But it also made me think differently about digitalizing small businesses.

It was summer, 2012. I was working for a small start-up, visiting small businesses and helping them with their marketing. Picture “Wolf of Wall Street’s” Leo DiCaprio crossed with “Pursuit of Happyness” Will Smith.

Delusions of grandeur and not a penny to my name: That was me, basically.

I had been working with small businesses for the majority of my career. If I wasn’t working with them, I was working for them, having started at restaurants and gas stations.

I guess this all gave me a unique view on small businesses. Importantly, that they were regular people, like you and me, with all the similar goals and ambitions that we have. Delusions of grandeur, not a penny to their name (well, mostly).

Let Me Paint You a Picture Real Quick

This was at the height of the Silicon Valley era. Businesses had yet to adopt “social media” as a status quo, and Uber was still only delivering people.

But with the advent of smartphones and the newly released Tablet computer (hard to think of a time before these!) we knew it was only a matter of time before technology revolutionized the small business scene.

So, I was out there selling electronic loyalty programs for small businesses. They were basically your local coffee shop’s punch card, but in QR code or smartphone app format.

This was a great deal for businesses. They would be able to collect a database of their regular customers in exchange for a free coffee now and then. They could then communicate with their customers on any specials, last-minute orders or opening and closing times over public holidays.

We’ll be coming back to how important this technology is for small businesses in just a little bit.

Digitalizing a Free Cup o’ Joe

George was a quiet but friendly coffee shop owner who took pride in knowing his customers’ names and orders.

“You tend to end up knowing everyone soon enough here,” he used to tell me. “Makes you feel like part of a community.”

George was one of those early adopters of new technology, having bought an iPhone and an iPad when they became popular.

Convincing him to take part in our program was simple: He loved the gimmick of seeing customers’ faces light up when the tablet jingled a “free coffee” sound from all the way behind his Vega coffee machine.

I had also met his son a few times, if only in passing, but he also seemed very friendly. However, I realized something was wrong when I received a phone call from George about a year later, asking if I could come visit him.

Luckily, I was travelling to and from Perth on a regular basis at the time, so I popped in to see him as he stood there with the tablet and charging cables in hand, ready to give them back to me.

Surprised, I asked if there was something wrong with the system. “No,” he answered. “And I’m sure there’s plenty of other businesses out there looking for something like this.”

And Then, the Unexpected …

I probed a little bit more. That’s when George decided to spill – and it almost left me in tears. “My son passed away about six months ago. I was about to retire, and he was going to take over, but now all of that is in shambles.”

My heart shattering inside my chest, I was shocked at how calmly George was telling me his story. I decided to be calm as well, after all, that was all I really knew how to do at the time, young as I was.

Turns out George had been looking to sell the business since his son passed. He couldn’t afford the rent that had been hiked up exponentially, not without the support of his son. His business was good, but not great, and he seemed very tired of it all.

“I can’t find any buyers either,” he told me as he poured me another cup of coffee (was that my 20th? It was hard to keep track by this stage). “I’m thinking maybe it’s best I just liquidate and declare bankruptcy.”

I don’t know if it was that 20th cup of coffee or something about the way George had said that last sentence, but I suddenly had an epiphany of sorts. I looked down at the discarded technology sprawled on the table, the plastic cards and tangled cables a mess on the faux marble.

“Have you shown them your database?” I said, a sparkle returning to my eyes. George shook his head. “No what’s that?”

I had to reexplain that the entire reason for having our system at his café was to build a database of customer’s details so he could communicate with them. It was clear that George never intended to use it in that manner — he was all about the gimmick, and about putting a smile on people’s faces.

‘You Have Over 1,000 Email Addresses!’

I pulled my phone out and logged into his admin’s backend. “You have over a thousand email addresses here, George!” I said. I showed him the frequency of people’s visits, their regular orders, and how many free coffees were actually being claimed.

One, two, three blinks later, and George caught on. “I can use this to show potential buyers how much business goes through here.”
We talked more about how he could use all this data to leverage his business to potential buyers.

The sadness left the air, replaced with hope and sudden impetus.

 A few months later, George called me again, telling me he had not only found a business partner for his café, but he was opening another one and wanted the system for his new place, too.

This was a story played out many times over the course of my Software-as-a-Service career. Utilizing digital tools for more than they’re worth became my modus operandi.

Now, I write articles like this one to inform small businesses of the proper ways to use the tools and technology available to them to help them grow, stand out and flourish.

I do this at Thryv in Australia, a company that provides small businesses with all of the tools they need, all in one place — a system I wish was around back in those days so that businesses like George’s could see the value of digital technologies and automation.

This was a true story, though I’ve changed some names to protect privacy. “George,” if you’re still out there, hope things are going well for you. As for small business owners reading this and wondering how to leverage the digital side of your business, get in touch with Thryv — it’s a game changer for small businesses like yours — whether you’re in the U.S., Australia or beyond.