. I don’t want to do “enough.” I want to do things as well as possible (within economic reason).

We are not experts, but in this new world, we need to be experts if we want to hit our potential. Given the number of sites we’re playing with, I always believed that it would be more cost-effective to do most of the work in-house. but after talking to people who seem to know what they are doing, I’m coming to accept that we will never be as effective as someone who does this for a living. the technology changes too fast.

We are now interviewing companies to redo our Web sites and take over our pay-per-click campaign. I believe that incremental sales will pay for the new costs. That is the difference between old-school retail and the Internet: immediate results. I am quickly changing my perspectives so that I can operate in this new world. I’m even willing to get a Ping-Pong table and some bean bag chairs if necessary. I’ll see you on the other side.

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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