Google pushes small Minn. businesses to get online

Photographing jewelry
Beth Soll photographs a jewelry piece at her home in Shoreview, Minn. Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. Soll said one of her largest challenges with getting her business on the Web is properly depicting her jewelry pieces in photographs.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Many consumers likely that think most businesses already have a presence on the Internet, where large and small companies showcase their goods and services.

But about 60 percent of small businesses in Minnesota do not have a website, according to estimates by Google. If those who work on their own are included that's as many as 400,000 businesses — from artists and accountants to carpenters and chiropractors.

To help link those businesses to potential customers, Google is coordinating a nationwide push to connect small businesses to the Internet. Earlier this month in St. Paul, some 900 businesses attended a Google-sponsored workshop on the Web, enticed in part by the offer of free websites for one year.

Among those who could benefit from a strong online presence is Beth Soll, who makes dichroic glass jewelry in her Shoreview home studio. She fuses layers of glass in a kiln at 1,400 degrees, which gives the glass an iridescent quality.

Some pieces look like opals, sapphires, or combinations of precious stones. Others are blends of vibrantly-colored glass.

"I have captured the far reaches at the edge of universe in these little pieces of glass," Soll said. "I take them and try to make something mystical out of them."

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Jewelry maker
Beth Soll creates jewelry pieces at her home in Shoreview, Minn. Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. Soll, who owns Elizabeth's Starlight, is trying to figure out the Web presence and strategy for her jewelry business.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Soll figures she can generate modest sales of her work at parties, art shows and possibly, galleries. But she'd like to display her jewelry on the Internet, a move she thinks would expand her reach and generate some serious sales.

"I would like people to be able to find my stuff on the Internet and be able to sell it all over the country or maybe the world," she said.

Right now, though, Soll just has a one page site with her contact information — but no pictures of her jewelry. That puts her at a disadvantage.

"A minimal Web presence is the new threshold for being a business today," said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. "It is extraordinarily simple. There are companies like Google and CenturyLink and Comcast that will get you set up now. The money is not an issue to pass that first threshold anymore."

A small business can have a simple site for less than $10 a month. But many small business owners overestimate the challenges of building an Internet site, said Steve Grove, head of news and politics at Google and YouTube.

"People think, 'Oh I need have like a special IT guy' or 'I need to know how to write computer code in order to get on the Web,' " he said. "But in fact it's actually super easy."

Designing a business Web page only takes a few simple steps — essentially fill in blanks, cut-and-paste and upload, Grove said. It's so easy that a small business can have a basic Web site in about an hour.

Gluing glass pieces
Beth Soll glues pieces of glass together as she creates jewelry pieces at her home in Shoreview, Minn. Monday, Sept. 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Google has a vested interest in attracting more businesses to the Internet. It sells e-commerce tools and services to businesses — everything from business-class e-mail and Internet-based office software to advertising and online check-outs.

But the payoff for investing in such tools can be big. For some small businesses, Internet sales can take off and dwarf the revenue from face-to-face transactions.

At the Needle Doctor in St. Louis Park, which caters to folks who still love their vinyl record, 90 percent of orders for turntables, needles and related phonographic equipment are processed via the Internet.

"The Web is essential to our business," general manager Ken Bowers said.

The Needle Doctor's online store has been up and running for about 15 years. It includes some 10,000 products and allows customers to place orders around the clock.

Bowers said some business may only have the need, time or money for a website that just gives the basics such as location and hours. But he said even a simple site can still draw customers and generate sales.

"Nobody uses the Yellow Pages anymore," he said. "People don't use 411, they go on the Internet, they go on their smart phone. And if you don't have a presence at all on the Web, you may not ever be found."