6, 2003, Tuesday
SMALL BUSINESS &
TECHNOLOGY; A Once and Present Innovator, Still Pushing Buttons
By STEVE LOHR (NYT) 1819 wordsCONCORD, Mass. -- EARLY one morning last month, 14 small-business owners
gathered around a table and, over coffee and muffins, spoke for the next two hours of their curiosity and qualms about taking
the technological plunge into Web sites, company e-mail addresses and perhaps even selling over the Internet.
They ran genuinely small businesses, most with a handful of employees, some sole proprietors among them. They sold bridal
clothes, antiques, jewelry, security systems, flowers, herbal-care products, greeting cards and gourmet foods. Most of them
said they used e-mail-messages regularly, but none had company e-mail addresses or Web sites.
This focus-group session was one of dozens sponsored in the last few months by Interland, a company
that is hoping to cash in on the potentially vast but tricky market for helping small businesses get online. Behind the one-way
mirror at this session and others sat Dan Bricklin, Interland's chief technology officer. His job is to study how small businesses
do, and do not, use technology -- the needs, wishes and fears of their owners. Then, he must try to design simple, affordable
software tools to give them what they want.
Sitting behind the mirror and observing the group inside, Mr. Bricklin said that the real challenge
was to figure out how to reach a portion of the 20 million businesses in the United States with 10 employees or fewer and
ease their entry onto the Internet. <<< Enter COOL MOOSE / RECLUSIVE
''This is the mass market for small business,'' he said. ''Cracking this market is the holy grail.''
A daunting challenge, but if anyone is up to the task it is Mr. Bricklin, who has spent most of his career as an entrepreneurial
small-businessman, as well as a skilled technologist.
Mr. Bricklin has already played an important role in helping democratize technology as a pioneering innovator in the personal
computer industry and says that he thinks the Internet is the next step in delivering powerful technology to individuals and
small businesses. ''The beauty of the PC was that it leveled the playing field and let small businesses do so much more,''
Mr. Bricklin said. ''This technology is that same kind of tool.''
He and his friend and collaborator, Bob Frankston, created the electronic spreadsheet program called VisiCalc, which jump-started
the personal-computer revolution. The big money in spreadsheets would be made by big companies -- first Lotus Development,
which bought Mr. Bricklin's firm, and later Microsoft. Yet Mr. Bricklin showed the way in 1979 with the spreadsheet program,
a practical tool for business that allowed anyone with a personal computer to do financial modeling and simulation previously
available only to corporations with mainframe computers and corps of research analysts.
By instinct, philosophy and breeding, Mr. Bricklin explained, he is a small-businessman.
His father, Baruch, and his grandfather, Simon, managed the family printing business in Philadelphia. Mr. Bricklin went
to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he caught the computing bug in the days before there were such things
as personal computers. He earned an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School, where he came up with the idea for VisiCalc.
Since then, he has moved from one idea and venture to another, including Demo, a simulation software program designed for
nonprogrammers, and Slate, which made software for pen-based computers before that market emerged with simple products like
hand-held computers. Some of Mr. Bricklin's efforts have been successful and others not. He has made a good living, if not
He personifies what Eric von Hippel, a professor of business at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., has called the
''lead-user phenomenon,'' observing that so much of practical innovation comes from a small number of imaginative people who
tinker with the latest technology.
Mr. Bricklin first demonstrated that trait as a child, building a shortwave radio, a stereo that the family played for
years and a kitchen intercom that his mother, Ruth, used to summon him to meals from his bedroom upstairs.
These days, Mr. Bricklin is tinkering with new gadgetry. He carries a pocket-size digital camera, the latest cellphone
equipped with organizer software and a tiny keyboard and a new notebook personal computer with a screen that can be used as
a tablet for writing notes with a stylus.
But his real interest lies in trying to bridge the gap between geeky technology and ordinary people.
''My focus has been mainly on the regular user,'' Mr. Bricklin said. ''The challenge is to make it easy to use tools.''
The corporate life and the blandishments of big business never appealed to him much. ''I didn't want to be a cog in a big
machine,'' said Mr. Bricklin, a bearded 51-year-old who was wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt and running shoes. ''You have
more responsibility in a small business, but you also have more freedom. I love the freedom, and I love the hands-on nature
of it -- you meet the customers and you build the product.''
TODAY Mr. Bricklin works for a larger enterprise because his latest company, Trellix, based here, was acquired last December
by Interland, which has annual revenue of $120 million. As part of a bigger company with deeper pockets, he has a better chance
to take his Web-site-building software to a wider market. ''Right now, I am in a bigger business, but I am representing small
business,'' he said. ''I reek of small business.''
Interland, which is based in Atlanta, is betting that the use of the Internet by small businesses will follow the same
pattern as the personal computer industry did years ago. Until the early 90's, said Joel J. Kocher, a former senior executive
at Dell Computer who is now the chief executive of Interland, PC's were still difficult for many people to use, so they shunned
them. But the adoption of Microsoft's Windows operating system, with its point-and-click icons, and other improvements, opened
the door to a much larger market.
A similar phenomenon, Interland hopes, is about to unfold in the market for operating Web sites. In this market, a Web
site ''hosting'' supplier, like Interland, runs the big data centers where millions of Web pages reside. But a full-featured
Web site for browsing and shopping can still cost thousands of dollars a year and require technical expertise that small businesses
Interland intends to lower that barrier by offering Web site hosting to small businesses for as little as $23 a month.
The company's basic service, introduced in April, includes a Web site, a dot-com domain name and 30 e-mail-message accounts.
It offers templates for about 200 designs, the ability to add and edit pictures and publish and update text without having
to program in HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, the technical lingua franca of Web sites. To handle online purchases or
include Web logs, or blogs, costs extra.
Many companies are chasing what is expected to be a sizable market for managing Web sites and e-commerce for small businesses.
Industry analysts predict that the market will double or triple over the next three or four years, with estimates ranging
up to $9 billion a year. These projections are best taken with a handful of salt, but the market does seem promising.
Besides Interland, the suppliers of Web hosting services include Affinity, NTT Verio, Homestead, Yahoo, regional Bell telephone
companies and others. Many companies, like Microsoft and Macromedia, offer specialized software tools for building Web sites.
Interland bought Trellix, Mr. Kocher said, because it built the most comprehensive, easy-to-use tools for helping small
businesses develop an online presence, an expertise that Mr. Bricklin and his team had worked on as they sold their software
to companies that offered hosting services to small businesses and individuals.
''For us, the secret sauce is Dan Bricklin and his team's deep knowledge of small business,'' Mr. Kocher said.
In the focus group, a woman who manages a bridal shop said she was concerned because customers asked if she has a Web site,
and she has to tell them no.
''You hear that all the time in these sessions -- the customers are asking,'' Mr. Bricklin said behind the mirror. ''Having
a Web site has become a generational necessity for a lot of businesses. You lose the people under 30 without it.''
Several of the small-business owners also expressed worries about the time, costs and technical hassles of going online.
''Small businesses are often very skeptical of new things,'' Mr. Bricklin said. ''That's logical because they have to make
decisions quickly. They don't have the time to do research, or the staff to do it for them.''
So small businesses tend to adopt what Amar Bhidé, a professor of business at the Columbia University Graduate School of
Business, called a ''heads I win, tails I don't lose much'' attitude toward risk.
That approach, Mr. Bricklin said, was precisely why most small businesses should think of moving online.
Don't try to be Amazon.com with a full e-commerce presence all at once. Step in gradually, he said, by starting with a
Web site and company e-mail. ''You have to try it out -- see what works for you and what doesn't work for you,'' he said.
The Internet, Mr. Bricklin said, is best viewed as an important but supplemental tool for business. ''It is a medium of
business that you have to understand, just like doing business over the telephone or face-to-face selling are mediums of business,''
As a medium, the Internet enables even a small business to present a lot of information about itself and allows customers
and suppliers to interact through a Web site or e-mail. Even if the information is as simple as store hours, it helps.''The
person who wants to drop by your store on the way to work wants to know if you're going to be open at 8 a.m., and he wants
to know that at 10:30 p.m. the night before,'' Mr. Bricklin said.
For most small businesses, he added, a reasonable goal for an online presence is to increase sales by 10 percent without
having to add more employees.
''That is huge -- it means a better vacation,'' he said. ''Remember, for these companies the bottom line is their pocketbook.''