Great Business Ideas: Computerize Your Service Business

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Computerize Your Service Business

Before veteran tailor and dry cleaner yoon Lim bought the Manor Cleaners in Pelham Manor, New York, whenever I forgot my yellow dry cleaning receipt, I had to sign my name in a worn spiral note- book to confirm that I had collected my clothes. That old- fashioned system ended abruptly one day. When the door opened at 8 AM, there stood two shiny computer stations set into slick blue-and-white Formica counters. Manor Cleaners had gone high-tech overnight.

Lim, who owns two other dry cleaning businesses in Westchester County, said he spent about $5,000 for each customized computer. The system, which he has installed in all three stores, is designed specifically for dry cleaning businesses. Each keyboard key is coded to record a shirt, coat, dress, or bedspread.

The prices ring up automatically, and the system prints out a crisp, two-part, detailed receipt—one for the store, the other for customers. We may keep losing our receipts, but Lim’s staff will never lose track of our clothes or what we owe him. Lim said he couldn’t operate the business efficiently without help from his new computers.

No matter what kind of small business you own, you can buy a customized computer system. If you operate a pet store, construction company, restaurant, law firm, insurance office, or a chain of beauty salons, you can find a customized system to track inventory, log point-of-purchase sales information, generate invoices, and trigger reorders.

You can buy systems from many big companies, including IBM, the granddaddy of customized systems, or hire a local hardware consultant to put together a system from scratch. According to a survey by Microsoft, there are about 250,000 independent computer dealers who create customized systems for business owners just like you. Although about 20 percent of them disappear or go out of business every year, most stick around long enough to get your system up and running.

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The advantages of having a customized system are many. You get exactly what you need—nothing more. The software is written for your particular industry and is frequently updated.

The best way to find the right software is to contact your trade or professional association and ask for a list of software vendors serving your industry. If you don’t belong to a group, now is the time to join.

If you think your business is too esoteric to have software written for it, think again. My friend and neighbor, Debra Orlando, designs store interiors for Esteé Lauder stores around the world. She works on a Macintosh computer loaded with special CAD-CAM software for interior designers. She sends a disk to the architects and contractors, who download her files to print out detailed construction plans.

Orlando rarely meets face to face with her colleagues, but she manages to do very high-level design work from her home-based studio. Her computer systems allows her to spend more time with her young daughter, Kara, and to be home when her 14-year-old son, Peter, gets home from school.

So no matter what kind of small business you run, consider looking beyond what’s available off the shelf to find exactly the kind of hardware and software you need to succeed.