Best of the Web
Here's what a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs learned when they reviewed selected Web sites designed to help soloists excel
In the age of the Web, no soloist is truly alone. Out on the Internet, we dug up several sites that claimed to deliver information and services to single-person businesses. Among them, we chose to evaluate Guru.com, FreeAgent.com, and Workingsolo.com specifically because they drew a bead on the solo business community, ignoring the larger world of small business. Several sites, including a few we chose not to review -- Ants.com, Freelancers.com, BrainBid.com (at press time, still in beta tests), and Elance.com -- offered matchmaking help for soloists looking for temporary gigs and companies looking for contractors. We elected to focus on sites that purported to offer expert advice and other resources to visitors who were starting or already running full-fledged, albeit one-person, businesses.
To add expert insight to our own, we lined up some soloists to evaluate the sites, including a purveyor of products for lefties, an artist, a corporate-finance consultant, and an online yarn merchant (wool, not shaggy stories). Our panel rated the sites on such criteria as ease of navigation, overall content, and whether they appeared to be an effective means of finding a job or finding a soloist to fill one.
Our tour revealed Guru.com and FreeAgent.com to be worthy resources for novices (note the word novices; we'll come back to it later), particularly because of those sites' searchable databases of work opportunities and soloists. To deliver on their promises that soloists will find good work there and that managers will find good contractors, these sites are dependent on the number and quality of the visitors they receive. That said, both sites have improved tremendously over the past few months: as their traffic has increased, the quality and volume of their databases have both risen. Furthermore, both sites are good places to pick up insights on taxes, contracts, and all the other ins and out of the solo life. (Guru.com's Tax and Finance advice section, for instance, is a gem that offers visitors some great tips from expert Rich Hellmold.)
Workingsolo.com, despite a decent pedigree, struck almost everyone as a thinly veiled ad for books and consulting services.
Back to that novice thing: Our panelists have been in business for themselves for at least 2 years; our most experienced soloist has been an entrepreneur for 30. As a group, they found these three sites sadly lacking in content that would be of value to sophisticated businesspeople; most said the sites might be useful for beginners and wanna-bes.
What it offers: Easy access to databases of jobs and contractors; advice columns; and discussion forums on the solo life are the main attractions of this site.
What it's good for: The databases are particularly rich and varied, listing both jobs and contractors in areas ranging from business management and technology to wedding musicians and wellness specialists.
Don't waste your time on: If you're truly experienced, you won't find much new information here.
What our panel had to say: "It's a good place for new entrepreneurs to get a handle on what's required." Panelists also gave it high marks for the specific advice generated by Guru.com's tax-and-finance forum. On the downside, one panelist felt the site would benefit from more links having to do with raising money.
What it offers: FreeAgent.com is the real deal, a rich, well-appointed resource of jobs and soloists. And it supplies a wealth of advice on deciding whether to go solo in the first place.
What it's good for: We liked the site's handy tools, such as a calculator that helps you project how much money you'll take home as a soloist; its advice on matters like pricing and taxes; and its well-written articles on concepts like managing creative types. FreeAgent.com also offers business services (tax payment, invoicing, and collections, among others) for a $199 setup fee and monthly charges ranging from $119 to $274.
Don't waste your time on: Finding everything you need here. For instance, the site fell short when it came to providing advice on advertising and marketing.
What our panel had to say: Our soloists admitted they would likely revisit the site, but they were not highly confident that the site would land them paid work.
What it offers: Created by Terri Lonier, author of several Working Solo books, this site serves up a smattering of useful tidbits, including some decent statistics on the solo life.
What it's good for: A free monthly E-mail newsletter.
Don't waste your time on: Looking for truly objective advice. It's telling that Lonier's company, Working Solo Inc., specializes not in helping soloists but rather in helping companies sell to the soloist market.
What our panel had to say: One can't escape the feeling that the site is an infomercial for Lonier's books and consulting services. And the links to other sites, one reviewer told us, were obvious and tired: "Hey -- I already know about SCORE," he wrote.
In surfing the Web, we found that some sites geared specifically for the SOHO (small office, home office) market had solo-relevant material. Here are a few interesting destinations that occupy a gray area: more solo than small biz, but not quite pure solo.
What it offers: This site has a decent selection of articles and an advocacy page covering developments in the battle for the rights of SOHO workers, such as suggested changes to the federal tax code and bankruptcy-law reform.
What it's good for: How-to articles on areas including marketing, legal, and finance are each followed by links that lead to relevant Web sites.
Don't waste your time on: Trying to find a job here; it provides no databases.
What our panel had to say: This site is good for a beginner but too basic for most practitioners.
What it offers: A straight-up matchmaking service. Hiring companies pay a fee, but contractors don't.
What it's good for: Seeking technical contractors or finding techie gigs.
Don't waste your time on: Learning more about the company itself -- an "About ICE" listing led only to a form on which visitors could provide feedback by E-mail.
What our panelists had to say: They missed the articles and advice the more well-rounded sites provided. But one panelist was intrigued with "spider" technology that promised to harvest job listings from a hiring company's own Web site and automatically post those listings on Icenationwide.com and other unnamed "partner sites." The spider weaves its Web for a cool $1,000 a month and offers some discounted fees for longer-term use.
What it offers: Sarah and Paul Edwards, coauthors of numerous self-employment books and a syndicated newspaper column called "Your Home Office," deliver their folksy empowerment message.
What it's good for: Motivation, inspiration, and cheerleading: a Daily Calendar Message (usually an inspirational paragraph culled from one of the pair's books) is intended to fire you up for a hard day's self-employment.
Don't waste your time on: In-depth advice for experienced entrepreneurs. Tips on marketing, taxes, and other topics are useful but meager.
What our panelists had to say: "This site appears to be a glorious ad for the authors' books," wrote one.
Ned Snell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to the Solo Web
|Would our soloists go back?||What is the site good for?||Soloists' quick take|
"Power for the independent professional"
|Occasionally, if they had a specific need||Training/learning, reference||Good for new entrepreneurs; "clearly identifies myriad topics facing entrepreneurs in an evolving marketplace."|
"A brave new workforce"
|Occasionally, if they had a specific need||Training/learning, applications, one-stop shopping||Good mix of basic services. But "all contract jobs I looked at were for on-site only, not remote work."|
"Connecting you to the SOHO entrepreneur"
|Never||Training for novices||"Promotional blurbs about Terri's books ... very little content of immediate use."|
"Small office home office"
|Never||Training/learning, reference||"Good for a beginner, but too basic for most experienced practitioners."|
"Independent Contractor Exchange"
|Occasionally, if they had a specific need||Reference, getting jobs||Too few resources available; shallow content and tools|
"The place to be ... on your own but not alone"
|Occasionally, if they had a specific need||Training/learning, reference||"Visitors thinking about leaving the rat race and going solo will find lots of book references that may aid in making this decision."|
Martha Bator, artist
Beth Brody, founder, Brody PR
Michael Cramer, founder, Adagio Teas
Jake Fannin, president, Employment Publishing
Mark Hall, marketing consultant
Raymond Hutchins, founder and president, SecurityDecals.com Inc.
Robert Huebner, product designer, Driveway Safety
Mark James, proprietor, 2kdata.com
Constance Mazelsky, principal, Constance Mazelsky Communications
Elliot McGucken, CEO, Classicals & Jollyroger.com LLC
Sue Neiditch Schwartz, owner, YarnXpress.com
Roger North, corporate-finance consultant
Stever Robbins, founder, VentureCoach.com Inc.
Andrea Ross, publisher, Ross Publications Inc.
Carolyn Williams, CEO, The Left Hand.com
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