Mitch Hoyt: Digital tools help small businesses compete

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

I am passionate about Wisconsin maple syrup. It started as a hobby, became a challenge (“Can I do this?”) and now is a successful family business. Our success really began when we embraced digital tools and technology that helped us break through the noise and capture lots of new customers. I’m concerned, however, that many elected officials want to change the way digital companies and digital businesses work and that their ideas could really hurt small businesses in ways they don’t understand.

I wasn’t always in the syrup business. I spent 25 years in corporate sales and marketing. Then in 2011 a man approached me at a trade show and asked if I would like to taste something unique. He filled a small cup from an unlabeled wine bottle and it tasted wonderful. He had made this wine from maple syrup.

I was impressed, and I thought about the maple trees in my backyard and that I could make this wine. So the next spring I made 25 gallons of maple wine, and additionally I had enough sap left over to produce 6 quarts of syrup. The wine was good, but the syrup was spectacular. I was hooked.

My first 12-gallon batch of syrup was a test run for friends and neighbors. It was gone in a week, and I quickly realized this could be a viable business. We applied for inspection and a commercial syrup producer’s license posthaste and then we got to work the old-fashioned way – driving to stores through the Midwest, going door-to-door, selling as many bottles of syrup as we could.

We knew our product was great and people liked that it was 100% from Wisconsin. Other local producers were selling to large distributors who would blend lots of syrups into a generic product. We did the opposite, going all-in on our Wisconsin purity. I convinced 25 local producers to work with us to create and sell real Wisconsin maple syrup.

Initially business was good, but to really succeed we needed to break away from store-to-store sales. We had a website but it wasn’t getting much traffic. So three years ago we redid our website, focused on “search engine optimization” and super-charged our digital marketing.

Our new strategy worked. Online advertising tools like Google Adwords and social media sites like Facebook have really helped us get the word out, both to consumers who shop on our website and grocery chains all across the country. Sales from our website have multiplied by more than 20 times and consumers are now asking local stores to carry our product. Instead of us driving to stores trying to sell a few bottles of syrup, the stores are calling us!

While we are not a “digital business,” digital tools and platforms have really helped us grow and expand in the last few years. But I am starting to worry that this might not always be the case, because politicians and lawmakers seem to think that big technology companies are somehow bad for America. I know for certain that the small business tools these companies offer – for free or at very low cost – have been great for me and my business.

I am not a politician or a policy expert, but all of them need to understand and consider how new policies will affect small businesses like mine. Running a small business is extremely difficult, and new digital small business tools have made it easier for me and for many others. The last thing we want is our elected officials to make our businesses or our lives any more difficult, but I’m afraid that will be the result of overregulation of the digital economy. That’s not why we elected anyone to office – so I hope that is not what they do.

– Hoyt is owner of Skinny Sticks Maple Syrup.

 

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