In Big Tech crusade, please remember the little guy

Shell game: Digital tools saved New Suffolk oyster farm Peeko Oysters during the height of the pandemic -- and they can save your small business, too, unless they're regulated out of existence, warns Peeko founder Peter Stein.

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the restaurant industry. While many are still operating for pickup and delivery, they have shorter hours and far fewer employees.

The effects of restaurant hardships go far below the surface, threatening small, independent farmers and suppliers who depend on restaurants for their livelihoods. That’s why my business took a hit.

Fortunately, in large part because of free and low-cost digital business tools, many in the food supply chain have been able to restructure and stay in business. But I am worried that Congress and other lawmakers don’t realize the importance of digital platforms and tools for small businesses, and that they are on a path toward making new laws that target Big Tech – new laws that could really hurt our business and slow down our economic recovery.

In a recent study by the Connected Commerce Council, 70 percent of small businesses said digital tools were very useful during the COVID-19 crisis, and 31 percent said they would have to close part or all of their business if they didn’t have them.

These numbers are a striking sign of our rapidly digitized economy. And looking at the way businesses have adapted during the crisis, including mine, it’s clear that digital tools have been a lifeline.

As the owner of a small oyster farm in New Suffolk, I was stunned as our list of clients evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic shattered New York. To survive, we had to think and act fast, and digital tools helped us transform more than I could have imagined.

First, online business tools helped us reshape our operations from the inside out, practically overnight. With our restaurant customers rendered nonexistent by the pandemic, we changed our entire business structure and pivoted quickly to selling direct to consumers.

Peter Stein: Knows a lifeline when he sees one.

Google’s GSuite tools helped us create forms to keep up with direct customer orders and coordinate deliveries, and helped us monitor our business metrics. Venmo and Shopify became our always-on payment systems. Within hours, our day-to-day business operations had changed, but we remained in full control, and we were able to stay in business.

Then we had to get the word out without a marketing budget – to let people know how to get their favorite oysters at home. We turned to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, put ordering links into our Google My Business listing and our Squarespace website, and advertised oyster home-delivery in digital newsletters and community boards.

Very soon we were receiving orders from across the New York metro area. As oysters aren’t typically an at-home treat – 90 percent of them are consumed in restaurants – we quickly set up a YouTube channel and posted videos demonstrating how to shuck, prepare and store oysters at home.

We were on a wild ride for several weeks, but our business has landed in a pretty good place. While the future is uncertain for all of us, we know that our business is surviving.

Hopefully the restaurant industry will recover fairly quickly, and that will benefit suppliers and farmers; when restaurants recover, we will have two revenue streams instead of one, and digital platforms and tools will continue to be a vital part of our business.

As Congress, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state lawmakers return to normal operations in our capitals, we hope they have a newfound appreciation for the importance of digital technologies to small businesses – and that any new laws regarding digital platforms take that importance into account.

Peter Stein is the founder and manager of New Suffolk-based Peeko Oysters, an oyster farm servicing consumers and commercial customers, and a member of the Connected Commerce Council.