You'll probably get the most out of Usenet newsgroups or mail-list systems that pertain to your specific profession or industry. By definition, their members already share your concerns -- and an affinity for your business. (To find relevant mail lists, search http://www.liszt.com or http://www.tile.net/lists . For newsgroups, go to http://www.dejanews.com .)
Beware of discussion groups targeted at generic entrepreneurial and small-business topics. Most are either too sparsely attended or too full of promotional garbage from get-rich-quick schemers. We discovered two exceptions, below, that are worth checking out.
Started by: Steven Garman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a freelance software test engineer and former partner in a Boston manufacturing startup.
Why Started: When he helped start an aerospace materials business in 1993, Garman sought advice from the existing but unmoderated misc.entrepreneurs newsgroup and found it clogged with annoying promos and ads. So in January 1994 he launched his own filtered group, which has attracted a following of at least several hundred participants.
How to Join: Point your Internet browser to news:misc.entrepreneurs.moderated
Big Picture: Garman filters out most of the junk, yielding a manageable 25 to 30 messages a day. Topics run the gamut, from mundane operations (how to debit funds from a customer's checking account automatically) to management fundamentals (how to use industry standard financial ratios). The businesses represented range from earthworm farming to Internet-based marketing services. The group's biggest problem is a lack of seasoned pros to give advice. Even so, the chances of getting a response to your question are probably 50/50.
What the group doesn't lack is a diversity of opinion. Be prepared to have all angles of an issue argued. In one recent thread, members advised a new business owner who was being harassed by a customer for an alleged billing error. Admit guilt and refund his money, said one; hire an attorney and never admit guilt, countered another. Concludes Garman: "Consider all the advice, but don't take any of it as gospel. Apply your own logic."
CompuServe Information Service: Ideas, Inventions & Innovations (CompuServe Information Service)
Started by: Barbara Burnes, who's started a half-dozen small businesses, including retail, research, and consulting companies. Email: email@example.com
Why Started: In her work at inventors' organizations, Burnes saw that professional product developers need an outlet for networking with experts in other disciplines who can help bring their ideas to market. The forum brings together patent attorneys, model builders, and financial pros among the roughly 400 members who check in every day.
How to Join: First, you must be a CompuServe member (1-800-848-8199). Then type: Go Ideas
Big Picture: The forum's organization adheres to Burnes's intent: discussion sections span the spectrum of new-product-development skills, from new technology and prototyping to intellectual property protection and marketing strategies. Most conversations are kept on a similarly high plane, with a bias toward problem solving. Case in point: One member recently helped another define the specs of a cheap pump he needed for a hydraulic solenoid project.
Jonathan B. Levine (firstname.lastname@example.org), formerly European Technology Correspondent for "BusinessWeek", writes about high-tech from Boston.