When Pen and Paper are Good Enough

A common trope you hear, especially in the tech industry, when talking about problems facing small and medium sized businesses is something along the lines of “a simple app would make that so much easier to solve”. To anyone who’s ever worked in, or with, SMBs though, this is a statement the results in a lot of heavy sighs and head shakes. The big problem with this “simple app” idea is that it completely ignores a very important point. Often times people still use pen and paper to manage their business not because it’s all that’s available, but because it’s the best tool for the job.

I was reminded of this when reading Staffjoy’s post about their closure. Scheduling is one of those things that many managers do as a vital part of their job. It’s a lot like book keeping in a small office or keeping track of inventory at the corner store. It’s vital and is important and causes problems when it goes bad, but it’s also something people spend a couple hours on every week or two and then forget about. But it’s also something that doesn’t have a big integrated ecosystem of applications.

If you run a corner store then managing and keeping track of inventory is probably a big part of your time and is the source of more than a few headaches. But it’s also something you do so frequently that it’s second nature. It’s something you do when it’s slow and you don’t have many customers around. It’s also something that’s fairly unstructured. You probably have a pen and some paper, make a note of what you need to order, then place the order(s). But keep in mind what the process of doing that is like. You’re looking at the number of items on a shelf, making a note, then moving to the next item. What would an app that simplifies that look like?

You might think about building a web app that lets you simply order things online. Well that’s an improvement but you’re not addressing the inventory problem. You’re addressing the ordering problem. So maybe you want to build a mobile app. But what is that app going to do? Will you have to scan the bar code of each item on the shelf so it counts them for you and then has a single button to order everything based on pre-configured amounts you want to keep in inventory? That could work, but now you’re charging your customers for an app that vastly complicates their life and is much slower then what they were doing before.

You could always hook something up to the register but many corner stores don’t actually scan items at check out and the ones who do have dumb registers that are little more than cash drawers with built-in calculators. Plus now you need a way to look at the number of items sold so you can order them. The cost of the register just went through the roof and the added complexity makes it more likely to break. And if it’s got internet access it’s now most likely part of a botnet too. And we still need to manually adjust the numbers to account for shrinkage (theft, damaged items, etc).

My point isn’t that this is impossible. My point is that if someone were to propose to you the problem of the owners of corner stores keeping track of inventory you’d probably immediately invent several ways that sound nice in theory but just cost money in exchange for making the situation worse. The so-called “simple” solutions aren’t actually simple. They add complexity, and a lot of it. Want to know what the real simple solution is? The true MVP? A clipboard with a few sheets of paper and a pen. Total cost is maybe a few bucks every few months. Doesn’t break down (except for the occasional lost pen). Doesn’t crash in the middle of the work day. Doesn’t require internet access to work.

The problem so many companies have when working with small and medium sized businesses is a refusal to acknowledge that pen and paper aren’t still used because that’s all that’s available. They’re still used because in many cases they really are the best possible choice. You don’t need to build a super high tech solution. You need to build a better pen and paper.