Wall Street Journal|
William M. Bulkeley
With new Planning Software,
Entrepreneurs act like M.B.A.s
Can a software program make up for two years at Stanford Business School? Probably not. But some business people say they have found wisdom in software. Software developers have produced a number of programs designed to guide the uninitiated through business planning, negotiation, employee management and purchase valuation. Some programs are little more than electronic form letters in which entrepreneurs fill in the blanks to bamboozle venture capitalists. Others are "expert systems" that give advice based on the precepts of management gurus.
"They resolve the problem of people from specialized fields starting companies where they have to do a little bit of everything." says Madhu Beriwal, president of Innovative Emergency Management Inc., a Baton Rouge, La., consulting firm, who uses several of the programs.... Indeed, many sales do not go to entrepreneurs, but to managers in big companies who want to fill gaps in their backgrounds.
Nevertheless, some users say the programs have opened up new worlds. "I am trying not to sound too effusive, but this software is really different. Any small-business person could gain insights from it," says Randy Ziegenhorn, a New Boston, Ill., wholesale seed dealer who uses a $795 program called Business Insight made by Business Resource Software Inc., Austin, Texas. He credits the program for leading him to better marketing strategies. As a result, he says he sold more oat seeds in March than he had in the previous two years.
Mr. Ziegenhorn says that neither his college degree in English literature nor his career as a farmer "lends itself to strategic business thinking." But when he answered the questions about his business, the program asked whether he could tailor his marketing efforts to particular customers rather than treating them all the same. "I said, Yes, there is a lot of difference" among retailers, the store chains and the co-ops that buy oat seeds. Then he crafted the techniques that led to the sales gains.
All these programs attempt to give users insights by asking questions in a structured way and forcing them to confront all the issues rather than ignoring difficulties. "Information-gathering and stimulating your brain is how we envision our job," says Daniel Bernstein, president of Beacon Expert Systems Inc., Brookline... The programs almost always leave users with more knowledge than they started with...
The cost of such systems is small compared with the cost of a lawyer or consultant, users say. Lewis C. Hoff, president of Bartizan Inc., a Yonkers, N.Y., maker of bank card imprinters, uses Business Insight. He says a consultant would cost much more and "tie up a tremendous amount of time of you and your people." It is also quicker than getting an M.B.A. degree. David Fein, vice president of Value Express, says, "It is like the difference between building a house from the ground up and redecorating it. You do not have to understand the theory to use it."