A Company That's 100% Virtual

At Rickard Associates, the only people showing up for work each day are the owner, Wendy Rickard, 36; her assistant, Carrie Williams; and a part-time employee. You might not guess it from the low-key atmosphere in the old house in Hopewell, N.J., where it's headquartered, but the editorial production company is a pioneer on the digital frontier--a 100% virtual corporation that lives and dies by computers and networks.

The company, which produces magazines and marketing materials, employs an art director in Arizona, editors in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, "and tons of freelancers all over," says Rickard. Using personal computers connected over the Internet and America Online, they work together almost as if they were in the same office. For instance, Rickard and her art director can exchange electronic copies of finished pages of Educom Review, one of the publications they produce, in just minutes.

EX-WAITRESS. "I'm not a technologist," Rickard says. "A lot of small-business people think they have to be to use computers and networks, but they don't." Indeed, Rickard worked as a copywriter and waitress and studied acting in New York before getting into the editorial business. Moving to New Jersey, she landed a job at Educom, an association that advocates the use of computers in education. Many of its members, including the staff that put out Educom Review, were heavy users of electronic mail.

In 1987, Educom moved to Washington, D.C., but Rickard decided not to follow. Instead, she proposed continuing to put out the association's magazine from New Jersey under contract. "If it weren't for the Net, I'd have gone out of business," says Rickard.

That put Rickard way ahead of Corporate America, which is just now probing the Net for business opportunities. "For three years," she says, "nobody knew what I was talking about." No more. IBM found that three-quarters of the small-business CEOs it surveyed early this year view the Information Highway as a potential asset to their business. Besides offering low-cost E-mail connections, the Net and networks run by CompuServe, America Online, and General Electric provide near-instant, low-cost access to a wealth of technical and government data and, increasingly, to much corporate information.

"LIFEBLOOD." Networks can even serve as primary marketing and distribution channels. For instance, Tower Cgncepts Inc., a small software supplier in New Hartford, N.Y., uses the Net to market, deliver, and update all of its packages, which are used for managing computer-programming projects. "The Net is our lifeblood," says Mark Duening, engineering director.

Still, using the Net and other networks successfully is not always a snap for small companies. Says Rickard: "Sometimes, I have to spend 20% of a day on technology, and that doesn't make me happy."

But it's worth the effort. Rickard now collaborates so well with her far-flung staff that she's taking on a second magazine, OnTheInternet, published by the Internet Society, an organization in Reston, Va., that helps plan the Net's growth. Even on the digital frontier, it seems, there's still room for paper magazines.

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