From the July 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Many entrepreneurs can't fathom how their businesses ever ran without e-mail. As it increasingly becomes the preferred method of communication, e-mail is a resource most businesses can't afford to do without.

Building and managing a secure and reliable e-mail system isn't easy, however. And it's time consuming and costly to boot. So rather than waste precious time, resources and expertise, many entrepreneurs are opting to outsource instead.

Outsourcing all or just a portion of your e-mail functions makes sense for a lot of reasons. First, because e-mail outsourcing companies are experts in their field, their services tend to be highly reliable. If the e-mail server goes down or you're the victim of a spam attack, the company is there to clean up the mess. If you're growing fast, it's the company's job to make sure your e-mail system keeps up with the demand. Although you may be required to perform general maintenance tasks, like adding new e-mail users, this can be done easily and often using only your Web browser.

What's more, e-mail outsourcing is cost-efficient. You don't need to invest in expensive hardware and software such as servers, routers and high-end e-mail programs. And e-mail outsourcing companies offer economies of scale you can't get on your own: Depending on the type of service contract and extras you choose, you'll find some monthly e-mail services cost just $5 per user.

These solutions work well for companies that already have existing e-mail systems but don't want to waste their IT resources on managing them anymore. They're also helpful for companies that use dial-up accounts but still want their employees to have e-mail addresses with a domain name that reflects their business name--without the hassles of doing it all in-house. Taking this route may give you more time you can dedicate to growing your business or focusing on other, profit-centered IT projects, such as e-commerce.

Internet, Here We Come

If your internal e-mail system is already in place but you want someone else to handle all the complications involved with hosting and managing Internet e-mail, The Electric Mail Co. can help. Electric Mail (http://www.electric.net) specializes in connecting internal e-mail systems to the Net. If your business already uses Lotus Notes, cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail or Exchange, or Novell Groupwise for internal communications, you can link your company's e-mail system to the Internet by signing up for its Electric InterConnect (EIC) service. EIC works with either dial-up accounts or a dedicated Internet connection. On-site software collects and queues outbound e-mail messages from your LAN to send over the Net.

Integration with your existing system is seamless. There are no size restrictions or additional costs for sending file attachments. Monthly pricing is charged on a per-user basis (pricing varies).

Electric Mail's EIC service is an affordable alternative to purchasing, installing and managing the hardware and software required to route e-mail onto the Internet. It's also an easy way to link several offices by creating a low-cost, low-maintenance Wide Area Network based on e-mail. All you need is an NT server or Windows 95 PC for running customized software, and a dedicated phone line and modem or direct Internet connection.

Another option is to turn to e-mail outsourcing companies like USA.NET Inc. (http://www.usa.net). Its solution, PostOffice.Net, is a turnkey, Web-based e-mail system that's ideal if you have dial-up accounts and want a domain name that reflects your business's name. It also works well if you'd like to establish a system for employees to correspond with each other via Internet e-mail (rather than through a cumbersome internal e-mail system), and for providing Web-based communications with customers, suppliers and the like. There's no need to purchase additional hardware or software, and, similar to other Web-based e-mail services (like Hotmail), employees have access to their e-mail in the office, on the road and at home. The only requirement is Internet access.

PostOffice.Net's standard e-mail features include forwarding and reply, auto response, file attachments, an address book and mail search capabilities. If you already use a client-based e-mail program such as Eudora or Microsoft Outlook Express, PostOffice.Net will be compatible with it.

Initial setup and ongoing administration of your e-mail system is done via the Web. A phone session with a customer service representative takes you through all the basic procedures of using the e-mail system. After that, you handle all ongoing administration tasks through the Web, including adding new users, setting up auto responders and so on. Of course, should you or your e-mail administrator run into problems or have any questions, customer service representatives are just a phone call away. A one-time setup fee of $75 is required to get up and running. Monthly charges start at $5.50 per user.

Critical Path Inc. (http://www.cp.net) also specializes in e-mail outsourcing services. Critical Path works with domain names you already own. (If you don't have one, for $350, it will establish a company-branded service with your own domain name.) Critical Path hosts mail for an unlimited number of domain names per customer. It also handles the transition of e-mail from other service providers or e-mail systems you may already have in place, making it ideal for fast-growing companies that already have companywide e-mail but don't want the burden of managing it anymore.

With Critical Path's custom Web-based e-mail interface, Internet users have basic send, receive, forward and reply features, and may send and receive attachments of up to 3MB. Critical Path's service supports Web-based e-mail and popular client-based programs like Eudora. It also supports the increasingly popular IMAP4 (Internet Message Access Protocol) standard. IMAP4 e-mail, like client-based programs, boasts advanced e-mail management and filtering features. But, like Web-based e-mail, it also gives you the ability to access your messages from anywhere with just a Web browser. Because of added flexibility and functionality, IMAP4 support is becoming increasingly popular.

Using Critical Path's Mail Administration Center, your e-mail administrator can add and modify e-mail accounts online. You can pay extra (the cost varies depending on the total number of users) to have Critical Path take care of this for you.

Critical Path's main advantage is its highly reliable and secure service. The company offers advanced features, including spam filtering, virus protection, postmarking and return-receipt delivery. It also provides a custom firewall solution to minimize the incidence of network security breaches. If problems should arise, Critical Path offers two-tier support (for both an e-mail administrator and your employees) that's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Critical Path's services start as low as $5 per mailbox user per month.

Little Extras

Ready to investigate an e-mail outsourcing partner? First, find out what the e-mail provider's basic service plan includes in terms of features, average price per user and the cost of extra services. If you have fairly active e-mail users, find out how many megabytes per user are offered (and the extra charges to include more room).

Since you're paying for reliability, customer service is paramount (get any promises in writing). Find out what to expect if the servers go down and the time frame for getting you back online. Whenever possible, look for 24/7 customer support; if it doesn't come standard, consider paying extra for it.

Security is another important consideration. Make sure your service contract details how data is safeguarded. Your e-mail contains critical business information, so be sure to ask for a copy of any potential provider's privacy policy. Moreover, if you have any qualms about the company (and visions of industrial espionage), look for another provider.

A number of useful e-mail features are becoming more widely available as well. Although not every business will have uses for them, they're particularly beneficial for frequent business travelers who need added flexibility.

One new service is called "unified messaging." Unified messaging offers subscribers the ability to pool fax and phone messages into one universal electronic in-box, or have e-mail messages forwarded to other sources, like a pager or a fax machine. Critical Path already offers unified messaging to its customers, and PostOffice.Net is developing forward-to-pager and forward-to-fax capabilities.

Future services to look for include calendar integration for managing appointment schedules, guaranteed delivery that notifies the sender when messages are received, and archiving for permanently backing up and storing company e-mail.

You can also expect more companies to begin offering e-mail outsourcing services. Some of the big players include Lucent Technologies, AT&T and AOL. Soon, you may find it more advantageous to store your company e-mail on one of these heavyweights' servers, and not on your own.