For about a year Dave Myhr's customers had been asking him for the Internet's file-transfer-protocol (FTP) capability so they could send design files back and forth electronically. But the St. Paul, Minn., company Myhr is president of, $7-million Specialty Engineering, wasn't wired. It didn't have the resources to even explore different Internet-connection options. Paying staff engineers at the sheet-metal fabricator to surf on-line would have been a huge salary drain, and hiring a consultant would have cost at least $75 an hour, not including Internet-connection costs. Consumer services like America Online and CompuServe, which charge by the hour for Internet access, were pricier than the company could afford. The solution? Hire an intern.

When Myhr's CEO mentioned that his son was looking for summer work last year, Myhr interviewed and hired him as a $10-an-hour intern to research Internet accounts and determine which would be best for Specialty. "He was already familiar with the Internet through an account in college," Myhr says. "I asked him several questions that I already knew the answers to, to make sure of his comfort level." Myhr and the intern reached an oral agreement, and the marketing department wrote a project description listing what would be delivered. Rather than trying to establish a deadline for the project, Myhr identified key goals and then regularly checked in with the intern. "We would have taken over the project in-house if the time line got out of hand," he says. Myhr and his systems administrator also worked closely with the intern to ensure that the information was transferred to someone in-house.

Three weeks later Myhr had a recommendation for an Internet account with a local service provider. The total cost: $1,280 for the intern and $25 a month for unlimited full Internet service, including one in-house connection, one company electronic-mail account, and Netscape's Web-browser software, set up on a computer and modem Specialty already had. The intern recommended only one line for the company, since it would mainly be sending and receiving customer files, not individual E-mail.

"Even if I'd hired a consultant, and the learning curve were cut in half, it still would have cost me two to three times as much," Myhr says. "And the consultant might have recommended a more expensive package." He has the intern's phone number and E-mail address in case questions come up. The Internet connection the intern recommended allows customers' engineers to send large design files efficiently, and pleasing those engineers wins contracts. Recently, Myhr says, Specialty won a $180,000 contract because the customer's engineers were won over by the new FTP capability.