Anytime, Anywhere Transactions:
Score 1 for Micro-business!
31 October 2013

by tmartin on October 31, 2013

SOMETIMES YOU REALLY WANT TO SCREAM when you run a small business. You know what you need, but the only way you can get it by being a bigger business.

Then technology happens.

Technology changes the way we relate to each other – and that means traditional dynamics get flipped on their heads. No, I’m not talking about social media here! With the annual retail frenzy season almost upon us, I’m thinking about the way we relate in commerce.

EBay forever changed the way we think about the pile of junk in our basement. Or the way we consider how to turn a hobby into something more.

Amazon re-imagined the concept of the shopping mall for the digital age, bringing comparison-shopping and midnight browsing and buying to life.

And, over the past three years, a little white square plug in device has turned payment upside down, especially for small and micro businesses.

You see, for small business, taking credit cards payments traditionally meant also taking hefty fees, minimum guarantees, specialized equipment, and general complexity in a bank relationship. Sometimes the best solution was no solution – even when it meant losing business.

So the craft fair beads & buttons booth took cash only. The young coffee shop had to take credit cards because people expected it … but it grimaced in pain at the overhead.

Small retailers spent money on often-clunky cash register systems. And then spent money to train people how to use them. They read about Point of Sale (POS) systems – but never had the time to install and master one, let alone justify the cost.

Then two things happened: the world went mobile with smart phones and tablets, and Jack Dorsey launched a company named Square.

By now, you’ve probably seen the result – those little white 1-inch squares attached to a smartphone or a tablet that appear at the beads & buttons booth at Windmill Weekend, in the art gallery’s quiet information corner, in the taxi cab, at the new cafe, in the smoothie kiosk, in the landscaper’s truck, next to the guitar stand at open mic night …

The iPad debuted in January 2010 and went on sale in April; by May more than 1 million devices were on the street and by the end of the year 7.5 million had been sold. By October 2012, Apple announced it has sold its 100 millionth iPad and reportedly sold 14.1 million of the devices in the last quarter this year. Android devices have flooded the market in similiar numbers as well.

In 2010, Twitter founder Dorsey’s new company ( announced its rather audacious goal of using technology to let anyone, anywhere, take credit card payments … and promptly unleashed the first of those little white squares on the world.

Square’s startup team explicitly did not include bankers, credit card experts, or traditionally trained payment experts.

Dorsey told Inc. Magazine that this approach meant “We get to design what we want to see in the world rather than doing what other people think should be done.”

Today you can pick up a Square reader at office stores like Staples or order one online from Square itself (

Cost for the device? $0.

To use it? Plug it into an Apple or Andriod device.

Transaction costs? 2.75% per card swipe.

Easy to get and simple to use, with a transparent user fee … is it any surprise long-frustrated small and micro-business owners snatched them up?

Other companies took note and entered the mobile payment space. Front and center lies Square’s small white square, but you might also spot a blue triangle, representing PayPal’s PayPal Here ( or a black rectangle from Intuit’s Go Payment ( Big credit player Capital One stepped in with its Spark Pay, in the form of a blue square. (

Of course, that credit card transaction represents just the first step. The world spins on data. As POS systems became common over the past decade for larger retailers, they remained a distant afterthought for smaller organizations and individual sellers.

However, your Square records every transaction and uses that record to bring you – the small guy – the kind of reporting you couldn’t touch before.

One small retail store owner told me that the data he and his partner had gotten from their Square transactions helped understand their busiest times. Once they could easily see when sales happened, it turned the process of managing from a gut sensation to a deliberate business choice.

“It took the guess work out,” he said. “We can print it out and you know exactly what happened.”

POS data also helps small companies plan their inventory management, consider went to offer promotions to boost sales during slow times, and generally understand the flow of business based on recorded results.

We forget that credit cards are a fairly recent innovation, and that through technology Visa and its ilk created a whole new payment industry that disrupted the norms of 20th midcentury commerce.

Now the disruptive forces are flowing again; 21st century technology helps the millions of small and micro businesses that make up the backbone of the economy across much of our country compete on equal footing with the consolidated companies of the last century.

For the past two years, I’ve seen that little white square grow more and more ubiquitous.

For example, I don’t think I’ve taken a cab in the past 12 months where I didn’t slide my card though a mobile card reader attached to the driver’s smart phone or tablet. As a customer, I love it because it’s one tap, and I’m on my way with the receipt conveniently sent to my email.

At the endless array of summer fairs, my impulse to buy that shimmery pair of earrings now gets to act … because the artist has a mobile card reader on her iPhone and I don’t need physical cash in my pocket to have those earrings shimmering in my ears.

I’ve learned that most micro business owners have to pretty smart people to survive. The operational decisions they make have been limited by the tools they could access — but that’s no longer the case.

Square brings us a whole different way of thinking about the tools of a small business and the nature of commercial interaction. With Square – including the important data applications within it – “moms and pops” can act in ways as sophisticated as much larger companies and the place for commerce becomes any place a buyer and seller meet.

Riding in a cab will never be the same. Well okay, maybe the ride hasn’t changed – but the way we pay? No one’s looking back!

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