Sure, the web has become one of the most important small-business tools around. But how useful is this: A search for "small business" on Yahoo! yields more than 7,400 entries. It's even worse on HotBot, which stops counting after the first million hits. If it took 25 seconds to visit each one and you worked 10 hours a day, you'd need 2 1/2 years to sort out the ones truly worth a bookmark.
But we've saved you the trouble. We asked dozens of entrepreneurs and analysts to steer us to the most useful sites for small business. It's a surprising list, in part because not every one is designed for small companies. We chose not to focus on the "free" e-commerce sites and other outfits mainly interested in selling you something. Most of those are still works-in-progress. And the fact is, most small-business owners use the Web for research more than anything else (ranking No. 2 in a poll by Dun & Bradstreet, after e-mail, and No. 1 according to pollsters at Yankelovich Partners). With that in mind, we concentrated on sites that provide in-depth information at little or no cost on specialized business topics. Here's what came to the top:
If you're interested in expanding abroad, set a course for www.exporthotline.com, run by International Strategies Inc. in Boston, an international business information service. Targeted at companies with annual revenues of $25 million or less, it offers 6,000 detailed market research reports on 80 countries. You'll find information on shipping and transportation, import and export risks, best export prospects, coverage of specific industries, and contact information in foreign governments and U.S. consulates. Read the reports for free online or print out up to 10 for $35.
The Society for Human Resource Managers (www.shrm.org) offers a site packed with data on workplace issues. Daily news items keep you current on such issues as work visas and sexual harassment rulings. You can also read current and back issues of the monthly HR Magazine for articles on compensation, benefits, and diversity. But to gain full access to the surveys, employment outlooks, legislative updates, and performance evaluations online, you have to swallow the $160 membership fee.
For tips and news on Internet marketing or e-commerce, Internet guru Ralph Wilson's Web site www.wilsonweb.com is a favorite spot among small-business owners. "It's bar none the best e-commerce resource out there," says Scott Segal, CEO of Internet startup iJewelry Inc. "You can find out about online merchandising, software, online security, and demographics." For full access to the site, you must pay an annual $49.95 subscription fee. But there's plenty there that's free, including the twice-monthly e-mail newsletter Web Marketing Today, which covers everything from site promotion to optimizing listings on search engines. Chat on Web marketing in the site's active forum or check out its Research Room for the largest collection of articles on e-commerce at any single site, with 43 categories including credit-card issues, Internet commerce law, and shopping-software technology.
If you want to develop direct mail and phone marketing lists, check out www.infousa.com, which has a database of 11 million businesses and 115 million consumer households. It offers free addresses and telephone numbers but charges for complete background information and credit checks. "I can search by region and pare down my searches by sales volume or number of employees," says Beth Mitchell, marketing manager of LaserAll Corp. in Redwood City, Calif.
Whether you're an established business or a startup, BusinessFinance.com has the connections. Punch in the details of your company and how much you need, and the free search engine finds prospective matches from about 3,000 sources. While 30% of the 7,500 searches conducted monthly on this site are for venture capital, BusinessFinance.com also tracks government, commercial, equipment financing, and commercial real estate funds. Download the site's free workbook for tips on what financiers want from you, how to give a presentation, and how to write a business plan. (Note: frontier uses a version of the company's financial engine on its own Web site.)
GovCon.com isn't free, and it's not cheap, but it has something you can't find anywhere else on the Web: an active contracts dhy derives from the general's poor human rights record, especially in 1974-76 after the coup against President Salvador Allende. The crimes of these years did not seem necessary for maintaining power or making essential legal changes and therefore cannot be justified on these grounds. However, the abuses do not stand out among those of other dictators, and Pinochet ought to receive credit for peacefully relinquishing most of his authority in 1989. I think that the extent and durability of the animosity refl you'd pay for a less up-to-date CD-ROM.
Granted, www.learn2.com is an all-purpose distance learning site, but its largest offering is in the technical skills area with more than 250 interactive multimedia tutorials on business applications such as Office 2000 and Windows. You can learn to create a Web site or manage databases, too. You'll also find helpful courses on such nontechnical topics as conflict resolution, time management, and sales strategies. The courses offered are self-paced and priced as monthly subscriptions; fees vary depending on how long it takes you to complete a program. You can count on spending $20 to $100.
For more useful Web sites to help your business, click Online Extras at frontier.businessweek.com