The reason I’m writing this is quite simple: I want to save you a lot of time, money, headaches, and frustration. If you are in business – any kind of business – you are collecting data. At a minimum you are selling a product to someone. That means that you have at least two datasets: products that you sell and people to whom you sell. Additionally, you have monetary transactions that you have to track for tax purposes if nothing else. Now we have three datasets. Every single business on the planet has these three datasets.
Unless your product is created from dirt (e.g. you run a coal mine) you also have a supplier or list of suppliers from whom you buy. At one end, you have a store where you buy from a warehouse and sell directly to consumers. At the other end, you buy, say, cloth from cloth makers, create clothing, and sell the clothing. In other words, you add value to the product.
Many small business owners keep these datasets in their heads. Literally, they know their suppliers, they don’t need to know their customers (people walk in the door) and a cash register takes care of the minimal data required to track monetary exchanges. Problems arise as the business grows too big for this model or when the key people who have the information get sick, die, attempt to delegate responsibilities, etc.
Small businesses often grow, and as they grow data collection and management becomes more and more important. Often, the methods used to collect small amounts of data don’t scale well. Spreadsheets are a good way to manage some data sets, but they’re limited to being accessed by one user at a time. Some online spreadsheets, such as Google Docs, allow simultaneous access by multiple users, but the spreadsheet format doesn’t lend itself to such usage.
In the next part, I’m going to discuss general data collection techniques for small businesses and focus on spreadsheets as a good way to get started.