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Getting connected

To be more effective, small businesses sometimes need to venture out into the world. More accurately, they need to hook into the wired world.

To be more effective, small businesses sometimes need to venture out into the world. More accurately, they need to hook into the wired world. At Saline-based Latitude Consulting Group, CEO Jeff Walter has seen a multitude of small companies toiling away and still spinning their wheels in terms of getting marketplace traction. To help them get going, the company developed bConnect, a service that aims to boost the might of small businesses. Walter chatted about how companies are doing business, and what needs to be changed.

How did the company get started?

It’s kind of a long story. Basically, the history of Latitude begins with it being a large regional consultancy that during the Internet revolution got purchased by AppNet, which then got purchased by Commerce One. The company spun off its non-product related services and Latitude was born. So, we were a regional player, then a national one, and back again to being regional one.

As a result of that, I’ve been exposed to some of the most complex e-commerce on the planet, because the company has worked with IBM, Microsoft, and General Motors. The largest area of focus for us was on big complex portals with lots of applications. They’re difficult to bring to market, but they have a tremendous amount of business value.

Where is the company focused now?

After we spun off, we stepped back and realized that this model we were working with was the right model, it just wasn’t being executed ideally. We saw that the true target market for these electronic exchanges wasn’t necessarily the big players, it was the 1,001 small players that can’t spend $10 million on e-marketplace strategies. So, we said, we have experience building this stuff, how can we make that available to the small business community? That’s where we came up with the concept of bConnect.

What is bConnect?

It’s a subscription-based business service for small and medium-sized businesses that want to bring their businesses online, but don’t have the resources, skill sets, or time to do it themselves. It gives companies Web collaboration, online stores, and better sales management.

It also gives them a full set of e-business applications, like the use of Web portals to share and manage resources with business partners, and a way to provide customer service through building a virtual community. Companies can also create employee portals and have Web-based workflows.

Basically, businesses can use the service to improve operations, increase productivity, and grow, because they develop more efficient customer and partner relationships. They can outsource e-business initiatives to make Web-based applications easier and less expensive to set up.

How did you come up with a way to provide this for small businesses?

We took some of the technical architecture fundamentals that you see in large portals and made it relatively inexpensive and easily deployed. bConnect has many parts, and that includes e-commerce capability, but also things like inventory tracking, distributed file sharing, and business partner interaction. You can do order entry, order status, and shipment notices, so basically you’re automating a lot of currently manual processes.

Why do you think small businesses need such a level of automation?

What they’re doing now is very manual. They’ll have an automated accounting system like Peachtree, or they could have some type of turnkey solution for a particular industry, such as a taxicab company having some type of dispatching software. But beyond that, they’re limited. These type of manual processes puts everything inside a company’s four walls. Customers and suppliers don’t have access to the company’s system, so there’s a lack of three-way communication that can make account management more efficient and effective.

Why don’t more small businesses put these type of systems in place?

They tend to think they can’t afford it. Only a few years ago, the Fortune 500 was bringing this type of functionality to bear. But as these tools evolve, they make headway into smaller businesses. It’s the same pattern with other types of applications, like accounting systems. The Fortune 500 put in accounting systems when microcomputers started, and the SMBs followed later.

What other challenges keep small businesses from using e-marketplace tools?

One of the biggest is that they don’t have the right kind of support. That’s another area we try to address. Some companies say here’s a piece of software, here’s your software key, good luck. We’re more of a business service than software. The nature of a service is more outsourced, where we’ll act as your IT department and do support.

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