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Small companies gradually adopt technology High-tech gadgets boost productivity

In the past few years since Tony Rogers began working as an interior design firm partner with Michael Donnelly, he has helped his friend find more time for clients by infusing technology into the business.

He can't get Donnelly to replace the easy simplicity of pencil drawings with computer-aided design, but he did convince him to adopt one simple change: to go wireless.

This past fall when they opened a new Hertel Avenue store with its lacquered tables and couches in muted beige, the partners replaced the company land line. Now clients - such as District Attorney Frank J. Clark - can reach them by cell anytime, and they doesn't worry about messages languishing on the answering machine.

"If something happens on a Saturday afternoon," Rogers said, "we don't have to wait until Monday morning."

This gradual adoption of new technology by small businesses eventually leads to advantages, cited by one government observer: Web site notoriety, the lean inventories computer tracking allows, and the steady client contact cell phones permit.

"We like small businesses that become as technologically advanced as you can get," said Frank Sciortino, Buffalo District director of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

His local office, which guaranteed $160 million in loans to 1,558 small businesses last year, oversees 14 upstate New York counties and is ranked 17th out of the 68 SBAs districts nationwide - a score determined in part by a low default rate on loans. "I would hope that new technology is one of the reasons that small businesses are becoming successful," Sciortino said.

More and more the loan applications Sciortino reviews cite the need for a Web site, a promising local sign of tech savvy.

"What's in California now comes here two years later. By nature this area gets everything last," he said. "Most of them either have a Web site or are putting a Web site together . . . I didn't see this a couple of years ago."

The City Clean Laundry and Dry Cleaning on Holden Street, east of Main Street in Buffalo, set up a Web site after trying - and failing - to make billboards and coupons work.

"Internet advertising has been our most successful advertising," said Patrice Nash, who bought, renovated and renamed the laundry in 2005. "We didn't get any coupons coming back."

While the $400 fee to have coupons included in a mailing wasn't a good investment, posting a Web site was: Two or three new clients come in that way each month.

The most exciting hit came soon after www.citycleanlaundry.com went up. A staffer for Kanye West found it and called to arrange for laundry service when the rapper and his crew came for a concert at the University at Buffalo in the fall of 2005.

City Clean, which has coin operated washing machines, dry cleaning and a wash and delivery service, picked up about $500 worth of washing when the musician's tour bus pulled onto campus.

"That was a good thing," said Nash. Her laundry continued to develop delivery accounts with a regular client list that includes massage therapists and doctors offices - places where dirty laundry accumulates without nearby washing machines. With more online leads, Nash hopes to build on that side of the business.

"Laundry is a vicious cycle," she said. "It doesn't ever end."

Lawyers at Buffalo's Cohen & Lombardo law firm, which handles divorce, personal injury and the singer Ani Di- Franco's affairs, believe the firm's technology- induced efficiencies - to which a new digital voice recorder system contributes to - have helped attract more business.

The lawyers say their clients have been finding that their legal services are faster and bills are lower. This year the 18-member firm, which has been doing well, created two new openings for lawyers.

"We've been able to be much more responsive," said Neil Sherwood, before his colleague Rocco Lucente gave an example. Now clients seem more likely to ask the firm for help with commercial real estate contracts - some try to save money by foregoing a lawyer for this.

The men talked of their new technology from the firm's old-fashioned looking digs, wood-paneled conference room in an Elmwood Avenue office designed by architect E.B. Green at the turn of the last century.

Sherwood was the one who persuaded the group to try the digital voice recorder - $1,000 for two recorders and its computer set-up - a year ago.

He'd been visiting a Rochester colleague who told him it made traveling easier. Since many lawyers can't type quickly, they dictate their letters and case notes for secretaries to type. This can add expensive time to client's legal bills.

Now that the digital recorder is part of Sherwood's work life, he's streamlined his travel routine.

When he is out of town on a court case, an assistant scans and e-mails his mail. He reads from his laptop, records his replies and e-mails the digital sound files back to his assistant.

She may either listen and type, or for a longer case summary, she may let the computer "read" the recording and do the typing. She then checks the text before e-mailing it to Sherwood for review.

With this system, being out of the office no longer leads to a backlog. "Instead of four days of digging out, it's like I never left," said Sherwood. "I wouldn't go back to the way we used to do it."

His legal assistant, Julie Beyer, said it's easier to keep track of recordings when digital files are stored on her computer. "Before, he would come back and there would be tapes and tapes and tapes," she said.

Sherwood tallied the time saved on one recent case when a digital recorder spared him note-taking.

"I just had about 4,000 pages of documents delivered to me on the eve of a court appearance," he said. "As I was speaking, the computer was typing."

His notes were printed and ready after he spent four or five hours of reading through the papers. "Before this, I would sit and hand-write my notes out," he said. "It probably cuts a good 30 percent of the time out."

Now four of the firm's lawyers, who charge $125 to $300 an hour, use digital. Another three do all of their own typing.

The remaining 11 still rely on traditional dictation. They are considering trying out the digital gadget.

Lucente, who likes the idea of abandoning the tapes he worries about losing, is one who has been slowly convinced that digital is worth trying.

"It's new," he said. "It takes some getting used to."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com