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What Small Businesses May Lose By Using Online Tools


And let's hear about people who get to choose where they commute: small business owners. There are actually websites and apps that can help entrepreneurs pick the best location for their businesses - and that's only the beginning. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: We've been reporting on small businesses for weeks and I figured might as well get some ice cream out of it. I found a brand new ice cream shop, less than a year old, just off of famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills along with its young co-owner.

JOSEPH LIFSCHUTZ: My name is Joseph Lifschutz and I am the founder of the Ice Cream Lab.

GLINTON: Because ice cream needed some, what, reinventing?

LIFSCHUTZ: Well, exactly. We are reinventing ice cream and the way we make ice cream. We use liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream on the spot. So, essentially we create every single cup of ice cream in front of you.

GLINTON: And in that L.A. way, the 26-year-old Lifschutz shows no sign of actually eating his product, and he proceeded to make me a cup of ice cream.

LIFSCHUTZ: What I'm doing here is I'm adding our ice cream base: eggs, milk, whipping cream and organic sugar cane and that's it. And here I pull the lever, which will release the liquid nitrogen into the bowl. The liquid nitrogen is essentially an instant freezer. So within about 20, 30 seconds, open it up - fresh-made ice cream.

GLINTON: As you might expect from a couple of tech-savvy millennials who are using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, Lifschutz and his partner made full use of the Internet - apps, cloud computing - to get started. They used a networking site to find a lawyer to incorporate and get permits. Their payroll, ordering, HR, accounting, marketing and advertising are all done using online services. They have 15 employees, and how many of them are back office?

LIFSCHUTZ: Just myself and my partner, Tommy. We do all the sort of admin and upkeep.

GLINTON: And so how much of that would you say are you putting pen to paper, you know?

LIFSCHUTZ: Very, very minimal, if at all.

GLINTON: So even that they're using computers is almost a stretch. Most of the tools that they use to run their businesses are on their phones, even the security cam.

LIFSCHUTZ: It's called Micro Cam. So for instance, I can tap into it. Pulls up all of our cameras.

GLINTON: So you could just be sitting...

LIFSCHUTZ: At a coffee shop. There's one on right now. Let's see if we can see us. There's us right there.

GLINTON: And all these technologies are available to the average kid who wants to start an ice cream stand. And it helps to clear up the red tape. Waverly Deutsch teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. She says hours, days, even months have been shaved off of getting a small business started.

WAVERLY DEUTSCH: But you're also getting less help. So, when you would show up at City Hall to try to figure out all the permits you needed, there was somebody there answering questions. Now you've got to figure out all of that on what are typically not the world's most intuitive websites.

GLINTON: Deutsch says instead of going to the one lawyer or accountant in your town, entrepreneurs have almost infinite choices.

DEUTSCH: Small businesses are being absolutely hammered by technology people who are all offering more access to their customers, more new leads, but wanting a little piece of the pie.

GLINTON: Deutsch says a new businessperson has to become an expert at make ice-cream and navigating technology. Don Weiss, another entrepreneurship professor - he's at Columbia - says even so it's still easier to start a business to today. But the hardest part of business remains making and maintaining relationships.

DON WEISS: There's only one way to do it, and that is by pressing the flesh, by doing things face-to-face and by forming relationships and listening to what your customer or your partner or for that matter your employee has to say.

GLINTON: Weiss says the key to a successful entrepreneur is the ability to listen. And there's no app for that - not yet at least. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.