Inc. asks 34 CEOs to test drive small-business Web sites. Editor's note: inc.com, chosen #1 for entrepreneurs by Forbes, was not included in this roundup because it is a "sister" company to Inc.
An increasing number of Web sites promise to provide everything you need to run and grow your business. We asked real-world CEOs to try
Type the phrase small business into Yahoo's search engine and you'll see there are 7,618 sites listed in 68 categories. Narrow your search down to entrepreneur and there are a mere 102 sites. The Web is bursting with brand-new destinations -- we get an E-mail notice nearly every day about yet another one -- purporting to solve all the problems and fill all the needs of small businesses. They offer expertise on management, finance, business planning, technology, and recruiting. They offer online tools for creating business plans, finding venture capital, and scoping out the competition. And they provide chat rooms, where, they claim, you can engage in hearty discourse with like-minded CEOs. Naturally, they also sell every kind of office product you may ever need. In short, these sites bill themselves as one-stop shopping for busy CEOs coping with the day-to-day challenges of running a growing business.
And you can do it all from the cozy comfort of your desk.
It sounded great to us. Wouldn't it be nice if you actually could manage your business entirely by the Web? So we sorted through hundreds and hundreds of sites and culled the 10 best of the general-interest small-business offerings. (In the interest of full disclosure: Inc. has its own Web site -- inc.com, which is a sister company to the one that publishes this magazine. To avoid any potential for conflict of interest, we are leaving our site off the list.) Then we asked a panel of 34 CEOs and entrepreneurs to put the promises made by the sites to the test. We had them evaluate the wide array of online offerings and let us know which ones were worth checking out -- and which were a complete waste of time.
Boy, did they ever. Our CEOs told us in no uncertain terms that most of the sites weren't up to snuff for business builders who live in the real world.
We'd picked experienced CEOs and company leaders who described their Internet savvy as "good." And we asked them to rate each site based on 40 criteria, including sophistication of content, quality of experts, and usefulness of online tools. Most important, we asked them if they would ever go back to the site -- and for what reason. So what passed the real CEO test? The answer was clear: not much. In general, the sites' level of sophistication was far below what most heads of growing companies could really use. As one of them put it: "It's like going to a sale. You go because you might find a deal, but generally you walk out of the store with things you don't really need."
Still, our panel turned up worthwhile nuggets hidden here and there. One CEO, for example, raved about Onvia.com's request for quote (RFQ) tool, saying it was "incredible -- easy to use, comprehensive, and what a time-saver!" And even the harshest of our judges said they might go back to most of the sites for reference.
Certainly, most of the sites offered worthwhile starting points for novice entrepreneurs looking for the basics. And after we had studied the sites for more than two months, one thing became clear to us: Web sites are changing and developing faster than you can imagine. What fails to meet CEO standards today may improve dramatically tomorrow. But there's still a long way to go. As one disappointed CEO put it when asked if she'd go back to a particular site: "Never. Maybe for a zip code."
Read on for what our panel of CEOs had to say about the best of the offerings for small businesses on the Web.
Additional reporting and site evaluations were provided by Inc. staffers Jill Hecht Maxwell, Anne Stuart, Christopher Caggiano, and Susan Greco.
The Lowdown on the Sites
We asked several senior Inc. staffers to give us their take on the 10 winning Web sites. (For reviews of sites run by nonprofits, see below.) Here's what they had to say:
AllBusiness.com All singin', all dancin', AllBusiness.com covers finance, human resources, sales and marketing, and office services, among other things. However, our CEO evaluators tell us that this Web powerhouse tries too much to be all things to all CEOs. Despite its easy-to-use design and good organization, it ends up being overwhelming in scope. Among its useful amenities: a "virtual file cabinet," in which you can store documents or Web tools. There are also handy links to the site's numerous partners and informal alliances: Lawyers.com (legal advice), Barnesandnoble.com (books), Onsale.com (auctions), AtYourOffice.com (office supplies), and so forth.
DigitalWork.com This site offers small businesses help in doing such tasks as collecting bad debts, issuing press releases, listing a site on search engines, and posting jobs to recruiting sites. Don't look here for free content or discussion groups. This is a down-to-business site with a handful of very specific functions. While some services, such as online travel booking, are available elsewhere, time-strapped novice CEOs may find DigitalWork.com's one-stop convenience worth a visit.
IdeaCafe.com Geared to new entrepreneurs, this site offers information, networking, and inspiration. It might be tempting to dismiss it as a neophyte-only destination, but Idea Cafe scores points for its disarming attitude and fresh point of view. Although many of our CEOs thought it might be good for beginners, they generally said they wouldn't be going back. Its food motif ("chewy biz questions") gets tiresome really fast. The sophistication level of the questions in the chat forums also could try the patience of any CEO, as could the chirpy responses from the "advisers" (read: consultants on a marketing mission) who seem to provide the lion's share of the feedback.
Office.com As one CEO put it, it's hard to figure out exactly what Office.com is supposed to be until you've cruised the site awhile. But even navigating it isn't easy. If you stick with it, what you'll find is an array of online tools and software -- some of them fun, most of them pretty basic. Maybe the best thing we can say about Office.com is that it provides a number of decent links to other sites as well as articles aimed mainly at beginners.
Onvia.com You need a lawyer, some insurance, and a Web designer -- and you need them yesterday. One place you can turn is Onvia.com, an ambitious online marketplace for small-business products and services. You may find some decent suppliers -- or at least a good deal on PCs -- from these folks. And one CEO raved about Onvia.com's RFQ feature. At best, Onvia.com is a shopping mall for small businesses. Most of its attempts to offer broad content -- such as the news-and-tools section -- fall short. Don't even waste your time there.
SmartOnline.com Smart Online looks as if it offers a lot when you first get there. The site bills itself as having easy-to-use Web-hosted software to help people start, grow, and manage their businesses -- but in reality, it's damn hard to find your way around it. What we did figure out looked as if it would be interesting for beginners; it ranged from canned business letters to tools for creating financial statements.
workz.com If you're thinking of launching -- or relaunching -- your Web site without spending a lot of money, you may want to consider the resources of workz.com. For real beginners, the site delivers layer upon layer of how-to articles, checklists, and links. You'll find everything a novice needs -- from advice on how to build a Web site and maintain it to how to actually make money with it -- discussed here in detail. Our CEOs didn't have much time for workz.com, but we think it might not be bad for absolute beginners.
Not for Profit
Here's the Inc. reviewers' bottom line on the best of the Web sites that are not focused on making money from your business:
edge.lowe.org Edge.lowe.org is the business library you wish you had down the street. Cleanly lit and well organized, it's a good place to begin research on many start-up topics, from preparing a profit-and-loss statement to creating a marketing campaign. However, the fact that it's run by a nonprofit shows. The content is all pretty basic and may frustrate more experienced entrepreneurs.
EntreWorld.org The official Web site for the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., is helpfully organized into three areas: "starting your business," "growing your business," and "supporting entrepreneurship." While it does have some original content and some promising if ill-attended chat groups, Entreworld.org mostly just links you to other sites you might need. Some of the material is old, and it's probably useful only for those just starting a business or wanting to be part of the entrepreneurship-education community.
sba.gov Run by the Small Business Administration, this utilitarian site is the definitive source for small-business information from the government. Visitors can search a comprehensive online library about regulations, download loan forms and other documents, and take "workshops" in tasks such as preparing a business plan. The material is at the beginner level and often needs updating. (Y2K information was still on the site in February.) But the site is well set up and a snap to search.
The Savvy CEO's Guide to the Small-Business Web
What CEOs say about the best of the Web offerings for small business
|Would our CEOs go back?||What is the site good for?||CEOs' quick take|
|AllBusiness.com||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Reference||"This site relates to small businesses and start-ups with little previous experience. Not the sort of site I look to for advice."|
|DigitalWork.com||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Applications, one- stop shopping, purchasing||"Applications seem useful, especially to newcomers. But those applications are limited to 11 functions."|
|IdeaCafe.com||"Never."||Training for novices||"What's the mission? Business or humor?"|
|Office.com||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Training, reference, purchasing||"I didn't have a clue as to what the site is about. If I wasn't critiquing this site, I probably would have surfed right past it."|
|Onvia.com||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Purchasing||"The RFQ tool was incredible. I needed a new printing company, and within minutes I had 15 responses."|
|SmartOnline.com||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Reference||"Nothing on the site really captured my interest. Some relevance for those thinking about starting a business. Minimal relevance for me in helping run a business."|
|workz.com||"Never."||Training for novices||"The site is very general, designed for the very small company just getting into the Internet."|
|edge.lowe.org||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Training, reference||"This site is good for 'just in time' learning on a variety of subjects all entrepreneurs will invariably deal with at various stages of growth."|
|EntreWorld.org||"Occasionally, whenever I have a specific need."||Training, reference||"Good links to other sites."|
|sba.gov||"Never."||Training, reference||"Good if it's relevant to you -- all SBA- and government-related."|
Our Entrepreneur Judges
Amilya Antonetti, president, Soapworks
Jim Brock, partner, Amicus
Chris Colbert, president, Holland Mark Edmund Ingalls
John Coleman, president and cofounder, VIA
Richard Colombik, president, International Tax Associates
Eric Crown, CEO, Insight Enterprises
Liz Elting, copresident, TransPerfect Translations
Prashant H. Fadia, president and CEO, Abacus Software Group
Maura FitzGerald, president and CEO, FitzGerald Communications
Larry Gilbert, president, The Event Network
Mark Gordon, CEO, Synergy Networks
Ron Harris, president and CEO, Pervasive Software
Charlie Horn, president and CEO, ScriptSave
Karen Janson, CEO, 10 Minute Manicure
Linda Kaplan, senior account executive, Identity Group
Andrea Keating, president and CEO, Crews Control
Linda Kellogg, founder and CEO, Start-Up Resources
Deb Klein, founder, LMI Management
Eric Kriss, president, Workmode.com
Daryl Magana, founder, president, and CEO, Bidcom
Marion McGovern, president, M Squared
Debbi Milner, president and CEO, Jade Systems
Glenn Neff, cofounder, Marketing Connections
Brad Neuenhaus, president, TPC
Steven Nickerson, chairman and CEO, Mucho.com
Gerry Philpott, CEO and president, E-Poll.com
Linda Pinson, owner, Out of Your Mind... and into the Marketplace
Robert Posten, managing partner, Icon & Landis
Eric Schechter, president, GAME: Great American Marketing & Events
Randy Schilling, CEO and president, Solutech
Eileen Shapiro, venture consultant, The Hillcrest Group
Al Shariff, owner and president, GlobeTrends
Marc Smith, CEO, NetStrategy
Maura White, founder and CEO, GoBabies.com
Why are so many sites targeting you?
With all the sites competing for the attention of companies like yours, small business has become one of the most hotly contested spaces on the Web. And why not? Small business is big business. There are some 15 million small companies in the United States today, according to the Small Business Administration. They employ more than half of the private-sector workforce. In 2000 they'll spend $10 billion on personal computers alone, the Yankee Group estimates. And most important, small businesses are going online.
No wonder Onvia.com, AllBusiness.com, Office.com, and the rest are lining up to give small-business owners advice, sell them office supplies, let them chat with other entrepreneurs, and even -- in the case of Idea Cafe -- tutor them in the gentle art of paper-airplane folding. (See the site for an, er, explanation. Yes, it claims it helps you understand leadership.) And the Web-service boom also explains why, for instance, NBC Internet Inc. agreed to pay $225 million to buy AllBusiness.com, on February 1, which was the same day that DigitalWork.com filed for an initial public offering.
"Internet penetration into small businesses is higher than ever. At the end of the year it will be close to 80%," says Internet analyst Kneko Burney of Cahners In-Stat Group. "It's a huge opportunity." Overall, Burney says, more than 30 companies that provide small-business destination sites have plunged into the fray, 19 of them in a serious way. Although the revenue models vary, most of the companies aim to sell business-related services, content, or products, sometimes through partnerships with other E-vendors.
"The Web really allows the creation or potential creation of a channel to what has historically been a very fragmented market -- and very difficult to reach," says Teymour Boutros-Ghali, CEO of AllBusiness.com (and, yes, the nephew of that Boutros-Ghali). Founded by an accountant, a lawyer, and a serial entrepreneur, and armed with $20 million in venture-capital backing, AllBusiness.com offers entrepreneurs help with legal matters and human resources over the Internet -- "all the things that small businesses hate to do," says Boutros-Ghali. In classic Web fashion AllBusiness.com is gunning for market share over profits and doesn't plan to break into the black until 2002. E-commerce marketplace Onvia.com, launched in 1997, has attracted some impressive bets, too, including $71 million in financing from Internet Capital Group and other investors. With total revenues since its founding of $28 million and net losses of $44 million, Onvia.com was heading for an IPO at press time.
By comparison, the cozy, playful Idea Cafe, a bootstrapped operation with revenues of less than $1 million, seems more like a labor of love. But, says founder Francie Ward, who runs the site with five part-time employees, it does make a profit, with revenues primarily from banner advertising. Back in the 1980s, when she was publishing small-business manuals, Ward figured that what entrepreneurs really wanted was to talk to other entrepreneurs, and her site offers that service. Workz.com founder David Johnson had a similar revelation. In the pre-Web world, he published newsletters for software users that boiled down a complex subject into simple, digestible tidbits. He started workz.com -- which has $1 million in start-up funding -- when he figured out that he could do the same thing over the Internet.
On the other hand, not everyone sees the Web as a panacea. The Edward Lowe Foundation (named after the man who invented Kitty Litter) has had a Web site for small businesses since 1994. But last fall the foundation decided to supplement the site with a radically different channel for distributing information: an old-fashioned newsletter, printed on paper and sent out by snail mail. Says content-development manager Eric Vines, "A journal gains legitimacy if it has a print version." --Emily Barker
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