Microsoft Caters to Small Business Needs

Friday Aug 29th 2008 by Gerry Blackwell
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Combining a passion for fresh food, community and the environment, Than Hua built her business using 'friendly and familiar' Microsoft technology.

Small business owners like Thanh Hua, owner of Selfish Box, a gourmet lunch caterer in Redmond, Washington, started her business a little more than two years ago with a simple concept: to provide catered lunches, mostly to corporate customers, featuring fresh foods, good nutrition and authentic cuisine from around the world.

The lunches would be “too good to share,” a tag line printed on all the firm’s literature – and essential, Hua conceded, for understanding the odd-ball company name. “The other thing that was really important to us from the beginning was that we wanted to give back to the community,” she said. “And in particular we wanted to watch out for the environment.”

Earth Friendly

Hua has embraced the increasingly popular notion, borrowed from the environmental movement, of the triple bottom line – ensuring that business decisions not only return financial benefits, but also pay dividends for the environment and the community.

Selfish Box follows environmentally sound practices all down the line – including composting left-overs, using minimal, biodegradable packaging and cooking with induction burner cook tops that deliver energy savings up to 50 percent. It also goes paperless in the office. Hua even jots grocery lists on her Fujitsu LifeBook tablet PC.

The fact that the firm uses Microsoft technology almost exclusively to help it pursue its triple bottom line is not entirely coincidental, Hua said. Nor is it just because Gates & Co. was one of her first and is still one of her biggest customers – she was already a Microsoft user before she started Selfish Box.

“We think we have the same company values as Microsoft,” Hua said. “Like them, we believe in community. So we’re a great example of a small company growing up with Microsoft and Microsoft technology.”

It started with Excel, which she already owned. Before Hua sold her first lunch bag, she was using Excel to collect and compare costs from various vendors for needed appliances. Then she used it to track food inventory and vendors to see which stores and market stalls had the best deals.

When she started selling, all the customer information went into an Excel spreadsheet, which she used to track daily orders. She easily taught her chef, Toby, to use Excel to compile ingredient lists and calculate calorie counts for dishes – an important consideration for many of her customers.

“That was really great because time is always of the essence and there's never enough of it,” Hua said. “This allowed me to have him focus on the food, not on the technology.”

Easy and Familiar

There was never a conscious strategy to use only Microsoft technology. She just found herself gravitating to Microsoft products as her business evolved and her technology needs grew. “I think the reason Microsoft stuck with me is that the products are already so familiar. Everybody uses them, partly because they are so friendly and familiar.”

Her employees all used Microsoft Office Outlook, for example. So Hua now uses it to communicate with them each night, e-mailing to tell them what orders they’ll be working on the next day so they know what to expect when they arrive in the morning.

As the business grew, she became more sophisticated in her use of technology. In some cases, it meant adding new products, such as Visio, a graphics and diagramming program that she uses to develop work flows, and Microsoft Digital Image, an image editing package that lets her crop and scale images for the firm’s Web site.

But Hua still extracts lots of power from standard Office products like Excel and Word. For example, Hua realized that her staff spent too much time traipsing back and forth between kitchen and pantry because they would underestimate quantities of ingredients needed, so she developed an Excel macro that calculates from recipes exactly how many of each item an order requires.

“I calculated that [the macro] made us 16 percent more efficient,” Hua said. “It took that many fewer man hours to do those tasks as a result.”

The Paperless Kitchen

Her increasingly sophisticated use of technology also meant she could stick to a no-paper rule, a key tenet in the Selfish Box environmental philosophy. She automated invoicing for orders placed at the firm’s Web site to avoid the need for printed invoices, for example.

The Web ordering module is integrated with Microsoft Office on her system. When the complete and sign off on an order, the system automatically generates and e-mails an invoice. “That also saves me money because we don’t have to wait for somebody [at the customer site] to sign the invoice, and we’re able to go on right away to the next delivery,” Hua said.

The tablet PC is a key piece of technology that she’s rarely without. For one thing, it means she can work anywhere. If she has to take her two young sons to piano lessons, for example, she’ll work on the tablet while she’s waiting for them.

Making shopping lists on the PC may be the most impressive proof of Hua’s commitment to remaining paperless. Even corporate gadget junkies jot grocery lists on post-it notes or the backs of envelopes when they have to go shopping. Not Hua.

If it’s a big shopping trip, she’ll use existing ingredient lists in the Excel spreadsheet and simply add quantities required by tapping with the stylus in each field and typing. Then she refers to the spreadsheet on the tablet screen when she’s in the store.

If she only needs a few items, Hua jots them on the tablet freehand using the stylus and Microsoft’s Digital Ink technology. “Even if it’s only one item, I’ll still write it down,” she said, chuckling. “There are so many distractions around here, if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget.”

Hua has also, with some trepidation, used the PC and spreadsheet to research prices for ingredients. She totes her tablet into each store and takes the time to type in prices for each item she uses. “Nobody has ever even stopped me and asked what I'm doing,” Hua said.

Growing Room

She recently added a couple of new pieces of Microsoft technology to her arsenal, including Home Server, which she uses to backup all her business data, and Office Accounting Express.

When the firm got to a size that it needed proper accounting, she decided to do it herself using the Microsoft software rather than hiring an accountant. This too is in keeping with her environmental commitment, she says, because the money saved helps defray the additional costs of operating green.

Hua would be the first to admit that using specifically Microsoft technology is not essential to pursuing a triple bottom line, but she makes a good case for a small business “growing up” with Microsoft technology. It’s familiar, easy to use, compatible with tools customers and suppliers use, and it's rich enough to answer all her business needs for a good long time.

“As I grow in my business, I’m continually seeing more reasons to use the technology, more ways to use it,” she said. “So as I need them, I can delve into those new features – or new-to-me features. In other words, it hasn’t put any boundaries on what I can do.”

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

This article was first published on ServerWatch.com.

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