In an era dominated by light-speed communication via e-mail and cell phone, Microsoft Corp. is embarking on a time-consuming, 14-city tour to convince small minority-owned businesses to try its suite of "Build Your Business" Internet tools.
The software giant hasn't abandoned e-marketing, but it recognizes the value of meeting personally with Hispanic and African-American business owners – those who generally oversee about 10 employees and probably know many of their customers by name.
Such companies represent a huge potential market for the Redmond, Washington-based company, whose studies show that only 2 percent of African-American and 6 percent of U.S. Hispanic small businesses have incorporated e-commerce strategies to boost their businesses.
Microsoft launched its "Build Your Business" campaign in New York City on February 8. Scheduled to run until October, the tour will include 85 free technology workshops in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oakland (California), Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.
The Microsoft tour is designed to stress the importance of e-commerce and to highlight Microsoft's desktop products and bCentral, which features numerous Internet business tools.
"We've done a very poor job of catering to the needs of small businesses," says Eugenio Beaufrand, vice-president of the U.S. Southern Region for Microsoft. He describes minority-owned small businesses as an "untapped territory."
Mr. Beaufrand notes a number of reasons why many small-business owners haven't ventured into e-commerce, including high start-up costs, lack of adequate training, and entrenched attitudes ("I've always done business with people I know").
Microsoft is hoping to overcome those barriers by providing a suite of Internet tools and expert assistance for low flat fees, beginning at $24.95 per month. The company offers services such as securing a Web site address, building a Web site, setting up an e-mail account, branding e-mail, selling products online, building a catalog, managing sales, and processing orders.
According to a national technology survey sponsored by Microsoft:
-- There are 1.4 million U.S. Hispanic and African-American small-business owners, representing 18 percent of the general small-business market. Hispanics own 775,000 small businesses.
-- About 60 percent of those businesses use computer technology but have not yet embraced e-commerce.
-- Web-site adoption remains slow; penetration rates amount to just 4 percent, compared to 35 percent for the general market.
-- Many minority small-business owners buy technology products but do not upgrade or build their infrastructure after the initial purchase.
-- Such entrepreneurs tend to see the Internet as viable but intimidating.
"The Internet is a critical business tool for small-business owners," Bill Gates told reporters via satellite at the "Build Your Business" kickoff press conference in New York. "Less than a quarter of a century ago, the Internet was an obscure network of large computers used only by a small community of researchers. Today, the Internet is the center of attention for business, governments, and individuals around the world."
The Microsoft founder says two key organizations – the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Black Chamber of Commerce – will assist his company on the tour. Microsoft also has enlisted Compaq, SoftChoice, and New Horizons as partners.
USHCC chairwoman Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow says she sees the Build Your Business tour as an educational tool that will help overcome the digital divide. She contends that children will be more drawn to computer technology if they see small businesses in their neighborhoods using the Internet.
Jeff Lopez, owner of Dekra-Lite Industries in Santa Ana, California, says Microsoft's software has helped him speed up his holiday-decoration business. Salesmen can access the company's inventory for clients while on the road by using Palm handhelds, he says. He acknowledges that some employees have picked up the technology faster than others, but adds that most of his 80 employees are "very excited" about being more efficient in day-to-day business.
To learn more or to register for Microsoft's free "The Big Day" seminars, phone (877) 435-7638 or visit www.msbigday.com/hispanic.htm.
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