Make the Web do your work
July 15, 1998
by Ken Fermoyle
(IDG) -- The smartest thing I've done since launching my publishing and editing service is to take on a silent partner.
It's called the Internet.
It lets me spend less time on the piddling, time-consuming tasks involved in running my business -- like applying for a loan or a business license, shopping for office supplies, and sending overnight packages -- so I can devote more time to making money.
Using Web-based services to help with these small-business equivalents of stoop labor frees time I once spent away from the office or on the phone. I can focus instead on the writing and publishing projects that bring in the bucks at my three-person editorial services business.
The Web will never fully replace real-world business resources and human interaction, but it has already become indispensable to my business.
Getting Loans: Show Me the Money
All small businesses need money. Getting it used to mean trekking to banks and finance companies, filling out endless forms, and supplicating flint-hearted loan officers. The process could take weeks, and it was as much fun as being hit slowly with a brick.
A couple of years ago, I needed a new camera and a special lens to complete a job for a client -- and I needed it yesterday. The three banks I approached couldn't move fast enough with a line of credit, so I wound up at the local office of a loan company. I got the money within hours, but the high interest rate ate up a good share of my gross profit on the project.
It won't happen again: Recently, I needed a $3500 loan for a new workstation and scanner, so I pointed my Web browser to Quicken Business CashFinder, Intuit's comprehensive loan broker site. CashFinder listed ten participating lenders, from American Express and Citibank to Union Bank of California (with many more slated to come aboard by year's end). I applied for the loan in a three-step process.
First I answered a few questions online, such as how long I'd been in business, how long at my current location, and how much money I wanted to borrow. CashFinder analyzed my responses and within a minute showed me ten different financing options, from credit cards to bank loans to equipment leases. Some lenders had offices near me; for others, the closest office was online.
CashFinder let me choose up to three of the options offered. Then it built a custom Windows program containing all the information I needed to complete the selected application forms, presenting it in a guided, fill-in-the-blanks approach. I had no trouble downloading and installing the software on my PC. Finally, I filled out, printed, and mailed the loan application. Altogether I spent less than an hour on the task -- far less time than it takes to drive to a local bank and wait for an interview with a loan officer. (Another nice touch: Because you store the application on your PC, your financial data remains confidential, rather than parading through the Internet.) Lenders responded in less than 48 hours--and yes, I got a line of credit soon after, which I can tap into for future needs.
Besides its Business CashFinder, Intuit offers two other great financial sites: Intuit and Quicken.com. Together, these sites offer the most comprehensive lineup of financial services I've found on the Web, thanks to their partnerships with banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and the federal government. New partners and services appear every month.
Cutting Through Red Tape
Next to banks, government entities have the highest IQs--that's Irritation Quotients--for small businesses. If you have ever tried to get a business license or a copy of a zoning ordinance or government report, you know it can take weeks of letter writing, faxing, and telephoning. I've used the Web to beat the bureaucracy, but zeroing in on the right government office online is still a hit-and-miss proposition. Not every municipality and agency is up to Web speed yet.
For information at the national level, I start with FedWorld, an indispensable gateway to everything federal. Run by the U.S. Department of Commerce, FedWorld provides plenty of ways to pinpoint the location of data, forms, and advice offered by the feds. FedWorld lets me quickly plow through multiple government sites and documents in minutes instead of months to get the information I need.
For example, when I began gathering data for a corporate white paper on telephony, FedWorld led me to an excellent (and free for the downloading) 41-page Glossary of Telecommunications Terms. This handy guide helped me cut through the jargon-infested thicket of new telephony technologies and deregulation rules. Try getting this glossary by calling the Federal Communications Commission directly, and see how many bureaucrats you have to talk to before you're finally told to look on their Web site.
The all-encompassing White House Web site opens the gate to nearly every resource the feds have to offer. It includes Commonly Requested Federal Services--direct links to information on Social Security, trademark and copyright issues, taxes, and grants and government contracts--and the Interactive Citizens' Handbook, a virtual-links switchboard for finding the right offices and phone numbers of federal government branches and agencies.
Another excellent source for targeting the right online government connections is Government on the Net (Nolo Press, 1998, $40), a book–and–CD-ROM set with links to more than 2000 sites related to all levels of government. The book describes what you'll find at each site, while the CD-ROM contains live links to get you there quickly.
In some instances, locating information about a particular local or regional government body can be especially difficult. Start your search with Yahoo Regional: U.S. States, select your state, and follow links to the specific county or city of interest. I've tracked down everything from state income tax schedules to the exact room number in City Hall where I needed to go to file a form.
You can expect to strike out occasionally. Some government entities have adapted to the Web better than others. But when you're successful, it beats being bounced like a football from department to department in search of help.
Desperately Seeking Tech Support
In my three-person business, I'm not just CEO, chief finance officer, and janitor--I'm also the MIS guy, which means that I spend a lot of time hunting down technical support on the Web. Sites like those run by Microsoft and Adobe are full of searchable databases, FAQs, and the latest drivers and bug fixes. And finding what you need online is a lot easier and more pleasant than calling the vendor, getting put on hold, and then enduring minutes of elevator music before reaching a corporate minion who may or may not know anything.
Though the Web is useful for getting technical answers, I often resort to a source of tech support that's somewhat less frequented but more up-close and personal: user groups. I've belonged to ten groups over the past 17 years and received far more assistance from them than I've paid for in dues.
Recently, for instance, I bought a new motherboard, CPU, and SDRAM to upgrade one of my computers. I sent e-mail to two of the hardware gurus in my home group, soliciting their help in the installation project. "Bring the system and your new goodies to the next hardware SIG [special interest group] meeting, and we'll give you a hand," they replied. I did just that; 2 hours later the upgraded PC was up and running at warp speed. I couldn't have done that by calling a vendor support phone line. Most user groups have local meetings where you can meet and greet fellow members; others, while still close-knit and helpful, reside only on chatty Web sites.
To find a user group in your area, I recommend visiting the Association of PC User Groups. If you want a general roundup of useful data, try The User Group Network, which carries a mixed bag of news, product reviews, and technical information, including a Q&A posting area, for both PC and Mac users. Delphi Internet (www.delphi.com), a site made up of various subject-organized "communities," offers friendly advice and support for all levels of PC users in a number of moderated forums. To get started, go to either www.delphi.com/pccompat (for hardware assistance) or www.delphi.com/doswin (for Windows help).
Hiring a Virtual Steno Pool
Not so very long ago, if I needed some dictation transcribed, I hired a temp--or schlepped a tape cartridge to a transcription service. Now I use a simple online stenography pool that is available 24 hours a day and costs less than most traditional services. CyberTranscriber (Speech Machines, 888/267-9891) employs a sophisticated speech-recognition system to take dictation and return it as e-mail.
After registering a password at the CyberTranscriber site, you receive an account ID. Then you call a toll-free number, enter your ID, and dictate your golden words over the phone. It's kludgy, but you can also work from a PC equipped with microphone and speakers or (even better) a headset. You can use your telephone's keypad to play back the dictated material before submitting it--rewinding and rerecording as needed.
I woke up one night with an idea for a syndicated monthly column I write. Instead of running downstairs to a computer in my office, I picked up the bedside phone, speed-dialed CyberTranscriber, and dictated some notes. When I checked my e-mail the next morning, my thoughts were all there, dutifully transcribed. My wife, who has had surgery for repetitive-strain problems, appreciates how the system spares her many long bouts of typing.
Beyond the initial $30 registration fee, you pay a $10 monthly fee that covers four 225-word pages of transcription; additional pages cost $3.50 each. In contrast, my local transcription service charges $6 to $7 per page. CyberTranscriber claims to achieve verbatim accuracy, keeping correction time extremely low. My experience? Terrific--almost 100 percent of my words have been correctly transformed into print; I attribute the handful of errors to poor pronunciation on my part. Turnaround time averages less than 3 hours, with delivery guaranteed no later than the next day.
Finding a Package Deal
The box is sealed and you're ready to ship it to a customer. If you're like me, you've logged days of precious time over the years calling shipping companies, comparing prices, and hunting for the best deal. But I don't do it anymore. Now I let WorldWide Merchant's InterShipper figure all the rates for me. I merely enter my zip code, the destination code, my package's size and weight, and the type of service (such as overnight or second-day). InterShipper then calculates the cost of shipping the package by the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, United Parcel Service, or some other carrier, complete with a chart comparing all rates, and links to each shipper's site.
Need to know whether your package arrived safely? InterShipper's companies provide quick online package tracking and full information about the other services they offer. You can go directly to each shipper's Web site or use InterShipper's links to get there. Then bookmark the tracking pages of the services you use most often.
Getting the Goods Online
After buying computer hardware, software, and office supplies from retail stores or mail-order catalogs for years, I recently investigated the online alternatives. My conclusion: Savings are possible, if not always huge, and ordering online can be convenient--especially if you need to shop during off-hours. Comparison-shopping from your desktop also lets you hit the offline stores knowing exactly what you want and how much you should pay for it.
Snagging a clerk in a retail store can be harder than catching the eye of a waiter in a French restaurant. Online "clerks" (that is, Web pages) are comparatively easy to find, provide more information than you'll get in many computer stores, and stay on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sites like Computer Discount Warehouse provide you with detailed apples-to-apples comparisons of the products they sell. Other sites, such as Software.net and Egghead.com, let you download and install new software instantly; to unlock the display case, you simply supply your credit card info.
PriceWatch and ComputerESP specialize in comparison shopping. Type the name of the product you want, and you'll get back a list of online sites that sell it, ordered from cheapest to most expensive. For example, a 3Com Palm III handheld organizer that lists for $399 in retail stores was available for as little as $323 on sites noted by ComputerESP.
Of course, the online shopping experience isn't all peaches and correction fluid. You won't always save money--but you can find bargains. Office supply giant Quill consistently has good buys. I recently got ten reams of 20-pound copier paper for $2 each, and a remanufactured LaserJet III toner cartridge cost $30 (versus $35 for the same cartridge at a local computer shop). Quill offers free shipping on most orders above $45. Office Depot pays for shipping on orders of $50 or more. The OfficeMax site has competitive prices and posts SOHO business resource pages and a product information directory, both containing useful links to related sites.
How much time you save by shopping online depends on the old real estate essential: location, location, location! I live within a 10-minute drive of six computer, office supply, and electronics superstores, plus several smaller computer storefronts, so shopping online doesn't save me much time. For someone who lives far from such abundance, virtual storefronts are a great resource.
Using the Web as a silent partner is great. But doing some chores right still requires you to put shoe leather to pavement or telephone to ear. For instance, although I rely heavily on e-mail, I find that face-to-face meetings and phone calls continue to be vital in some situations.
Real-time relationships with real people remain the foundation of success in conducting and expanding a business. Using the Web to do the grunt work gives you more time to get those meetings in--and complete your real work, too.
Ken Fermoyle is a Los Angeles-based freelance technology writer and a syndicated computer columnist.
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