The death of a typewriter repairer

Despite owing his longevity to cheap scotch and strong tobacco, the America’s oldest typewriter repairman passed away two weeks ago. The fate of his shop is one that many other small businesses will share.

Manson Whitlock of New Haven, Connecticut had run his typewriter shop from the early 1930s until shortly before his death. Needless to say, he didn’t like computers.

“I don’t even know what a computer is,” The New York Times reported. “I’ve heard about them a lot, but I don’t own one, and I don’t want one to own me.” While Manson’s shop had six staff at its peak, in recent years he ran the operation on his own and the business died with him. Many baby boomer business owners face the same fate as Manson Whitlock as their businesses decline in the face of changing technology and shifting change.

Some of the boomers will suffer because they are undercapitalised and, as the next generation of entrepreneurs can’t afford to buy these existing businesses, most of those will work way past the date they planned to retire.

A good example of this is a radio shop near my office which has been run by an old gentleman for many years. When I went into it in 1997 for something – I forget what – the proprietor was almost shocked to see a customer and he couldn’t help me.

I’m not surprised that it was rare to see a customer as none of the stock behind the cluttered counter seemed to date beyond 1980.

The only reason the shop survived was because the proprietor owned the premises as there’s no way the place could have paid the modern rents with the non-existent turnover.

A few weeks ago the shop closed. I don’t know whether the owner retired or passed away, but the business closed with him.

This example and the New Haven typewriter repairer demonstrate how businesses can be left behind by technology.

While both stores had plenty of time to react to the rise of computers during the 1980s and 90s, their proprietors chose not to and by the 2000s it was too late.

Today, technology and business are changing even faster and there’re many more big and small enterprises that risk being left behind by change.

It’s not only the changing marketplace that risks the future of these businesses, the failure to invest in things as simple as modern point of sale systems or even a basic website will leave many exposed.

The time to invest in new systems and products is now and if you can’t invest in the future, then it’s time to get out.

Paul Wallbank‘s latest book, eBu$iness, Seven Steps to Online Success, shows how business can get online quickly and cost effectively using web 2.0, cloud computing, social media and e-commerce tools.


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