Two ancient merchants, a certain parable goes, stop their carts at a new, rickety bridge across an old, wild river. One of them, hesitating, points to the familiar booths lining their side. Why risk the trip, he asks, when other merchants aren’t venturing across? The other, who has already started out uncomfortably across the span, stops and turns to his friend and says: “That’s what makes the risk worthwhile.

I feel much the same way about Instagram. Although the gaps we traverse are larger, a … stranger kind of space, technology still plays a similar role: connecting people, strengthening bonds, affording opportunities to those bold enough to embrace an unfamiliar future.

Technology has always been intimidating, especially for small businesses. It’s a step into the unknown, an investment with uncertain return. As business people, we’re taught to pound pavement, attend networking events, follow up, build relationships. Make enough connections, show your worth and you’ll succeed.

That advice certainly isn’t wrong. But it is, in this modern age, incomplete.

When I ran a small firm, I tried all the old ways. I shook hands, I networked, I cultivated a referral base and built a reputation. I ran pithy radio ads that charged by the second. But none of it gained me any traction online, and I wanted to change that.

So instead of making small talk in crowded rooms, I started putting myself out there on Twitter. Instead of building authority through sponsored talks, I’d write blog entries and crosspost to Facebook, engaging with any commenters who stopped by. Instead of knocking on doors, I researched keywords.

Those efforts quickly led to consults, new clients and referrals; technology, it turned out, hadn’t replaced the relationships we’d all been told to build. Rather, it facilitated them. When used correctly, the Internet is a tool, a path to connection, a bridge allowing us to find, identify and nurture the personal relationships that have always driven small-business success.

It’s the same game as ever, just played in a different arena.

The world is never so different as it seems. The soaring bridges of today operate on the same principles behind hand-built Roman arches. Business is still about building relationships. New technologies will always feel scary — change always does — but it’s still better to be first across that bridge. If you wait too long to cross, there might not be any room left.

Tools to cross the digital bridge

Just as you would any other tool, it’s important to pick the right technology to address your problem. Here’s some of the problems I’ve seen small businesses face and the solutions I’ve found most useful:
  • Feeling overwhelmed by social media? Hootsuite is a great way to streamline the process, letting you get all your planning done at once.
  • Want to work on your web presence? WordPress started off as a blogging platform but has evolved into a powerful all-around solution for website design. If you’re just looking to make something simple, its clean, professional templates can have you up and running in minutes. Or you can combine any number of the thousands of available plug-ins to create just about any sort of site you want. 
  • Trying to improve team communication? Slack lets everyone easily stay in touch, and project-management systems like Trello or Basecamp help make sure everyone’s on the same page. 
  • Tired of carrying around three cellphones? Google Voice offers a free digital phone number that lets you set active hours, forwarding rules and custom responses. If you need to send a fax but don’t have a fax machine, HelloFax is a clean, efficient service that’ll let you send up to five pages for free.