Small businessman Robert Claitor first heard of the Internet via newspaper and magazine articles a year ago. He began calling friends, asking: How does it work? What is it good for? A lawyer pal inspired him with tantalizing tales of new business from his network acquaintances. And he read dozens of stories about companies that found international markets by putting their goods on the Net. Intrigued by what he learned, Claitor began asking another question: How can it help my business?
After months of study, he and his $2.7 million book-publishing company aim to find out. On Aug. 8, Claitor's Law Books & Publishing Div. became the only chronicler of Louisiana parish histories and publisher of federal tax- law books with its own Internet World Wide Web site (http://www.premier.net/CLAITORS). "We can't afford to miss any business opportunity," says the 68-year-old president of the company. "As I looked into the Internet further, I became convinced."
As more small companies try to find out what the hoopla is about, they can turn to a fast-growing list of free and low-cost Internet help. When Claitor began his search, there were no Internet consultants in Baton Rouge--and only two in New Orleans, 60 miles away. Now, there are nearly a dozen in the two cities, he says. What's more, there's now a growing number of helpful World Wide Web stop-offs for small business owners. Two giants: the Small Business Administration's SBAonline (http://www.sbaonline. sba.gov) and MCI Communications' Internet address (http://www.mci.com).
So where should you start? First, you'll need a service that lets you dial into the Internet. Online networks, such as Prodigy Services and America Online (AOL), offer Internet software and access as part of their regular monthly fee. Service companies, such as Performance Systems International or MCI, will provide modem access and easy-to-use software. Expect to pay connection charges of $10 to $100 a month, depending on the company, the services required, and how frequently you access the Net or its multimedia section, the World Wide Web.
RICH STEW. Experts say the best way to learn the Internet is by reading and posting messages to online forums, called newsgroups. You can search for pertinent newsgroups by entering the World Wide Web portion of the Internet and retrieving a newsgroup directory. Type gopher://gopher.tamu.edu:70/11/.dir/newsgroups.dir to get a list of active forums. Paul Gilster, author of a book called The Internet Navigator, says newsgroup activity can help establish you and your company as an authority on a topic. By including an E-mail address on messages, you encourage others to contact you--where a business pitch with any subsequent response is appropriate.
Posting messages in the newsgroup section is also a way to locate business owners with similar interests. SBA's online service provides free Internet E-mail and a bulletin board for small businesses that want to exchange information with others. "If I have a question, there's usually someone out there who has the answer," says Mark McBride, president of software developer Scandinavian PC Systems and a frequent SBA bulletin board writer. His SBAonline finds include a bill-collection agency that salvaged a deadbeat account McBride had all but given up hope of ever closing.
Another must for novices is to check out the home pages of rivals or companies in related fields. Evan Jones, president of TSI Soccer, a Durham (N.C.) soccer-gear and clothing retailer, reviewed the home page of furnishings cataloger Sundance Entertainment when he was considering starting up his own page. Jones recently took the plunge, allowing customers to order electronically via his server (http://www/.tsisoccer.com/TSI/).
Mostly, though, Jones sees the Internet as a tool to position TSI Soccer as a cutting-edge retailer--and a slick way to test new ideas and products on well-heeled U.S. and international customers.
HIGH-END HELP. Checking out business-oriented Web sites is easier than ever, thanks to long-distance giant MCI. Its Small Business Resource Center offers links to dozens of Web sites. Although many are more germane to big corporations, small businesses can use the MCI Web site as a jumping-off point to locate government and business resources. For instance, it identifies the SBA regional offices and Commerce Dept. international trade offices. In keeping with the Internet's low-key culture, MCI lists its own products and services for small businesses as a button on the Resource Center page.
Two of the better directories accessed through the MCI page are Interesting Business Sites on the Web and IndustryNet. The former, maintained by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, provides an ever-changing compendium of neat places to review--from online classified advertisements to financial-services companies. It is an invaluable tool for opening the eyes of a newcomer to the Net's potential. IndustryNet is geared to the small manufacturer or job shop, with trade show listings, a directory of 180,000 manufacturing companies, and classified ads.
If all this touring has you thirsting for a Web site of your own, it's getting easier and cheaper all the time. New "Web server" software for the do-it-yourselfer can be had for under $200. While high-powered Web servers may run as much as $10,000, a spare PC will often fit the bill. Claitor, for instance, spent just $3,000 for a new PC and a programming consultant to put his electronic catalog together. He pays $100 a month for a service company to maintain the Internet connections. TSI Soccer put a spare PC to work and estimates it has spent $5,000 to develop an advanced Web site--including a photo-illustrated catalog, security for credit-card orders, and links to other sites, such as that run by the U.S. Soccer Federation. It pays an additional $1,000 a month for operation services.
Jones and Claitor went on the World Wide Web with help from so-called access and host service companies that maintain their servers. However, there are alternatives. One Webless avenue is an Internet feature called FTP, or file transfer protocol. Using FTP, a company can send product and company information to anyone who submits an E-mail request. Like a fax-back system, it sends out canned information to the Internet E-mail address of whoever requests the file.
To let customers know you have FTP capability, you should get your business' E-mail address listed in an Internet business directory, such as the one run by software developer Open Market Inc. Type http://www.directory.net/ to view its list. Open Market charges nothing for a listing. There are many such directories, and many do not charge listees to be included.
Another way is to join a virtual mall--a group of Internet businesses using the metaphor of a shopping mall. One of the most popular, Internet Mall, has 3,000 company listings. It displays similar businesses, such as computer products, food, and furniture, on floors that Internet users can visit. Other virtual malls, including Empire Mall and Internet Plaza, act as gateways for business Web servers. To view the Internet Mall, go to http://mecklerweb.com/imall.
EASIER ACCESS. Software companies are working hard to take complexity out of the Internet. Browser packages now sell for as little as $40 or are included with Prodigy and AOL. Server software is soon to get cheaper and easier, too. Quarterdeck in Santa Monica, Calif., sells a $130 Web Server package that turns a PC into a low-cost server. It plans a new version later this year, one that's simple to develop and set up. For example, it will offer one-click access to dozens of Internet service providers. "We think the home office and small business will be two of the fastest-growth areas," says Robert Kutnick, chief technology officer for Quarterdeck. "For a few thousand dollars, anyone can have their business and logo live and on the Web."
Of course, AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, and, beginning Aug. 24, Microsoft Network each run small-business forums. Microsoft Network, for instance, will offer a free entrepreneurs' legal-advice center run by Seattle law firm Graham & Dunn. It will let subscribers download files on such topics as how to set up a company and how to get venture capitalists interested. The service will be accessible from the Internet beginning February, 1996, when Microsoft expects to provide Internet access. CompuServe has forums for at-home workers and entrepreneurs.
While just about any business can get on the Net, knowing how to benefit from being there takes work. Orders to date on TSI Soccer's Web site have been modest. But online soccer fans from Japan are helping to shape TSI Soccer's first international mail-order catalog. Where British Internet customers tended to browse but not buy, the Japanese are buying, Jones says. This fall, TSI Soccer will mail its first international catalog--to Japan. Online customers are pretesting the cover and Japanese-language order forms. The moral: There's more than one way for a company to stretch the Net.
Small-Business Specialists on the Web
INTERESTING BUSINESS SITES ON THE WEB
Noteworthy, often-changing examples with great ideas. Categories include small companies, travel, and a pick of the month.
SMALL BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION
Information on SBA programs and helpful contacts with other small-business owners, free E-mail.
COMMERCIAL SITES INDEX
Updated daily, this index directs you to 10,000 businesses that maintain World Wide Web sites and gives you a summary of what you'll find at each.
MCI SMALL BUSINESS RESOURCE CENTER
Useful collection of links to consultants, government agencies, lenders, used-equipment dealers, and other service companies.
INDUSTRYNET ONLINE MARKETPLACE
For manufacturers. Offers directory for small shops and heavy-equipment providers; also trade-show calendars and classified ads.
DATA: BUSINESS WEEK
Biz Books for the Net
DOING BUSINESS ON THE INTERNET by Mary Cronin, Van Nostrand, $30
HOW TO GROW YOUR BUSINESS ON THE INTERNET by V. Emery, Coriolis Group, $25
THE INTERNET BUSINESS GUIDE, SECOND EDITION by Dave Taylor & Rosalind Resnick, Macmillan Computer Publishing, $25
THE INTERNET NAVIGATOR by Paul Gilster, John Wiley & Sons, $25
THE INTERNET BUSINESS BOOK by Jill Ellsworth, John Wiley & Sons, $23