Rats. Looks like this recession thing might be turning around. The market's been rising. Houses are beginning to sell. Durable orders are up. Banks are detoxifying. Bernie Madoff and Jim Cramer have (finally) been publicly humiliated. Is this the beginning of the end of the economic downturn?
If it is, I'm going to miss this recession.
Make no mistake. I'm not talking about such unfortunate events as the frozen credit markets. Or that sick feeling I get before opening my 401(k) statement, or news anchors and talk show hosts screaming "catastrophe!" and "meltdown!" every time I turn on the TV. I'm definitely not going to miss knee-jerk mass layoffs of good employees by profitable companies. Microsoft (MSFT), for instance, had net income of $4.17 billion in the most recent quarter yet unveiled plans to slash as many as 5,000 jobs. Microsoft—really?
But as a business owner who buys and sells technology, I find the end of the recession marks the end of some pretty good times for me.
All Those Inventories
For example, those of us with a few bucks left in the bank have been picking up bargains galore. Like oceanfront properties in Florida and $2-a-gallon gas. When it comes to tech, we're loving the rock-bottom prices of new computers, servers, and other hardware. The global demand slowdown has depressed manufacturing costs and fueled a surge in unsold inventories. Truckloads of liquidated equipment chugging out of Wall Street have driven down costs for the survivors. Thanks, Bear Stearns.
My negotiating power has exponentially increased. When I need to buy a new server, I shamelessly press for discounts. When times were better, sellers would laugh in my face. Now, instead of pleading poverty, I can blame the economy. Hardware salesmen make sympathetic clucking sounds and whip out their erasers. Software reps, never known to show much spine, simply cave.
Which brings me to the next great thing about this great recession. Software companies have been bowing to me like I'm Xerxes. And to my clients, too. No one—and I mean no one—I know is purchasing big-ticket software at list price. They ask for a discount, and they immediately get it. Then they ask for a bigger discount. A lot of times they get that, too. With capital budgets cut to the core, software vendors are now offering month-end deals to complement their quarter-end deals, which of course rolls up to their yearend deals. And maintenance? That venerable, non-negotiated annual pound of flesh extracted in return for bug fixes and basic support is now up for discussion, too. Everything's on the table.
Weeding Out Junk
Here's another thing I'll miss. The recession is ridding the world of crappy tech companies and crappy technology. Circuit City, the world's worst place to buy just about anything, is finally out of business. Let's hope Best Buy (BBY) learns from its demise. Who really is going to miss the likes of Polaroid, Ruckus, nTag Interactive, and Ultreo, maker of a battery-powered toothbrush that used sonic bristles, whatever those are? If it's not careful, Palm (PALM) may soon join these ranks. The company has been hemorrhaging cash and banking everything on its soon-to-be-released Palm Pre. Am I the only one hearing the funeral march playing?
In a downturn, frugal business owners are now rock stars. Simplicity wins in tough times. The guys running the oldest version of Windows are no longer ridiculed. The guys trying out competing, cheaper operating systems, such as Linux, are now taken more seriously. The less complicated, the better. Weeklong conferences are now one-day seminars. Dozens of servers are being virtualized down to a box or two. One-day seminars are now one-hour Webinars. Blogs are now becoming tweets. All because of this great, game-changing recession. Thank you, AIG (AIG)!
As a business owner, I'm now getting services from my IT firm that I never dreamed of receiving. For example, when I call them, they actually answer the phone. When there's a problem they…come on-site right away. I don't get attitude when I turn down their recommendation to purchase that overpriced server that can store the Library of Congress. Instead I get grateful nods when I hire them for a day to clean up our file system. I get hugs and kisses when, instead of upsizing, I hire them to downsize to a virtual environment. Don't even ask what they do when I actually order a new piece of software.
More on Their Toes
And I've noticed something else going on. We're seeing better quality for the money. My employees are working harder for fear of losing their jobs. My customer service rep at Dell (DELL) seems sharper. And my IT firm? They're also picking it up and doing better work. Has the recession made them smarter? Laggards have left the building. The guys still around are working harder to ensure they stay around. Or they're the ones who knew what they were doing in the first place but were too "busy" to spend their time with the likes of me. My checks don't bounce, so I guess I'm not such a doofus after all, huh, fellas?
The recession, thank God, has finally put a lot of those stupid IT trends on the back burner. At least for now. For example, when times are tough, no one wants to think about saving the environment. They're more concerned about saving their butts. I'm happy to confirm that I'm hearing much less about getting "green" technology and investing more to reduce my "carbon footprint." The only green that's important right now is what's left in my bank account.
Finally, and most important, this recession has focused all of our technology purchases on ROI—where it should have been in the first place. The conversation is no longer about upgrading stuff. It's now about how I can better use the stuff that I already own. In good times, when things were flush, software vendors would try to sell us on features we knew we would never use. I don't care if my invoicing program can speak to me in Mandarin. I don't need that tool that tells me how many paper clips I purchased last week. We're seeing stupid buzzwords like "viral" and "mashup" replaced by "economical" and "productive." No, it's not cool. Gosh, ROI can be so boring. Even those chirpy guys in the Apple (AAPL) store are looking like they could use an extra Red Bull or two.
Sadly, all of this will change as the economy improves. "Cool" technology will be the rage again. ROI will lose its appeal. New buzzwords will soon appear. More stupid dot-coms will vie for our attention. People have short memories. No, no one really likes a recession. But a few of us sure will miss this one.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.