The Three Truths of Technology

Even if you're not inclined to full-blown geekdom, the least you must do is take an informed layman's interest in the latest tech trends

By Brian J. Nichelson

From the startup on the kitchen table to the company just beginning to grow to the emerging gazelle racking up considerable momentum, entrepreneurial ventures and their founders can count on a given: technology will underlie operations. It's the core process for the 21st century, filling the space where ledgers and sales slips left off in the precomputer era. In short, technology is the ultimate fundamental.

Trouble is, not all entrepreneurs are tech savvy. What's worse, a lot don't want to be. They might be comfortable navigating desktops when starting up -- the familiar Office suite accommodating simple tasks, such as e-mailing partners and early investors. At some point, however, they become queasy. It could be when the product ships -- and the company needs a system for tracking inventory. Or it could happen amid the fast growth that necessitates a sophisticated network for linking people and places around the globe.

CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE.

  That's when an entrepreneurial moment of truth might occur, as in, "I can't do this myself, let me call in the consultants." Yes, a third party could be the answer. However, such help can be expensive, and young companies are often tight on cash. What's more, even if money isn't an issue, there are steps that entrepreneurs, including those who aren't tech savvy, can take -- and should take -- to get this process under control.

In fact, there is another way to look at technology when it is applied to starting and overseeing the growth of an entrepreneurial company. Specifically, I want to share three truths with you. I've come across these truths again and again, as I've studied the nature and history of technology, and as I've helped disseminate high-tech information to a wide variety of audiences in the U.S. Air Force and at ExxonMobil. I'm now a consultant. I help people and organizations get all they can out of the technology in front of them.

What follows is a look at the underlying factors – three truths – that provide a framework to help entrepreneurs take charge of the ever-important technology upon which their businesses depend.

Truth #1: Technology is simpler than you think.

Really, it is. Even for the busy entrepreneur who wears multiple hats, has a tight schedule, and is under pressure, technology is something that can be learned. True, that probably won't be a company-builder's top priority, even if he or she is tech savvy. However, entrepreneurs should make it a practice to spend a few minutes each day getting a tech "education," not so much to find the answers as to be able to ask the right questions.

Just as you listen to stock-market reports daily if you are an active investor, albeit not a professional, as a company builder you should do the same with regard to your tech investment. You can get a tech education by being alert to tech trends. Read newspapers and journals, listen to talk shows, attend forums, and surf the best of the relevant Web sites, such as my favorite, howstuffworks.com. Occasionally, pick up the manual for the new piece of equipment you just bought and do more than just flip through it.

Talk to people: try your teenage child, who single-handedly wired your home, the twentysomething you recruited out of Caltech, or the geek behind the desk at the computer store where you picked up a new printer ribbon. These small investments of time every day will enhance your decision-making process in the technology area -- and your business will benefit.

Truth #2: Technology equals people.

In the heat of the entrepreneurial battle, nothing quite equals a failed computer system or a network collapse to make even the most resourceful entrepreneur feel utterly alone. Technology has a way of instilling that emotion, especially in nontech users.

It needn't be so. While an increasing number of automated voices do pepper tech-company phone lines and hotlines, the fact remains that people are behind technology every step of the way. Take that Caltech kid you just hired. If you are lucky enough to employ such a person, take full advantage. Whatever his or her actual job, don't be afraid to tap that resource for your company's tech needs. An entrepreneurial mantra, after all, is that people wear many hats and aren't bound by the rigid structures of established organizations. OK, so there's no resident geek in your outfit. In that case, you might consider hiring such a person or retaining an outside consultant. However, if your budget doesn't allow for that, you will be able to leverage the advice you get from the people you interact with when putting together or upgrading equipment.

When considering software, for example, you can discuss your needs with designers engaged by the vendors from whom you might buy. You can nail down information about tech support, such as whether you will have access to a human being when problems with a product arise.

With technology, ironically, it's all about people. Make sure you do your part. Treat the people you deal with as human beings, not as handy targets for venting about the problems you've encountered with your equipment. If you are respectful, you will reap the reward of gaining their knowledge.

Truth #3: Technology is interconnected.

When building companies, entrepreneurs must always keep the big picture in mind. In no area is that more apparent than in technology. Once the company outgrows the kitchen table, once its core staff mushrooms into a work force, technological needs will multiply accordingly.

It's at this point that the third truth becomes apparent, namely that technology is interconnected. As your business grows, you must remember that the list of contacts on your desktop must be able to make its way to the new inventory-control system, and eventually onto the sophisticated network. In short, you must make sure that the hardware and software you select when upgrading can work with what you already have.

Some questions to raise when buying, using, or maintaining your various technological items include the following: Is the new device compatible with the machines to which it will be connected? Do you have enough software? Is the new component more advanced than the pieces you have and thus limited in its usefulness? What are the costs of supplies and maintenance?

Once you understand that technology is interconnected, you will be viewing the process from the perspective of a leader -- from 20,000 feet.

SELF PRESERVATION.

  You as an entrepreneur aren't in business to evaluate technological needs, nor to put together systems that your people can use and you can afford. Nonetheless, as the founder of a company in the 21st Century, you must attend to this fundamental process -- or you won't be in business for long.

Technology can no longer be ignored, even in pursuit of the more visionary aspects of company building. The truth is that you, the entrepreneur, have a stake in making technology work for your company.

Brian J. Nichelson, 48, founded TechMatters Institute, a Pearland, Texas-based consulting firm that specializes in enabling organizations to maximize technology, in 2002, and serves as executive director. He worked for ExxonMobil from 1990 to 2002 as an instructional designer and trainer. Previously, he served for 13 years in the U.S. Air Force as an ICBM launch control officer and an associate professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he received his B.S. in 1977. Nichelson also earned an M.A. in the history of science from the University of North Dakota in 1981 and a Ph.D. in the history of technology from the University of Minnesota in 1988. He is the author of Taming Technology: You Can Control the Beast, published in Apr. 2003.

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of EntreWorld.org, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE