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Tech tools help small firms succeed

After Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast in 2005, small businesses such as the Silk Road Collection antique store in New Orleans had little hope of surviving. Tourists and local customers had vanished, and it would take years for the city to rebuild.

Donald St. Pierre, the owner of Silk Road, and his business and life partner, Robert Turner, feared that they might have to close the shop. They couldn’t land government or bank loans, and their personal savings were keeping the business afloat.

But then Turner attended a small-business, e-commerce seminar co-sponsored by Internet giant Yahoo and AT&T. After the disaster, it was like tech manna from heaven.

Yahoo offered free online small-business services. E-commerce firm Solid Cactus designed a professional-looking Web site ( Google provided free online software to analyze Internet traffic to Silk Road’s Web site. And online marketing firm Constant Contact created an e-newsletter for thousands of customers. Total cost: $5,000.

The impact has been dramatic. Silk Road’s total sales in 2007 grew to $201,000, up 23 percent from the year before. This year, sales are up 19 percent, with online and foreign sales an increasing percentage of the total take. Now, Silk Road is adding a travel blog and online videos so customers can view products as if they were at the store.

“Technology has been a tremendous tool,” St. Pierre said. “The tourists weren’t coming to us, so we had to reach out to millions of tourists.”

Added Turner, “It’s been a godsend for us.”

Owners geek out

St. Pierre, Turner and millions of U.S. small-business owners are geeking out in the digital bazaar. As online commerce grows and technology gets cheaper and easier to use, small firms — especially mom-and-pop shops that had shied away from technology — are using tech tools more than ever to sell goods, market themselves and run their operations. Technology used for years by tech-savvy “early adopters” and big companies now is hitting small businesses on Main Street USA.

In earlier years, setting up a vast business technology infrastructure required millions of dollars, affordable mainly for just big and midsize corporations.

Now, even tiny, cash-strapped firms can use so-called Web-hosting and other tech services offered online to small and midsize businesses by Yahoo, Intuit, Google, Microsoft and many others. Some are free. Others may cost $40 a month or tens of thousands of dollars altogether.

Just like big companies, small operations can design their own Web sites. They can sell and market online to millions of U.S. and global customers. They can conduct meetings and seminars over the Internet. They can use tech tools for accounting, shipping, inventory control and other nitty-gritty business functions.

“There’s a myth in Small Business America that you need to be a rocket scientist in order to use technology,” said Jimmy Duvall, director of e-commerce products for Yahoo. “We want to demystify that technology and bring it to the average merchant and small-business owner in an easy, approachable, digestible way.”

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