From the February 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Q: I would like to sell golf caps to historical black colleges and universities that have golf teams. Is there an online directory that will give me data on the athletic departments at any school in the country?

Vernon L. Finley
Ballistic Athletic-Wear
Via e-mail

A: Unfortunately, we couldn't find a single online source of information regarding the demographics of college athletic departments across the country (perhaps a new business opportunity?). However, many universities and colleges have Web pages that describe their athletic programs in detail and contain demographic information that could be helpful.

Cheryl Harris, president of NorthStar Interactive, a full-service online research company in New York City, and author of An Internet Education: A Guide to Doing Research on the Internet (Wadsworth/ITP), and her team of online researchers were able to turn up one online source that fits your parameters. Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, has a Web site (http://www.hamptonu.edu/athletics/sportshome.html) that provides information on its entire athletics department. For example, information about the university's golf team is available, complete with a photo of the team and the head coach, and information about the team's track record.

Don't worry if you wind up striking out online: You can turn to off-line sources, says Harris. Although most people immediately think of using online resources because they can provide instant information that's often free, traditional resources such as your local library or national associations are often just as good. Once you find something that might be a lead, you can supplement your research with online sources that might provide further information.

Q: Where can I find demographic data? I would like to track down some Internet sites that can help me define my potential customers by giving me accurate information about age, the size of my potential market, and its spending habits and capabilities. Any help?

Name withheld
Via e-mail

A: The truly great thing about the Internet is the easy access it provides to useful information, such as the market demographics you're looking for. But knowing this won't do you or your business any good unless you also know how to find this kind of information.

There's an abundance of good market data available on the Internet that's fairly easy to access. Major research companies such as Forrester Research Inc. (http://www.forrester.com), IntelliQuest Information Group (http://www.intelliquest.com) and Find/SVP (http://www.find.com) make a portion of their demographic and industry-related reports available online for free. For example, Find/SVP posts Market Intelligence Reports on key markets and industries for consumers and businesses to access. The bad news is, if you're looking for up-to-the-minute, high-quality information on the Net, you're probably going to have to pay for it. Many of these free sources are good only for the most basic and general research.

If you're willing to pay, the U.S. Census Bureau's CenStats site (http://www.census.gov) is one of the best deals around. It provides access to the Census Bureau's most popular databases, as well as information sold via CD-ROM. Here you can look up business patterns in an area or find out more about a market you might want to expand into in the U.S. counties' profiles. Single-user subscriptions cost $40 for three months and $125 for one year.

Cheryl Harris also recommends two additional sources for market research. One is the Online Advertising Forum (http://www.olaf.net). This site contains a market research area with links to studies from leading market research companies including CyberAtlas and Jupiter Communications.

Another source of information is the site for Nua Ltd. (http://www.nua.com), an Internet consulting and site development firm in Dublin, Ireland. Its Internet Surveys section contains summaries of a variety of market research studies focusing on the Internet and other business-related topics with links to the original source. You can also subscribe to Nua's free weekly Internet Surveys newsletter to receive international demographic information on a regular basis.

In addition to discovering where to look, it's also important to learn basic research methods, such as knowing the relation of sample size to error. "People need to have some research understanding to evaluate different [types of] research and to know whether they're looking at reliable or even believable data," says Harris.

Moreover, you must master the latest online search tools. Myriad search engines exist on the Internet, and you need to know how to use them when conducting your market research. "[Search engines] are different in terms of how they weight, index and categorize things, so you need to know the difference to really search effectively," says Harris.

Quarterdeck Corp.'s WebCompass ($49.95) can help you find what you're looking for by scanning 35 leading search engines at once. It also has features that rank the relevance of searches, build comprehensive summaries of results and automatically organize results by topic.

When doing online research, be a skeptic. Just about anyone can post information on the Internet, and online content providers don't have to hold themselves to the same quality standards that traditional media sources do. Consequently, always consider the source and try to evaluate the data's quality and validity as best you can. One way: If you use several search engines and still wind up hitting the same reference materials, chances are they're pretty credible, Harris says.

Utilizing smart search habits and software tools like these will come in handy, especially when you're looking online for very specific information.

Q: I am interested in putting my catalog of products on the Web. I have done some research and discovered the excessive fees charged to create a multipage Web site. Can you refer me to a company that offers such a service at a fee that won't break the bank?

Cameron Richards
Elite Merchandising Co.
Via e-mail

A: There's certainly no shortage of Web design firms out there that can build a good site for your catalog business. As you've discovered, the real challenge is finding one that will do so at an affordable price.

There are a number of measures you can take to ensure you get a good developer at a reasonable price. The first step is to conduct thorough research. Ask business associates who have Web sites for referrals. Also, surf the Web for sites that are similar to the one you'd like to build and send them an e-mail message inquiring about which company designed their site. That way, you'll have several skillful companies with which to compare prices.

"The key to building an affordably priced Web site is to shop around," says Rosalind Resnick, co-author of The Internet Business Guide: Riding the Information Superhighway to Profit (Sams Publishing) and president of NetCreations, a Brooklyn, New York, Internet marketing company. "The cost of building a site can range anywhere from millions of dollars to practically [nothing]."

Once you've chosen a good Web design firm, there are a number of ways to keep the price down. First, don't pay by the hour for Web site design. Resnick recommends negotiating a fixed price for the entire project before you sign a contract. It's also a good idea to stay away from signing a long-term contract with your Web hosting service. In today's market, prices are dropping all the time, so you want to be able to secure these services at a competitive price. Also, to keep your design costs in check, stay away from more advanced features such as Java or Virtual Reality Modeling Language. Most catalog sites can be constructed using basic HTML to create the Web pages and CGI programming to design the order forms and set up the database function, Resnick says.

If you possess good computer skills, another option is to design the Web site--or even a portion of it--yourself. One good program that's fairly easy to learn is Microsoft's FrontPage 98 ($149). It allows you to create professional-quality Web sites without learning programming languages. The software program has 50 templates so you can generate Web pages from predefined formats and functions to build navigation bars, buttons and hyperlinks that are easy to use. There are also wizards along the way to help you through the process.

Overall, Resnick says you should expect to hire a good Web design firm to build a catalog site for approximately $5,000 (although fees will run much higher if a complex database is required). You should also be able to secure a high-quality Web hosting service for several hundred dollars a month.

Contact Sources

NetCreations Inc., e-mail: rosalind@netcreations.com, http://www.postmasterdirect.com

NorthStar Interactive, (212) 398-1919, ext. 12, http://www.nsir.com