Software That Makes Small Fry Look Big

Uh-oh: The prospective client who you thought was coming to town next week has taken an early plane. Now it seems Mister Numero Uno Sales Prospect wants to see if your little company is up to the task this afternoon. Your chore: Whip up a snazzy marketing presentation, pronto.

Fortunately, your company has purchased a $99 computer program from Software Publishing called ASAP, which allows even the most graphically challenged businessperson to create respectable looking reports and presentations in just a few minutes. You simply type in text of the key points you want to make, click on a menu of predefined layouts, designs, and color schemes, and the computer spits out handsome results. ASAP automatically arranges and draws to scale page titles, bullet points, tables, charts, and pictures.

ASAP doesn't offer all the frills of a heavy-duty presentation graphics program such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Lotus Freelance. But it's far simpler to use and is emblematic of a breed of software that can satisfy the needs of most owners of modest-size enterprises. These small-business programs can help present an image to the outside world matching that of corporations much larger in size and scope--often at a fraction of the cost of corporate-level programs.

Small-business software runs the gamut from simple programs that let companies handle such picayune matters as designing stationery to more ambitious accounting and management-style products. Delrina PerForm for Windows and JetForm BizForms allow companies to create a variety of business forms electronically. The $50 JetForm product is simpler to use than PerForm but not as flexible. Meanwhile, FormBuster, from Virtual Reality Labs, allows someone to fill in the text on a computer to a form that has been received by fax or scanned in. And PaperMaster from DocuMagix avoids clutter by helping businesses create online drawers and folders for filing scanned-in documents.

Claris and MySoftware both sell simple programs for making business cards. MySoftware also has programs that help small businesses create their own invoices, brochures, and databases. Another fine choice: Microsoft Publisher, which includes templates that make it simple to lay out newsletters, brochures, and the like.

Certainly, many small businesses rely on industrial-strength word processors, spreadsheets, and database programs just as their corporate counterparts do. But such all-in-one packages as Claris- Works (for Windows and Macintosh), Microsoft Works for Windows 95, and PerfectWorks from Novell, which bring together decent word processors, spreadsheets, and databases, are often simpler to handle for diminutive companies. A strong contact manager such as ACT! from Symantec or the new Janna Contact 95 from Janna Systems (aimed at Windows 95 users) is also useful in tracking business conversations and keeping up to date with clients, although people with very simple needs can make do with a personal information manager along the lines of Lotus Organizer or Day Runner Planner for Windows.

KEEPING TRACK. In general, modest-size businesses don't have the resources to keep specialists on staff, so software often fills the void. Tiny companies rarely employ a full-time accountant or bookkeeper, for instance. That's where small-business accounting products such as Intuit's QuickBooks Pro, Simply Accounting from 4Home Productions, and MYOB from Best!Ware come in. The latest version of QuickBooks Pro, priced at $189 for both Windows and Macintosh, incorporates time- tracking, estimating, job- costing, and the payroll capabilities of Intuit's QuickPay program (which is also sold separately for $75). For instance, in tracking how much time an employee spends on a particular job, bosses need only type in the information once, and all appropriate accounting and payroll records are updated automatically.

Some software even takes over for an expensive consultant. "The problem with the small businessperson is that it's hard to be a negotiator, financial-projections expert, and operations-management specialist," says Daniel Burnstein, president of The Management Software Assn. "People without that access are turning to expertise on a disk." TMSA comprises about 25 member companies, many of which sell "MBA-ware" products that draw on business theory to analyze data and help managers do strategic planning, make financial decisions, and write personnel policies. You can contact the organization on CompuServe or by calling 617 232-4111 for a member list and a brief summary of their products.

Burnstein's Negotiator Pro in Brookline, Mass., for one, sells Negotiator Pro software to a number of small businesses. The $190 program uses a Q&A format and hypertext to assist people in sizing up their opponent and clarifying the issues that are important. BusinessResource Software in Austin, Tex., has a new $130 program called Quick Insight, which aims to help marketers evaluate the landscape for new business opportunities. The program poses a series of questions about your company, competitors, and so on, to try to get you to think about such things as the benefits and risks of moving away from core products or an analysis of your pricing strategy.

BUSINESS PLANS. Another TMSA member, Avantos Performance Systems in Emeryville, Calif., recently unveiled a $99 title called DecideRight, a tool that lets managers visualize the factors involved in making difficult choices. For example, those looking to hire a new staffer can use the program to rate each job candidate on components they deem important (education, experience, personality, etc.). Man-agers can give more weight to some factors rather than others. When all the data have been supplied, the program produces charts and reports that could help decision-makers reach a consensus.

Entrepreneurs who are just putting together a company can rely on programs to help them develop a written business plan they can show bankers and investors. BizPlan Builder, $139, from Jian in Mountain View, Calif., lays a series of preformatted templates into an existing word processor or spreadsheet. Users follow the sample text and advice, then plug in financial data and the particulars of their company.

Tim Berry's Business Plan Pro, from Palo Alto Software in Eugene, Ore., is a similar $150 program that does not utilize a separate word processor or spreadsheet. At the start, you are asked to identify the type of business you are putting together (service, retail, etc.) and to list the number of product lines (from one to nine). Then, as with the Jian product, Business Plan Pro provides sample text and advice on writing each part of the formal business plan. The program includes tables and charts on breakeven analysis, cash flow, and business ratios.

VIRTUAL LAWYERS. On the legal frontier, several programs can substitute for a real-life attorney--though disclaimers suggest you by no means should eschew lawyers--including The Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, from Nolo Press. A first-class new arrival is Kiplinger's Small Business Attorney, a $50 CD-ROM from Block Financial Software in Kansas City, Mo. Users can choose from and edit up to 82 preprepared contracts and documents in a built-in word processor, covering everything from equipment-leasing arrangements to confidentiality agreements. They can also consult a database of business law topics and cull tips from videos. Documents are linked to helpful advice: For instance, when you draw up a document concerning an employee rule of conduct, you can click on a business law button at the bottom of the screen to view related information on the Americans With Disabilities Act, Family & Medical Leave Act, and sexual harassment.

Even your crowded stockroom could get some help from today's software: Companies seeking ways to monitor inventory or manage data might want to paste bar code labels on products and tools. Zebra Technologies VTI sells a $379 package called Barcode Anything, which includes bar code software, a scanner, and a reader in one box. Use enough of these small-business software products, and you'll swear your company is getting bigger every day.

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