Former Senior Director, Communications & Strategy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
October 05, 2022
Over the past five years, America’s small business owners have faced numerous economic challenges—COVID-19, supply chain disruptions, staffing shortages, inflation, and more. Small business owners have navigated these challenges in part by leveraging a range of technology platforms that boost operational efficiency, streamline logistics, and provide access to new customers. The Chamber recently released a report highlighting the importance of technology for small business.
To better understand how small businesses are using technology, we recently sat down with two small business restaurant owners in California during an event with the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
How and why did you start your business?
Hrag Kalebjian of Henry’s House of Coffee: Growing up, I was never interested in my family’s wholesale coffee business, which is why I ended up working in corporate finance for almost ten years. My last stint was at AAA where I was a manager of Sales Operations. I loved my job but there was something missing. I realized there is something very special about a tradition that is passed down from one generation to another. In July 2013, I made the switch, joined the family business, and started selling coffee online. We launched doing 20 orders a month. Now we do 1000 orders a month. The digital aspect helped us a lot.
Simileoluwa Adebajo of Eko Kitchen: I opened the first Nigeran restaurant in San Francisco with the goal of representing my culture. People in California had very little understanding of my country, our culture, food, or language. I hoped that my business could change that. We started as a delivery only business, morphed into a pop-up restaurant, and eventually a traditional restaurant. We have now evolved into a catering company and offer online cooking classes.
How has your business managed to navigate recent economic challenges?
Hrag: If it wasn't for our online store, we most likely would have laid off half our staff. During the pandemic, it was so critical to have a different channel to generate business as people weren't able to access traditional brick and mortar stores. We saw our business triple during this time, and I am happy to say that we have retained most of that new business even though things have opened back up.
Simileoluwa: Technology provided the best way to serve our customers safely during the pandemic. I started using platforms where people could preorder for curbside pickup. I used social media to communicate our hours and marketing to update people about modified service. A huge turning point during the pandemic was the virtual cooking classes I did though zoom and google hangouts. We felt a business became soulless without interacting with the customers. Through the virtual cooking classes, I was able to create a feeling of togetherness. It just wouldn’t have been possible without technology.
What are some ways technology has helped your small business compete?
Hrag: Having a great story and, more importantly, being able to tell that story in a quick 20 second ad allows us to differentiate ourselves from the larger corporate giants. Customers feel a sense of belonging and want to support businesses that feel personal.
Simileoluwa: There are three main ways that tech has helped us compete. In a larger corporation, you have a marketing team, a finance team, and an operations/logistics team. As a small business owner, you don’t have any of those. Tech takes care of the marketing by giving you efficient value for your money—for a fraction of the cost, you’re able to run ads using your mobile phone. On the fintech front, a lot of small businesses have benefited from point of sale services such as Square. Square invoicing and payroll was a lifeline for me. On logistics, if you were a small business you used to have to hire drivers or buy a truck/motorcycle to deliver to your customers, you’d have to buy insurance, and pay for so many things. Delivery apps help you bypass those additional costs. You’re put on the same platform as larger restaurants, increasing your visibility. Tech has stepped up the way small businesses can be seen and perceived.
How have new technology platforms such as delivery apps enabled your business to grow?
Simileoluwa: Delivery apps were essential to the start and growth of my business. We started as a ghost kitchen, and in July 2018 I started running ads about how we deliver in San Francisco. I didn’t have the money to get vehicles of my own so the delivery apps helped me streamline my operations. We were able to reach our customers and revenue losses fell because of that. The majority of restaurants would’ve shut down without delivery apps. They were a lifeline for restaurants.
There’s talk in Washington D.C. about passing a national privacy bill that would enable the FTC to determine they kinds of data that companies can collect. What would happen to your company if it lost its ability to use consumer data?
Hrag: This is very unfortunate as it would essentially be another "pandemic" for us. Not having customer data means that we would go back to the early 1980's where we would market our products to a generic list, which in turn would be extremely costly and not a good customer experience. Having customer data helps us customize our marketing so the end result is more meaningful to the customer. We're already seeing some of these poor results from the latest iOS update, which essentially is taking us back into the stone age.
Simileoluwa: Having access to data helps us to get customers who are interested in what we are offering. It is more challenging to look at other traditional means to find people who are interested in African food, Nigerian food, or dining out. It becomes another thing we have to deal with. Even with email marketing there are serval ways that laws effect how we contact our customers. It is important small businesses have access to the data. We understand privacy laws and keeping information secure, but we also need it to reach customers.
About the authors
Sarah Keller is the Senior Director of Communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is the team lead for issues related to infrastructure, capital markets, international trade and investment as well as technology and innovation.