All this talk about the Internet and the new economy – but how can it help me in my business today? My aim is to show you how you can save money, save time, win new business, and find useful information on the Internet using web sites that really deliver.
Pay nothing for your office software
Microsoft Office, which includes Excel, Word, Access, PowerPoint and Outlook, is pretty much ubiquitous now, but it costs a lot of money and it wants to be upgraded for more money every year or so. How would you like to replace it with something just as good but which doesn’t cost anything? The good news is that the web offers several alternatives.
The first is Star Office, which is a fully featured suite of desktop applications including a spreadsheet, word processor, presentation package and database. It is able to open and save Microsoft Office-compatible files. You can download it from www.sun.com/staroffice. The main drawback is that the download file is enormous – over 80mb – and so it takes the best part of a day to download on a conventional modem. Alternatively you can buy it as a boxed product with manuals for £39.99 from www.microwarehouse.co.uk (part number E247711). I have to admit that I didn’t have time to download it for this article although I did spend some time getting to grips with a previous version and it struck me as very robust and complete. It did take me a while to unlearn some of my Microsoft habits and learn the Star Office way of doing things. But, as a friend of mine describes anything that is free, you can’t beat the price.
The other alternative is ThinkFree Office (www.thinkfree.com). Again, the software is free, although if you want to switch off the banner adverts you’ll need to buy a subscription for $25 per year. ThinkFree Office is less feature-heavy than either Microsoft Office or Star Office but this means it can be downloaded in less than an hour. By less feature-heavy, I don’t mean lightweight. It has all the features that 95% of users need – if you don’t need an equation editor or the ability to micro-format an index you’ll be fine. It uses Java technology, which means that it will run on PCs, Macs or Unix systems. You can save your Microsoft-compatible files to your local hard disk or keep them on ThinkFree’s own server where you can access them from any Internet-connected computer. I am very impressed with this product – it works well, feels similar enough to Microsoft’s offerings that I don’t need to relearn everything from scratch. Being able to use it, and access my files (password-protected of course), from an Internet café, from home or the office is appealing.
Automate your business administration (for free)
Any business that employees more than a handful of people will generate a mountain of paperwork: holiday forms, purchase requests, timecards, expense claims etc. This paperwork costs time and money. I should admit a personal interest here because I wrote a business plan for an Internet service that would automate these paper trails because it really annoyed me how much effort my company was spending on dealing with this stuff. In the end, having built a prototype and a business plan, I ditched the idea altogether because I found a couple of web services that were already doing it. This only goes to show that there’s no such thing as an original idea. Anyhow, the first service is FreeWorks [NB as of 8 May 2001, this site is no longer available – apparently the company has gone bust]. This is an American site that offers automated checklists, surveys, expense reporting, time cards, purchase requests, and holiday requests among other things. The service is completely free but that means that there is a fair amount of advertising on the site. To set up a company on the site, you need to enter in the names of your staff, administrators, suppliers and customers. This is arranged into a useful company directory and employee database. It doesn’t take long to do this, but it will take a while to understand all the features and you should plan to train staff on how to use the new system.
Once you have set a company up, anyone can log on and use the service to do stuff. For example, to test it I created a purchase request. I used two different email addresses to simulate an employee who made the request and a supervisor who approved it. I filled out the form and submitted it. Then, in my alter ego as a supervisor, I got an email telling me to log on to FreeWorks to review and approve the request. Once logged in it’s like a virtual in-tray with a list of requests to be checked (but without the coffee stains).
The whole service is automated online and via email and is entirely paper-free. The FreeWorks database securely stores all the data on its server so there’s nothing to misplace or forget. The aspect I particularly like is the idea that one could do all this administrative paperwork from home or while travelling. Indeed, anywhere with an Internet connection. I suppose the main cost is the time required to set up and introduce the new way of doing things but I suspect that the savings in processing time for paper-based systems more than compensates for this. Of course, it requires that every member of staff has access to a computer with an Internet connection. Where this isn’t the case, a solution might be a self-service employee terminal. I think this is a very compelling service that will save time, hassle and money and not cost a penny. I wish I had thought of it sooner!
Another site offers a similar more specifically personnel-focused product and that is OneClickHR (www.oneclickhr.com). This comes from Vizual which makes a well respected stand-alone personnel database product. Now they have brought the service online by providing a free online personnel database. This is a fully featured, UK-specific personnel database providing detailed record keeping, appraisal logging, time recording, holiday processing etc.
In addition, there are a large number of really useful personnel-related articles on the site providing a comprehensive guide to personnel issues for the employer as well as sample forms and templates. Many are free, but the more involved or legal items are supplied on a pay-per-view basis. However, these costs are likely to be competitive with the costs of getting the same information from a solicitor. Besides the free personnel database there are a number of paid-for services, including a recruitment database and a payroll processing service. The payroll bureaux was competitively priced but the recruitment database would have been horribly expensive at IG because it is charged on a per-user, per record basis and we had thousands and thousands of applicants. Overall, OneClickHr is a very useful site with some very priceless free services.
Other human resources sites that are worth a look include: www.centrefile.com.
Save time and money on Technical Support
Updates.com (www.updates.com) makes sure that you have the latest versions of all the software on your PC. It scans your hard disk for any applications and searches its database to see if there are any newer versions available. With so many security scares going round its good to know that I have the latest versions of everything installed. The only drawback is that sometimes installing a newer version of something can cause unexpected problems – it’s always worth thinking carefully about each download before you make it. I’m a big fan, however, and I check the site weekly. It is also worth checking Microsoft’s Windows and Office updates pages on the their site (www.microsoft.com/windowsupdate and www.microsoft.com/officeupdate).
MyHelpDesk.com (www.myhelpdesk.com) is a service that tries to aggregate support solutions for a wide range of PC hardware and software. This is a new site to me and so I had to tell it what hardware and software I use. It was a bit disappointing that it wasn’t able to scan for this automatically. Once this is done, for each item on the list, it has a large directory of frequently asked questions, updates, patches, and searchable solution databases. It has links to sites like www.drivershq.com to get the latest drivers and, in my case, to Dell’s software library so I can get the latest updates. Overall, the site isn’t that smart in terms of solving problems or pre-emptively scanning your system, but it is a very useful one-stop shop for technical support advice.
Aveo [no longer available] goes one step further and tries to prevent PC problems before they happen. It does this by downloading up-to-date ‘Intelligrams’ that contain support information from the Internet, which it matches to your specific hardware and software set-up. It does this in the background when your PC is connected to the Internet.
Finally, in this area, there are two time and trouble-saving sites I’d like to recommend. The first has a list of utilities that automatically update phone numbers in Outlook to the new ‘Big Number’ changes. It is www.slipstick.com/addins/contacts.htm. The second site is very useful for anyone who gets a lot of doomsday emails about imminent virus disasters – it contains a list of hoax emails. You can find this at www.datafellows.com/news/hoax.htm.
Do your backups online for free
Backing up your data is probably the most important piece of computer housekeeping you can do. I remember when I was in college having to rescue one friend’s Phd thesis that she had stored on a single Macintosh floppy disk. It was same single disk she had used all the way through her undergraduate and graduate courses and after ten years’ continual use it had completely failed. It never occurred to her that this might happen or to make a duplicate copy. I spent two days recovering the data from the disk sector by sector and was able to recreate about 98% of her document albeit without the formatting. Ironically, she was really cross with me that I hadn’t been able to save all of it! This was a salutary lesson in the importance of backing up.
The problem with backups is that it usually requires additional hardware (typically a tape drive), media (blank tapes) and time (to actually run a backup). At IG, we used to backup 200GB of data a week onto about a dozen tapes and send them offsite by courier. Now I am working from home, my work doesn’t get automatically backed up so I was interested in looking at some online backup services.
The first site I looked at was Xdrive (www.xdrive.com). This is a free service so it requires you to look at a lot of adverts and sign up for mail in order to get space on their hard disk. You can also download an application from Xdrive that will allow you to use your Internet disk as if it were a drive on your PC and copy files to it directly. This is useful if you have a fast connection – I’ve been waiting four months for BT to install my ADSL connection so I didn’t use it. The problem with Xdrive is that it doesn’t really have any backup software so you have to manually copy files. It is however, free and gives you a lot of storage space. Similar sites include MySpace (www.myspace.com) and My Docs Online (www.mydocsonline.com).
A more useful, backup-specific site is @backup. This site has software that is designed to do backups. Unlike the others, it is a pay site. The costs start at $100 per year for 100mb of storage that is more than enough for most personal use and increase in $50 increments per additional 100mb. This compares pretty favourably with the cost of backup media, let alone the capital cost of a tape backup unit and it lets you avoid the usual adverts and emails from a ‘free’ site. They offer a thirty-day free trial so you can see how it works.
The other alternative is Visto (www.visto.com). This is one of my all-time favourite sites. It has online email, calendar, to-do list, and address book that synchronises over the Internet with your PC and/or Pilot. This means that you can access all this data, which normally resides in Outlook on my PC, from any web device, anywhere. It also has a very useful online disk drive feature. The whole service is free including 15MB free storage. If you need more space, you can purchase it for $1/megabyte per year. Visto comes with a really neat program that runs on your PC, called Visto Assistant, and this automatically synchronises all your data on a regular basis, including your files.
Build a free online shop
Web Street is a UK-based company that lets you build an online shop, complete with order processing and credit card facilities, very easily and for free (well almost, once you go beyond the basics, there are some charges). I decided to give it a go and build my own e-commerce site.
Building the site means going through a series of simple step-by-step choices. It took about ten minutes to register and set up a single department with a single product. It’s obvious that to do everything properly, you would need to spend some time preparing your material – prices, pictures, descriptions, terms of trade and so on. It would be nice if they gave you some kind of checklist at the beginning of the process so that you could ensure that everything was ready in advance.
Once set up, Web Street has a lot of features to help track orders, monitor usage, register the site on search engines and so on. All in all the back office functionality is pretty comprehensive.
If you have less than twenty product lines the service is free. If you pay £20 per month the banner adverts will disappear. More than twenty product lines costs more – for example five hundred product lines costs £99 per month. Credit card services are also extra if you don’t have a merchant account already. You can also pay £20 to have your own domain name registered so that your site will be www.yoursite.co.uk not www.yoursite.webstreet.co.uk. An alternative to Web Street is AltoDigital (www.altodigital.com).
My only real reservation about Web Street is that the resulting sites appear somewhat lacklustre and unprofessional and there doesn’t seem to be any ability to edit them beyond rudimentary layout and colour choices. The company will design a more attractive site for you at a price but that pretty much defeats the object of a template-based DIY approach.
For a more creative approach to building and hosting a free website you could try Homestead. This site has a very neat design tool that lets you build a sophisticated website with a lot of features like chat forums, hit counters and so on. It has a wide variety of templates and its in-browser design features gives you a lot of control over the layout and appearance of your site. For e-commerce, Homestead uses a system called I-Escrow which takes some of the risk out of buying and selling things online. The buyer orders something and makes a payment on account to I-Escrow. I-Escrow tells the seller that the money has been received safely. On receipt of the goods, the buyer tells I-Escrow to release the funds to the seller. This is a neat solution to a difficult problem and means that you don’t have to have a credit card account. As with all the other sites, Homestead lets you register your own domain name for a small fee.
In a similar vein, check out Intranets.com (www.intranets.com). This site lets you build an Intranet – a site for your staff rather than for customers. It has a group calendar, discussion forums, shared documents, contact lists and so on. IG spent a lot of time and effort on its Intranet and it took a lot of work to maintain – this is a nice way of doing almost the same thing with a lot less work and effort.
Get training online
At IG, we knew we wanted to do more training but it was often difficult to figure out how best to provide it. It would have been really helpful to have a library of online training packages that we could use and which people could access from the office or from home at their own pace. For this article, I wanted to find some sites that could do exactly this.
The first was Headlight (www.headlight.com). This site boasts over 3000 web-based courses to choose from in subjects ranging from professional development, information technology, using Microsoft Office, web design, to sales and marketing. Prices range from $10 to $200 per course. It offers training for individuals as well as volume discounts for organisations buying multiple courses. For companies Headlight also provide a system that lets managers assign courses to individual members of staff and track their progress. You can register for free and take skill assessments in the different areas of study. I would have liked to try to a sample course before parting with real money, but I couldn’t find any on the site.
To get a more UK-focused resource, I looked at Learn Direct (www.learndirect.co.uk). The sample courses on this site seem relatively simplistic but well-presented and reasonably fun to use. At IG, all the geeks knew how to use all the software on their machines genetically, but there were other staff who would have benefited from training at this level.
Save money by purchasing online
If you need stationery, computer supplies, even whole computers, buying online can save time and money. I used to buy all our PCs from Dell online (www.dell.co.uk) at IG and it worked at least as well as using the phone but saved a lot of time. For food – milk and coffee – we used to use Tesco Online (www.tesco.co.uk) but I have found the Sainsbury’s online site a bit user-friendlier for my own shopping (www.sainsburystoyou.co.uk). For computer supplies we used Inmac (www.inmac.co.uk) and I have used Buy.com very happily myself (www.buy.com). Buy.com (www.buy.com) do office supplies as well as computer equipment but we tended to use Viking Direct for this at IG (www.viking-direct.co.uk). We used to batch up orders so that we could get delivery free. With online just-in-time ordering there is no real reason to keep stock of anything except the most frequently used items.
Well, that’s my personal experience of online purchasing. However, there are a host of new sites that claim to offer even greater discounts by group purchasing or offering second-hand goods online. The first I looked at was eZoka (www.ezoka.com), which is a site that groups buyers together to get quantity discounts. However, you don’t have to wait for a bunch of other people to buy the same thing you want, instead you get rebates when more people buy the same things. It also offers other kinds of services such as insurance or recruitment – it is harder to see how these might work in a group buying scheme but, remembering how much we spent on both insurance and recruitment, it would be fantastic to get some kind of discount or rebate on these services.
In a crude consumer test, I compared prices for a basket of high-tech goods; this is the result I got (all prices exclude VAT). Looks like eZoka is today’s winner. The great thing about buying online is that it only takes minutes to comparison shop.
|Adobe Photoshop 6 for Windows||£418||£448||£409|
|HP OfficeJet T45||£199||£198||£229|
|HP B&W Ink Cartridge (51629A)||£19.07||£20.87||£18.99|
To be fair, Buy.com offers a price guarantee which says that they will refund the difference plus £1 if you can find the same goods cheaper elsewhere so, in theory, Buy.com would undercut these prices but you would have to go through the rigmarole of actually claiming the refund.
I also looked at Grouptrade (www.grouptrade.com) but it crashed during my registration and at Euroffice (www.euroffice.co.uk) but it didn’t stock any of the items in my basket – or at least its search engine couldn’t find them which amounts to the same thing.
Goindustry.com (www.goindustry.com/en) is an interesting site – it is, in essence, an auction site for second-hand business equipment. This ought to be very useful. However, I looked at second-hand fax machines and there were twenty, of which nineteen were in France! There is a similar service on eBay (http://marktplatz.ebay.de/uk/businessexchange/business_exchange.html).
Get help writing a business plan
About a year ago, I had that idea for a dot.com business to streamline business paperwork. I found several sites that were very useful in helping me get the business plan right. The first was bplans.com (www.bplans.com). This site has an online wizard that helps you construct the plan step-by-step. It is a cut-down version of a commercial product called Business Plan Pro that you can buy on the site. I found Startups.com (www.startups.com) very useful indeed – it had a template plan that fitted what I wanted to do very well and gave me a lot of good ideas for layout and style. A lot of the peripheral services and advice on this site aren’t really relevant for a UK business but it is still useful as a resource. There is an English site called, confusingly, Startups.co.uk (www.startups.co.uk). This has a lot of articles containing basic information about starting a business – for example five pages of information and links about business angel investors. Finally, the British Venture Capital Association (www.bvca.co.uk) have a very useful site that contains free, downloadable guides to raising money and writing a plan to approach venture capital firms.
Sell your services online
There are a number of business-to-business (B2B) exchanges springing up. These are like dating agencies for businesses: you need someone to make some signs, paint your office, supply a photocopier or whatever so you go to a site and issue a request for proposals (RFP). Companies that match your needs can then bid for the work. Like a dating agency, you don’t always know what you’re going to get until you get it even if the profile matches. Of course, as well as using these sites as a vendor you can also use them as a purchaser.
The first such site is Mondus (www.mondus.co.uk). It uses a series of online forms to specify goods and services precisely so that a request for proposals can be conducted on a level playing field. There are no costs to use the service, but if a deal is struck then Mondus charges a commission to the supplier on completion between 0.5% and 5% (depending what the product or service is). As a supplier you can get a twice-daily email from Mondus listing RFPs in your area. If it works, it would be great to have business come through the door automatically. The drawback is that you are still left to execute the deal yourself and collect the payment, although the service does offer credit checks on some buyers. Also, I suppose, that there is a risk that an exchange like this reduces everything to the lowest common denominator: price. This is fine for very tangible commodities but much harder for things where the execution or quality matters. Interestingly, I wouldn’t have thought that this approach would work in the games industry but there is a B2B exchange there too (in case you’re interested it’s www.gameproducer.com).
Another interesting site is ehook (www.ehook.co.uk). This works in a similar way – using RFPs – but it focuses more on professional services like human resources, accounting, writing and so on. Unlike Mondus it doesn’t charge a commission. Instead, it charges suppliers between £3-6 to respond to a given RFP with a formal business proposal. As a supplier you get an email whenever a relevant RFP comes into the site telling you what the purchaser requires and how much they are prepared to spend. It is at this stage that you pay to make a proposal – whether you win the business or not. From a marketing point of view, this is quite interesting; because you don’t spend any money on advertising to get the lead so perhaps the fee is good value.
Elance (www.elance.co.uk) takes the concept a step further by providing message forums and shared file space to allow supplier and purchaser to interact online prior to completing a deal and it also provides payment services and a system of providing public feedback on both purchasers and suppliers. Whereas Elance offers a simple way for buyer to pay seller using a credit card, Smarterwork (www.smarterwork.com) actually takes funds from the buyer when the deal is struck and holds them in escrow until the buyer signs off on the work. This eliminates any credit risk for the seller. Both Smarterwork and Elance take a 10% cut.
Get Business Information Online
Finally, there is a vast array of information sites for businesses on the Internet. Some are ‘portals’ meaning that they index links to other sites; while others attempt to provide information and services they have created. I have looked at a lot of sites and this is a list of the best of them.
Top of the list is VirginBiz (www.virginbiz.net). I like this site because it has a good range of features including yet another B2B exchange, industry-specific business guides, advice about working from home (which I liked), and some useful pay services including downloadable mailing lists and legal documents. It’s nicely presented and has a good range of features and information. Business Europe (www.businesseurope.com) is a much more information-rich site. It contains a vast store of articles, how-to guides and news. It also has discussion forums where you can participate in debates and get information. Whereas VirginBiz and Business Europe have generated their own content there are a couple of very useful online directories run by Keele and Strathclyde universities (www.Dis.strath.ac.uk/business/index.html and www.keele.ac.uk/depts/mn/teach/mgtlinks.htm). These contain up-to-date links to hundreds of useful business sites – they are my first ports of call when I need to find something online. I really liked the detail and specificity of the advice on the Small Business Advice site (www.Smallbusinessadvice.org.uk). This is supported by NatWest bank and is targeted at small businesses and sole traders. If you have less than ten staff you can also use this site to get free one-on-one email advice from a network of advisors.
There is a range of pay-sites that offer various services. I should say from the outset that I am somewhat sceptical of these sites because I think that most of the things that they are offering can be found elsewhere more cheaply or for free. However, they may have what you need. The first is Work24 (www.work24.co.uk), which offers the ability to set up online meetings (which you can do for free using Microsoft’s NetMeeting), build an e-commerce store (which you can do for free using the sites listed above), and access Royal Bank of Scotland’s web banking service. It’s subscription model is £10 per month but it is free for the first six months so you can try it out and see if it offers value for money. Similarly, PortalB (www.portalb.com) offers a business-focused search engine on a subscription model. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t allow you to subscribe online and calling the London office I was met with the explanation that all the staff were away on a training day and that no one could help me. Not very ‘new economy.’ Then there is BizzAdvice (www.bizzadvice.com), which is B2B exchange for business advisors. This could be potentially useful but there are a number of sources of free expert advice on the net including www.askme.com and www.allexperts.com. Finally, there is UseColor (www.usecolor.com) which, despite the spelling and the .com domain, is a UK site offering one-to-one advice and other business services (like discounted purchasing) for a subscription of £15 per month. It is hard to judge the quality of the advice in advance but it seems to me that you could try exhausting all the free services before paying up for this. Also, £180 per annum is more than the annual subscription to the Institute of Directors, which offers free advice, but which also has a nice member’s bar you can visit. My personal opinion is that there is a lot of bandwagon-jumping going on and anyone who sets up a business website had better be really sure that they are offering a unique and valuable service before they start charging for it. Similarly, any user should be sure that they couldn’t get the service or product for free or at a better price elsewhere before giving their money to a pay site.