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Small Business Braces for Year 2000
By Gretchen Lehmann
December 28, 1998
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With 1998 drawing to a close, there is bound to be more and more talk about Y2K, the year 2000 dilemma. Big companies have spent years and millions of dollars trying to get their systems ready for the year 2000 and with just over a year left, most are in the final stages of preparation. But for small business owners, the situation is quite different. Many are just starting to think about Y2K.

THE SMALL BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION'S Year 2000 website opens to a screen with a clock. It counts down the months, days, hours, and minutes left until January 1, 2000. Officials with the SBA say they opted for this "time is running out" message because so few small business owners are taking steps to make their operations Y2K compliant. D.J. Caulfied is a public information specialist for the SBA.

Caulfied: When you look at the most recent findings, you find that 1-in-5 has actually taken action to resolve Y2K problems in their business, another 1-in-5 plans to take action before the year 2000. However, 2-in-5 plan to do nothing about it, then the final 1-in-5 are simply unaware of the problem.
Caulfield says a barrage of news stories about Y2K makes it hard to imagine anyone hasn't heard of it. He believes the reason small-business owners aren't taking action is two-fold. For one, computers play a lesser role at small businesses, but Caulfield says these owners are also used to waiting out businesses problems until the bigger companies find some solutions. Laura Hansen, owner of Bookin' It Bookstore in Little Falls, is a perfect case in point.
Hansen: I guess at this point I'm thinking, "There's more information coming down the pike yet." You know, maybe the initial things we heard, maybe it won't be that big. Certainly by mid-year we better have a handle on things, but I'm hoping also there's more real good information.
Hansen sheepishly admits she and her three employees haven't done much to make the bookstore year 2000 compliant. But she says that's just the life of the small-business owner.
Hansen: I'm running hand-to-foot constantly. Just putting out fires in front of me as I go, and that fire is just a little farther out on the horizon, and I can't say at this level I've coped with it.
Hansen says she has gone as far as checking with her book supplier to make sure that company won't have any trouble. And she says her one computer - a combination word processor, database, and cash register - is on its last legs anyway, so she'll just get a new one that can process year 2000 information. Hansen says her business is technically so simple that even in the event there are major problems, book sales can continue.
Hansen: If the power goes out, we go ahead and do our business. On a day-to-day basis, we're always prepared to handle customers even if "the system is down."
Dee Rengel: Can she, seriously?
Dee Rengel, owner and manager of Rengel Printing in St. Cloud isn't sure any small business will be able to beat Y2K.
Rengel: What if her phones don't work? What if the safe can't open? What if so many different things?
Unlike Hansen, Rengel has had year 2000 on her mind for more than a year. She and her 21 employees rely on many other businesses to keep their print shop going. Last August, Rengel sent out letters to all her suppliers to make sure they're prepared for 2000, and she's making contingency plans should anything hamper her business. Her big worry is that when the clock strikes 12 on the morning of January 1, there will be no power and no phone service. Rengel says she'll do all she can do. Lay in extra office supplies, for instance. And she says she's heard of businesses joining forces to make sure they can keep serving their customers.
Rengel: There's one person here in St. Cloud, a business who is partnering with another business in Colorado, so if they have trouble, this business in St. Cloud can work with them and if we have trouble here, they have someone in Colorado who will help meet their commitments.
Rengel says she does agree with her fellow small-business owner Laura Hansen. Should everything go awry a year from January, she'll be in a better position to operate on her own business than larger operations will. SBA specialist D.J. Caulfield says this may be true, but small business owners can't forget that as independent as they think they are, they can't exist in a vacuum.
Caulfield: Even if you just have a switch that turns on and off the lights, and that's the extent of your technology, you are vulnerable because you could suddenly find that the delivery person that comes to your door each and every day with your product, that delivery person has their schedule determined to a great degree by a computer that could suffer from the Y2K problem. So everyone in the supply chain has to ask the next person up, "Are you Y2K compliant?"
The Small Business Administration kicked off its Y2K education initiative in September, aiming to get more small-business owners prepared. The Y2K industry also seems to be shifting its efforts towards small business. Just check the Internet and you'll find an ever increasing number of consultants and online businesses ready to guide small business owners through the minefield of Y2K compliance.