From the November 1998 issue of Startups

As a small-business owner, you could probably use a little help answering the telephone, typing letters, maintaining customer mailing lists and paying your bills. If you can't afford to hire a full- or part-time employee--or don't yet need help on a regular basis--consider another option: contracting with a company that offers business support services. You'll find just the help you need, whether it's transcription, word processing, bookkeeping or general office administration.

"You can cut your office staffing costs and still enjoy the security of on-call personnel when you contract with a professional business support services firm," says Carole Holland, owner of At Your Service Too, a business support services firm in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"When you're just starting out or working on your own, you think you have to do it all. But you can't answer your e-mail or develop marketing materials if you're out prospecting for new business," Holland adds. "This way, help is always available, whether you need it 20 hours a week or just one hour a week."

Before choosing a business support services firm, interview several to find out about the specific services they offer and the fees they charge. You might be asked to sign a contract requiring a monthly retainer. This means you pay a regular monthly fee depending on how many hours you think you'll use the firm. (Any additional hours are billed to you.) In return, you get top priority when you need help. Or ask if you can pay on an on-call basis. "With this option, you pay an hourly rate for the work you need," explains Holland.

To give you an idea of how much a specific job will cost, the business support services firm should be able to show you a document that lists industry production standards for work performed. The document will estimate the average time it should take to complete various office tasks.

"You'll find out how long it should take a word processor typing 70 words a minute to complete a three-page letter or a 10-page marketing plan," Holland explains. "The actual fee will be set by the business support services firm and determined by market conditions in the community."

To find a firm to help you with your office needs, contact the Association of Business Support Services International (ABSSI), a trade association representing about 900 firms in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica.

The ABSSI's Web site (http://www.abssi.org) offers a full directory of its members' names and phone numbers listed by state; or contact the association at 22875 Savi Ranch Pkwy., Ste. H, Yorba Linda, CA 92887, (714)?82-9398. You can also check your Yellow Pages listings under "Secretarial Services" or "Typing Services," or ask other business owners for referrals.

As your business grows, you might opt to never hire your own staff and instead continue using a business support services firm. The latter option has certain advantages: "You don't have to buy office equipment, furniture or supplies," notes Holland. "You continue to operate as a sole proprietor and call us to back you up. We have several clients who do business this way, and they're very happy with the arrangement."

Carla Goodman is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California.

It's Your Party

Voting for candidates who support small-business issues isn't the only way to make a difference in government. You can make an even bigger contribution by getting personally involved in the political process.

Start right at home by learning about issues affecting business development in your community. These could include local sales taxes, zoning, business retention services, and plans to expand or reduce retail or commercial developments. Your local chamber of commerce is a good source of information about which government agencies are responsible for which issues.

Once you have a sense of the issues, get to know your representatives. Write to your city council members or board of supervisors about an issue that affects your business or industry. Or voice your support or opposition by speaking before your city council or board of supervisors when they review and vote on an issue.

For issues you feel strongly about, you might want to meet with your state legislator face-to-face. The best time to do this is during a legislative recess. Call the legislator's district office and ask to make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting.

If you want to learn firsthand how the political process works, apply for a political appointment. Local and state governments have huge networks of commissions and committees whose seats can be filled by qualified entrepreneurs. Start by expressing to your local government leaders or state representative your interest in an appointment.

The best way to multiply your effectiveness as a small-business advocate is by joining a business or industry organization. There's strength in numbers, and as part of a group, your impact is felt all the way to Capitol Hill.

"Individually, small-business owners have always been in positions of influence. They run the local chamber of commerce and Rotary club and serve on committees for their local congressperson," says Todd McCracken, president of National Small Business United, a Washington, DC, advocacy group. "In recent years, they've become more organized and view themselves as a small-business community--an organized force that is having an important impact on the political process."

Kid Stuff

By Janet Cass

More than one-third of American households include children. According to a 1996 U.S. Census report, 35 percent of households included at least one child under age 18, and 7.5 percent of the total U.S. population was under age 5.

How can your business profit from this? By becoming family-friendly. It doesn't cost much, and you'll turn grateful parents into devoted customers.

To keep kids occupied while their parents shop, have books and toys (none with batteries or tiny parts) on hand. Treadle Yard Goods in St. Paul, Minnesota, uses a corner away from the store's door and cash register. "Some types of businesses have to accommodate customers with kids," says co-owner Mary Daley, who's "never had complaints" about tots. Daley loses less than $100 annually in kid-damaged merchandise. "Not a meaningful amount," she says, given her $450,000 gross annual sales.

Jackie Kanthak's clothing store, Sprog Togs, also in St. Paul, includes a small box of toys and a rocking horse. Toys don't detract from income-producing floor space because dresses are displayed on a wall above them--still allowing Kanthak to present her merchandise at the customer's eye level.

Here are some easy tips to help make your business more family-friendly:

  • Keep toys with multiple components tidy so no one trips over them.
  • Regularly clean toys and books with disinfectant, making sure they're completely dry before putting them back. Check your state health department for specific guidelines.
  • Display breakable items several feet off the floor to keep them away from inquisitive little fingers.
  • Spend a few extra dollars for electrical-outlet protectors to protect those little fingers.

The payoff for accommodating children? Parents can spend more time--and often more money--in your establishment. Once parents know your business is kid-friendly, you'll achieve what every entrepreneur hopes for: word-of-mouth advertising.

Contact Sources

At Your Service Too, (201) 432-6325, http://www.atyourservicetoo.com

National Small Business United, (202) 293-8830, http://www.nsbu.org

Treadle Yard Goods, 1338 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105, (651) 698-9690