What Can Web 2.0 Do for Your Business?

A Collaboration Tool

There was a time when most businesses were run in a strictly top-down manner. But when you put powerful collaboration tools in the hands of your employees, managers and even customers, the chain of command starts to look more like a spider web. Entrepreneurs can certainly benefit from this characteristic of Web 2.0.

E-mail has become the default way for businesses to communicate and collaborate on projects, but lists of CCs, forwards, attachments and replies can become easily scattered. "Our focus is to enable businesses to collaborate more effectively with unstructured content," says Reid Conrad, co-founder with Lee Buck, 43, of Near-Time (www.near-time.com), a hosted online collaboration service based in New York City that mixes wikis, blogs, group calendars and file sharing. The open-ended, self-service style of Near-Time, which has experienced an annual customer growth rate of more than 700 percent since its 2005 inception, lends itself to a wide variety of uses. Conrad, 45, sees businesses using the platform for marketing, sales, tech support, customer service, product development and supply-chain management.

A lot of startups have stepped up to provide online collaboration solutions. 37Signals, for example, offers a roster of lean online applications, including the project collaboration tool Basecamp. Fried has advice for entrepreneurs who are shopping around: "Don't get caught up in the sales cycles and the long feature lists out there. Actually try to use these products for a few weeks and see how they feel." The latest collaboration solutions can help harness the creativity and productivity of your employees, customers and colleagues.

The Future of Web 2.0
When looking at the current explosion of Web 2.0 companies, it's hard not to conjure up images of the spectacular dotcom crash of the late '90s. But don't look for an exact repeat performance of that web burnout. "I do think there's going to be a bust, but not on the same level," says Fried. "It's going to be a healthy correction. You can't have all these companies doing the same thing; some are going to survive and some aren't." The ones that do survive will be the companies that have a real revenue model, whether it's based on subscriptions or a sustainable way to make money from advertising.

Entrepreneurial companies are innovating at an impressive pace, and businesses of all types will be reaping the benefits of better collaboration tools, web interactivity and customization. Growing businesses have a great opportunity to jump in and experiment with Web 2.0 in its early stages. Starting now means you won't get left behind. As Conrad says, "The competitive winners of the future understand the interactive nature of what the web is. I would jump in."

This is a good time for entrepreneurs to pause and reflect on how their businesses function online. But don't pause too long--get out there and use the social, collaborative and productive innovations that are already available. Says Hinchcliffe, "The aftershocks of Web 2.0 are going to be enormous. The web is going to be woven into virtually everything we do." So start weaving your own vision of Web 2.0 into the fabric of your business.

Don't miss our April issue, where we'll examine what the much-buzzed-about Web 3.0 could mean for your business.

Holger Ehlis, 33, & Kevin April, 25, of Spymac
The world's largest Mac enthusiast community
Getting up to Speed: Founded in 2001, Spymac recently launched its sixth redesign, dubbed Leapfrog, and now boasts more than 1 million community members. In this new version, April and Ehlis have created a content hub where visitors can upload, embed, store, share and do just about anything else with content. New York City-based Spymac, which projects 2007 sales of $120 million, pushes the envelope with its international mind-set: Leapfrog adjusts page design, interface and language for visitors from 150 countries.
Generation Next: "In the past, you tried to block people from hot-linking your pictures," says Ehlis. "Now it's all about networking. Give users the tools and let them steer toward what is interesting." Ehlis believes in giving power to the people. "To know what people want is to understand that you don't know what people want." This means algorithms push the most popular content to top positions.
Keep It Simple: Ehlis has a saying he likes to repeat: "I want blue links, because people are used to blue links." He also says businesses shouldn't try to reinvent the wheel, but rather let their visitors take the wheel.

Terms to Know
Blog:Savvy businesses use blogs to keep customers informed. There are many software options available, both free and paid, including Blogger, TypePad, WordPress and numerous others.

Wiki: Wikis let businesses create a dialogue with site visitors, allowing them to make recommendations and edit them in real time. Get started wit EditMe, JotSpot, Socialtext and others.

Video: The ubiquity and simplicity of Flash based players has made video popular. Businesses use video to show tips, conferences, product demonstrations, commercials and more.

Podcast: Businesses use podcasts to provide company upadtes, product information, tips and more. The quality of podcasts varies, and newer podcasts even include video, called vodcasts.

Syndication: Smart businesses use syndication to broaden their customer reach. Feeds are typically done in RSS or Atom formats and can accommodate various media.

Social Network: Businesses can create their own communities for people to connect. Employees can use them to collaborate on projects. Blogtronix, ReachTree and Sparta Social Networks offer software.

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This article was originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: It Takes 2.0 to Tango.

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