New software packages help you navigate a trip, manipulate your data, and initiate a business. Our CEO reviewers take their measure
The man who inspects our company's postage meter made his annual visit to our office recently. He told me he'd spent the morning looking up addresses at the post office, which gen- erously let him use its route maps to locate the businesses and map out directions before he started his rounds.
How many other businesspeople spend a significant amount of time locating their next stops and planning their travel? If you stop at service stations to ask for directions, Metro Navigator (on two CD-ROMs) can free up your time and make your in-city travel much easier.
You begin by entering your starting and ending locations. The software then calculates your route. It prints out detailed turn-by-turn travel directions and displays and prints a customized map. If you've ever rented a car from a major car-rental agency and used its computerized driving instructions, you've seen what this kind of program can do; it uses the same data the agency systems use.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I used Metro Navigator to plan my route to several meetings. I entered the location of my hotel at 999 9th Street NW and the location of my appointment. While the program calculated the route, it asked me trivia questions about the city to pass the time. (The processing took less than a minute; the trivia-question feature can be turned off.) The following, in an easy-to-read format, was then displayed on my screen:
From: 999 9th St. NW, Washington D.C.
To: 1730 Rhode Island Ave. NE, Washington D.C.: about 3.6 miles, 11 minutes.
(1) 0.0 Start out going south on 9th St. NW towards New York Ave. NW. Drive a short distance. Turn left onto K St. NW. Drive 0.1 miles. K St. NW becomes Massachusetts Ave. NW. Drive 0.1 miles.
0.3 Turn left onto 6th St. NW. Drive 0.8 miles.
(2) 1.1 Turn right onto Rhode Island Ave. NW. Drive 2.4 miles.
(3) 3.5 Make a U-turn at 18th St. NE. Drive 0.1 miles to your destination at 1730 Rhode Island Ave. NE.
If you input the hour of day you're traveling, the program calculates your travel time based on typical traffic patterns. It has an overlay mode that allows you to display restaurants, hotels, and even automated teller machines along your route. And the program includes information from the popular Frommer's City Guide Series (Prentice-Hall), with details and pricing on some hotels and restaurants.
There are two drawbacks. First, you can use Metro Navigator for only eight locations: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Orlando, San Francisco, and Washington-Baltimore. Second, although the route suggested is always the shortest distance between start and finish, the shortest distance between two points isn't always the fastest route when you factor in traffic. But the routes got me where I was going without adding nearly as much time as if I'd been lost.
Metro Navigator, from Philips Media, Los Angeles (800-883-3767; $39), a program that provides city maps and directions for getting from point A to point B
Jordan E. Ayan, president of Create-It!, a technology-consulting firm based in Naperville, IL
486 or higher PC-compatible with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, 16 MB RAM, 640x 480 display at 256 colors, 2X or faster CD-ROM drive, at least 7 MB free hard-drive space
If you want to grow your business beyond the small-business classification, you have to control your vital data. Information about customers, products, and vendors all need effective management.
With today's new breed of relational databases, controlling data is easier than ever. Not only do those databases let you store data all in one place; they also make it easier to manipulate data, to create usable formats. And with properly designed reports, you can very quickly detect changes in product sales, consumer purchases, or supplier efficiency.
One of the new relational databases is Salsa, whose claim to fame is that it's easier to customize than any other relational database. And in fact, Salsa does make it easy to design forms and reports about customers, custom mailings, management applications, and sales. Salsa also is particularly good at creating a catalog of products, by integrating information alongside photographs.
But though Salsa wins in customization, it falls short on other important features. For example, for its price Salsa doesn't go far enough nor is it as easy to use as its marketing claims.
Another problem: I wasn't able to run multiple applications simultaneously. (Wall Data addresses that problem in version 2.2, which is due out about the time this issue of Inc. Technology hits the newsstands.) Suppose you're looking at your customer database and want to check something in your product database. You have to close one before you can open the other. In comparison, competing programs like Lotus Approach and Microsoft Access let you keep several applications open at once, the actual number more a function of the RAM in your system than the program itself.
Salsa's tool for importing data from existing databases, lists, or spreadsheets falls short as well. Ideally, this tool can save a lot of time. But unless your data are already in one of Salsa's short list of formats, you have to convert it first. For example, you can import the information on an Excel spreadsheet but not the information on Lotus 1·2·3. (The manufacturer does sell an add-on that helps convert files.)
Oh, yes. Another place Salsa does come through is in its technical support. When I called, I found the staff extremely knowledgeable about the product (I'm not always that lucky when I call for help with Lotus Approach) and responsive to my comments about the need for simultaneous applications. Let's hope that that user-friendliness will rub off on the database itself.
Salsa for the Desktop 2.0, from Wall Data Inc., Seattle (800-98SALSA; $350), a business-application builder
Randall R. Amon, owner and customer-service manager of ABL Electronics, a manufacturer and distributor of computer-connectivity products in Baltimore
386 or higher, Windows 3.1 or higher, 8 MB RAM (12 MB recommended), 40 MB hard-disk space, VGA or higher display, Windows-compatible mouse or other pointing device
Business Foundation claims to give you "all the tools for building a profitable business from the ground up." They may be there, but they're not easy to use.
To start, the instruction book for the product is inadequate; the tutor, verbose and not very helpful. It told me to "create" my own business plan and to "anticipate and address" seasonal issues, but it didn't give me clear instructions on how to go about doing any of those things.
Parts of the design were incredibly frustrating. For instance, in the "Write the Plan" function, the program offers an "integrated word processor," an internal processor that divides the screen into sections. In the upper-left section is an outline of the business plan, and in the upper-right one is an instruction window that explains the section of the plan you're working on, with useful tips on what you should cover. On the bottom is a tabbed section with a prototype plan and another tabbed section with a "blank page" to write on. The multiple windows and tabbed sections are useful, but I couldn't cut and paste from the example into my own plan.
I expected the program would walk me through the processes of setting up accounts, managing resources, and budgeting. I was sorely mistaken. Inputting the information was a bit confusing because I had to enter one item at a time into various lists: Expense Categories, Organizational Structure, Chart of Expense Accounts, Product Lines (where the realities of my service business ran afoul of the system), Assets Categories, and Disbursement Methods. I couldn't manipulate the financial statements, although they are on a spreadsheet. I was able to convert them to Excel, where I could tweak at will, but you're supposed to go back and change individual items in the lists and run the report again. I found that arduous and irritating, if doable. I suspect an accounting novice would find it next to impossible.
The almost-saving grace of the program was its displays. Once all the data were entered into the financial reports, for instance, information was always presented well. The use of graphs to depict the information was excellent and got me thinking about my own reporting and control methods; I decided to revamp mine to match some of the program's niceties. Still, I would not recommend the program. Although it gave me some great ideas, it's far too limiting for a serious businessperson and far too complicated for a novice.
Business Foundation, from Planet Corp., Worcester, MA (800-366-5111; $295), a business-planning program
Dan Caulfield, president and COO of Hire Quality, a $1-million company headquartered in Chicago that places people leaving the military
Windows, 4 MB RAM, 10 MB hard-disk space