These Sites Mean Business

Our take on five leading sites designed to help small businesses.

The Web has become a huge strategic factor in all kinds of business -- including small business. A growing number of Web services are targeting small companies, especially small companies that want to Web-ify their operations. The sites reviewed below provide plenty of advice, along with lots of downloadable forms and shared resources. Here's our performance evaluation of five leading sites that are designed to help small businesses.

Site Business Plan Killer App Out of Business Fee
AllBusiness.com
www.allbusiness.com
To be all things to all small businesses. This site offers more than 40 tools and services, roughly 350 downloadable business forms, and lots of solid tools. This site's Ask the Experts section is well worth reading. It features more than a dozen experts in areas ranging from HR to the Internet. You can read the featured "Q&A," browse the section's archive, or submit a question of your own. Not only does this site have some of everything -- it tries to put some of everything on its home page. So it's easy to get lost amid the deluge of material. Many of the features on this site
(including Ask the Experts) are free, although some services do carry a fee.
Bigstep.com
www.bigstep.com
To give small-business owners a fast, easy way to build a customized Web "storefront" -- without having to spend a lot of cash or hire an it professional. Not only can you build a customized Web site, complete with catalog or portfolio, but you also have access to tools that allow you to submit your site to search engines and to build customer newsletters. Unless you pay a fee to register your domain name, your URL will becomes an advertisement for Bigstep.com. Also, every page of your site will have a strip that reads "Powered by Bigstep.com." Access to workshops is free, but the cost of other services varies.
DigitalWork.com
www.digitalwork.com
To be your "Do-It-Yourself" business workshop. This site lives up to that billing, offering 11 workshops on such topics as PR, recruiting, and travel. This site's "learn about it," "ask about it," and "get it done" buttons are pure navigational genius. Got a question? Just hit the appropriate button, and within minutes you'll be on your way to getting the answer that you need. Don't come here hoping to do extensive research. This site won't help you make a decision -- it will only help you act on one that you've already made. Basic services are free. However, you must pay if you want to register your domain name ($70 for two years) or to accept credit cards
($14.95 per month, plus transaction fees).
Microsoft bCentral
www.bcentral.com
To help you get your small business on the Web -- and to help you promote and manage your e-business once you create it. This site offers free online advertising through its Banner Network. Small companies can also get great ad deals on huge sites like Yahoo! and AltaVista, because bCentral buys ads in bulk and then resells them. If your challenges don't involve getting your business online or promoting your Web site, this resource won't have much to offer you. This site follows a "Chinese menu" model, charging for each service that you use. There's also a Premium Business package: For $19.95 per month, you get membership in the Banner Network, access to an email-list service, and more.
SmartOnline.com
www.smartonline.com
To automate your overhead. With more than 17 Web-based tools, along with nearly 4,000 forms and documents, this site will give you what you need to solve finance, legal, HR, and sales problems. You get access to applications that will help you write a business plan or incorporate your firm. Better yet, you can send in the documents that you create and receive personalized feedback. If you're a Mac user, this site will drive you crazy.
(The service warns Mac users that they "may encounter problems.")
Users can buy forms for $5 each, or get unlimited access by subscribing to this site for $9.95 per month, or purchase individual applications
(the Smart Business Plan and the Incorporator cost $30 and $15, respectively).

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