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Power Surge

Internet access is up - way up - among small-business owners. But that doesn't mean all electronic avenues are being explored.

If it wasn't for technology, Richard Pollock's company might be out of business. Software for managing inventory and an online connection to customer credit reports have turned International Neon Products Inc., Pollock's Chicago sign-parts distributorship, from a firm struggling with outstanding client debts and poor customer service to one enjoying robust growth and profits.

"Every employee here has a PC--the guys in the warehouse, the receptionist, the salespeople--even I do," says Pollock. "Now when somebody asks for credit, we dial in to the computer system and give them an immediate answer. That's gotten rid of the bad debt."

International Neon Products' inventory system allows anyone in the company to see if any part is in stock at any time. "Before, when a customer came in, somebody would have to run to the back and see if we had it," says Pollock. "Now our customer service is phenomenal."

Pollock is far from being the only entrepreneur benefitting from technology, according to the results of a recent study by Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), an international business information provider. In December, D&B surveyed 500 business owners nationwide, posing technology questions in 20-minute phone interviews. Businesses ranged in size from one to 500 employees, and sales ranged from less than $100,000 to more than $10 million. Most had one to five employees. Responses were categorized by each firm's size and according to the owner's ethnic background and gender.

The study found that, by and large, small businesses are embracing technology, from fax machines and pagers to laptop computers and Web sites--and with generally positive results.

Among the key findings was widespread, rapidly growing use of the Internet. Nearly 69 percent of small-business owners polled were connected to the Web. Survey respondents also reported nearly universal use of late-model desktop computers; a full 95 percent said they used Pentium-level PCs. They also indicated a generally high level of comfort with technology. Nearly three-fourths rated themselves as up-to-date with the latest technology.

The survey's highlight was the 69 percent Internet usage figure, says Mike Azzi of Murray Hill, New Jersey-based D&B. It's especially sizable considering that in a survey done six months earlier, D&B found just 47 percent of respondents were on the Net.

"Our basic impression from this survey is that small business is making a decent amount of progress with technology," says Azzi. "But the 22 percent jump in the number of small businesses using the Internet--in a six-month period--that's pretty significant."

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This article was originally published in the November 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Power Surge.

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