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AT ISSUE / VICKI TORRES

Tech Treasure Hunt

Enterprises Grow From Good Ideas

April 08, 1998|VICKI TORRES

David Bianco discovered three years ago that he could easily sell his gay and lesbian history column to newspapers across the country by using e-mail. When Bianco was approached by neuroscientist Simon LeVay to sell his gay science column too, a business idea was born.

Today, Bianco has a stable of 10 columnists and cartoonists in a thriving business, Q Syndicate, the largest provider of content to gay and lesbian newspapers across the country.

"E-mail is at the center of my business," Bianco said. "It saves me an incredible amount of time and money and enabled me to expand quite rapidly."

Bianco, based in Culver City, is an example of how small-business owners can use technology to create enterprises that would not otherwise exist.

Southern California, one of the nation's leading high-tech centers, has thousands of businesses developing new technologies. Small companies here thrive by researching and creating new biomedical techniques and equipment, computer software and hardware, communications equipment and other technologies.

But many more small firms simply take off-the-shelf technology, apply a new twist and create an entirely new business or significantly expand or improve an existing one.

To help them, a network of centers and agencies has grown up in Southern California. They provide low-cost technical expertise, training and consulting for small businesses that seek a technological edge in their operations.

For Bianco, that technological edge was simple e-mail, without which he said his business could not exist.

When he started his company in 1995, 75% of the gay papers he queried had an e-mail address or an editor with e-mail, Bianco said. Now 99% have e-mail, enabling him to send his features to more than 100 small papers across the country.

He has tried to duplicate his success by expanding to other specialty newspapers. He now sells a Jewish crossword puzzle, but has had less luck with an African American crossword puzzle because too few black papers are online. For Bianco, the cost and labor involved in duplicating, faxing or mailing his features would be prohibitive.

"I don't even have a Web page," Bianco said. "I just use e-mail."

Pat Scott, co-owner of NC Dynamics Inc. in Long Beach, a $15-million machine shop, is another company owner who used his knowledge of existing technology to create a business.

In 1979, before personal computers were widely available, Scott and his business partner, Randy Bazz, both computer programmers, went into business leasing time on big main-frame computers. They analyzed complex specifications and wrote machine settings needed by tool companies to produce aerospace and defense industry parts. Small machine shops couldn't afford computers, nor did they have programming expertise, Scott said.

He and Bazz were, in effect, middlemen for machine shops until they realized that they could become a machine shop themselves. These days, Boeing and other companies send them computer models of needed parts over the Internet. NC Dynamics takes the data and programs its machining tools to create parts accurately and rapidly. Gone are paper blueprints and laborious hand-measuring by machinists.

"To exist in this environment, you can't do what we do without the technology," Scott said. "Economically, it would be impossible."

For George Industries, a long-established anodizing shop in East Los Angeles, the addition of computer technology in the last two years has enabled the company to more than double the number of employees to 370 and increase revenue by more than a quarter last year.

"A dirty, low-tech industry of necessity added technology for survival and it has translated into profitability," said David Gering, a company spokesman.

Although both these companies installed new equipment, new technology can simply mean using technological tools to do sophisticated analyses of existing business practices and improve operations.

"Soft technology" is the term for this approach, according to Jerry Gross, vice president of operations at California Manufacturing Technology Center in Hawthorne, which provides technology help to small businesses.

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For example, a computer program called MRP2 (material requirements planning) can help businesses examine their purchasing system to simplify it and make it more efficient. Say a small manufacturer makes 16 products and buys parts from 16 sources. The computer program might discover that one part fits all the products, allowing the business to buy it from one supplier in large quantities and save money.

Other software systems can track wasted materials and wasted labor, while other computer systems can create a "paperless factory."

"Small companies aren't going to buy a lot of robotics, but they are looking to upgrade their efficiencies and get rid of ineffective utilizations of what they have," Gross said.

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