The Internet has become more than just a critical tool for small businesses–for some owners, it’s a way of life.
A reporter’s very informal survey of several small-business owners found that some of the most useful sites include those that help them network with other entrepreneurs. They also favor sites that help their companies communicate, either internally or with other businesses, or that help get tasks like teleconferencing done, sometimes at low or no cost.
Blogs, which are growing in popularity, are also being embraced by small-business owners.
Marc Hedlund, chief product officer at Wesabe, a personal finance start-up based in Berkeley, Calif., said blogs have been a great help as the company prepares to launch.
“For pretty much any kind of business, there’s someone who’s writing about getting that business to work and what works for them,” he said.
It was through a blog that Wesabe found 37signals.com to help with project coordination and to set up a chat room for its employees. “It replaced e-mail for us,” Hedlund said.
Hedlund noted that Web sites, like any other service that a small business might use, need to be tried out and compared with one another. So while 37signals.com worked for his company, it might not be as helpful for another business; some shopping around and perhaps some trial-and-error are called for.
Christina Carathanassis, president of New York-based ChristabellesCloset.com, swears by Web sites that help businesswomen network or that help business owners find resources.
One of her favorites is LadiesWhoLaunch.com, which, like other business networking sites, allows owners to post profiles and connect with each other. “You can ask for advice from other women who have had a similar experience,” said Carathanassis, whose company is an online designer resale boutique. She also uses TheSwitchboards.com.
The beauty of networking sites and blogs is their ability to bring business owners together from not only around the country, but around the world. So an owner in a small town isn’t isolated; the Internet can function as a sort of virtual chamber of commerce, continuing education resource and business-to-business matchmaker.
Carathanassis noted that portals like Yahoo have what are called groups, sites that bring together people with similar interests and concerns. She’s used them to get in touch with other business owners.
So what’s the best way to find sites that will do such tasks and help you run your business? You could search through Yahoo or Google, but, Alicia Rockmore, chief executive of Buttoned Up, said “word of mouth seems to work the best.”
There are also government and private sites dedicated to giving small companies information on running their business and managing employees; those of the Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov) and Inc. magazine (www.inc.com) are just two. There are many government and industry sites that supply information that can help with market research, including those of the Census Bureau (www.census.gov) and Advertising Age (www.adage.com).
These sites are can easily be found through searches, but, again, if you want a sense of how helpful and user-friendly they are, ask around–those blogs and networking sites can help you with that too.