Last week I got to visit Todd County. Alex Weego at the Todd County Development Corporation invited me and Jan Hepola from Minnesota Technology to Todd County to talk to a few companies about how web-based technology might help themgrow their business. This post is long but I wanted to share what we learned about tech challenges that businesses in rural Minnesota are facing.
First stop – Clarissa
Our first visit was with Dennis and Howard at Battle Lake Outdoors. They design and manufacture a wide variety of bags for bikers, hikers, fireman, etc. – folks who need sturdy products!
The company has been selling products on their web site for a while, and recently completed a site redesign with a local developer using OS Commerce as the catalog and shopping cart solution. They were interested in having us complete a web site assessment to see if there were strategies they could implement to improve their search engine performance and level of consumer sales.
The asseessment showed that the site functions well and there are various tools embedded that will encourage visitors to participate in the site and return in the future (i.e. post products reviews, sign up for emails announcing new products). What is missing, however, is the personality of the people behind the products. Because they serve niche markets that are likely to use the web community for opinions on resources and products (i.e. biking or hiking trails, cool gadgets, etc.), Battle Lake Outdoors needs to create a message about what makes their products unique, and develop a level of credibility within the community they are trying to reach. One approach to reaching these goals is developing a blog, or supporting blogs that already exist and serve their target market. They will also benefit from expanded search engine indexing and some tweaking of the site relative to organic search elements. It was obvious from our conversation with Dennis and Howard that the company has great potential to serve a defined niche audience with a great line of products. A summary of our recommendationss was to let the personality of their company shine through on the site.
Next stop – Staples
Our next visit was with Mary and Marty at Carmel Apple Orchard Inn, a bed and breakfast about 3 miles outside of Staples. The country setting is absolutely beautiful, and would be a perfect retreat for anyone interested in getting out of town for a few days! Jan and I were overwhelmed with the level of hospitality provided by Mary and Marty, and can attest first hand to the quality of the mid-afternoon snacks – an amazing chocolate brownie and refreshing lemonade.
The owners have worked to create a relaxed setting among apple orchards, flower gardens, and extensive and unique landscape features. Original artwork appears on the walls of the B&B as well as in and around the gardens. After 2 years of being in business, the facility has proven itself to be attractive to a wide range of guests, from Minnesota honeymooners to international travelers.
While the business doesn’t have a web site yet, they are already getting visitors from a couple of key online directory listings. You can see a couple of the listings at http://www.minnesotabedandbreakfasts.org/Inns/Carmel_Apple_Orchard_Inn.htm or http://www.exploreminnesota.com/listing.aspx?EntityID=17680.
Mary and Marty recognize the need for a web site. We talked to them about their options – and it seemed as if the quickest, cheapest way to get them going is to create a blog using a tool like WordPress. Mary has experience writing a newsletter so a blog is a great way for her to describe the property and amenities, updates on what’s happening in the area, offer web-only specials, and tell the story of the Inn without learning to use html or investing in software or online web editors. Even if/when they do create a more traditional business site, the blog will be a nice complement.
Day 2 – Bertha
The following day, we started out at Diamond Tool and Engineering in Bertha. They design and manufacture molds that are used by plastic injection companies. They have a web site but would like to provide an additional level of service to potential and existingclients. Specifically they would like a tool that will allow clients to upload large drawings, specs and RFP files directly from their site. We discussed the availability of hosting plans that provide enough storage space, security measures and multiple levels of FTP access to meet their needs.
We also talked more generally about network issues – would a local wireless network make sense for their office users? Are there good ways to get a Novell Network to work with software designed for Microsoft? The company currently subscribes to Internet access via a partial T1 line, which was the best broadband option a few years ago. T1s now tend to be more expensive than options like DSL, cable, or WiMax. We recommended that they look into these other connection options with their local provider in order to get expanded bandwidth (to handle those large client files) for potentially less money.
Jan and I enjoyed meeting with the owners, Kent and Dorothy, and recognized that they need greater bandwidth sooner rather than later because of the large CAD files they send and receive. Also, we learned a new catch phrase from Dorothy, who is the incidental techie for the company – “I geek to live, not live to geek.”
Last but not least – Long Prairie
Our final stop was a visit with Neal and Jill at Neal’s Motor Sports in Long Prairie, which sells ATVs, motorcycles, lawn mowers, and everything in between. They recently became Kawasaki dealers and sell new and used parts and vehicles. They have had good success selling items on eBay and have shipped items near and far. You can see their profile for eBay at http://myworld.ebay.com/ebaymotors/biermaier555/.
The company wants their own branded web site in order to provide a wide variety of products and parts to potential customers. Because the company is a dealer for a number of large product lines, we recognized that this would not be a small undertaking. Neal showed us a few sites that serve a similar market, and through a bit of research, had tracked down a couple of web development companies that created many of them. He was looking for confirmation more than anything about the quality of the code, the price range, and the approach that web companies take in reselling their solutiongs. He had already gotten a personal reference for one of the companies that builds catalog-based web sites for dealers like himself. We dug around their site for a while. It appears as if they are going to have a solution that will let them jump into e-commerce with both feet – and I think Neal and Jill are ready for it. They have a strong vision of what they want to provide online and I think that vision will be their greatest asset.
We also suggested that he too could create a blog just to get a web site up quickly – because the full service site will take a while to create and again, a blog will complement the long term site and help attract search engine referrals.