From the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Recently, AT&T and MCI made their intentions of going after the growing Internet access market loud and clear. AT&T is offering all residential long-distance customers who sign up for its WorldNet Service in 1996 five free hours of Internet access per month for an entire year. And MCI is touting similarly competitive plans for its long-distance customers.

What does this mean for the approximately 3,000 existing Internet service providers (ISPs), many of whom are small entrepreneurial companies? "To the entrepreneur, AT&T and MCI present a formidable challenge," says Don Heath, president and CEO of The Internet Society, which seeks global cooperation and coordination for the Internet. "They've got the resources and the capabilities to offer services entrepreneurs can't."

Heath expects to see a number of smaller access providers merge during the next few months. Many ISPs in competitive markets, he says, will also be forced to reposition their services.

Still, while AT&T and MCI are liable to snag a sizable share of the market, a number of small companies providing Internet access don't feel too threatened. For instance, Jennifer Kraljevich, president of Tezcatlipoca Inc., a Chicago-based Internet service provider with about 1,500 customers, believes her clients, who are primarily businesses and "more serious customers than just the casual Web browser," are different from potential AT&T and MCI recruits.

"They'll tend to get people who are less interested in being on the cutting edge and more interested in just access," says Kraljevich, 29.

"From our perspective, the market for Internet services of any kind hasn't even begun to reach saturation," Kraljevich says. "So all they're really doing is getting more people interested in the concept."

Moreover, industry insiders believe entrepreneurs have several advantages over the big guys. "Entrepreneurs can provide value that typically the long-distance companies can't," says Heath. "To remain competitive, entrepreneurs must provide the greater services PC owners are looking for."

Some of the incentives entrepreneurs can offer include exclusive content and even building Web sites for their customers, says Heath.

Kraljevich intends to expand her client base by continuing to target business customers, as well as offering them additional services such as help with building Intranets. "I don't think these are services America Online, AT&T and MCI will be offering any time soon," she says.

Some regional ISPs are forming associations to discuss industry developments. "There's such a huge market potential of clients to come onto the Internet that we're not afraid to communicate," says David Jemmett, co-owner of Goodnet, an ISP in Tempe, Arizona, and a member of the Arizona Internet Service Providers association. "That may not be the case in the future, but today we might as well take advantage [of the situation] and become allied competitors rather than defensive competitors."

Most in the industry agree, however, that one of the best ways entrepreneurs can compete is through customer service. Firms that deliver ongoing technical support and customer service with a personal touch (and no busy signals) are likely to be a big draw.

"In the long run, your reputation is what you have to uphold," says Kraljevich. "The idea of trust and having a sterling reputation is one that is never going to be out of style."

Web Woes

Talk about snail mail: Searching for information on the Internet during peak periods is often so slow, it's a completely inefficient use of time. Fortunately, several companies now offer off-line searching tools on CD-ROM.

Frontier Technologies' CyberSearch, for instance, contains a database of more than 500,000 popular Internet locations. With CyberSearch ($20), you can search by key words or specific topics, and quickly access brief descriptions of information found at each site. Then you can launch your Web browser and link directly to the site. Other advantages: CyberSearch works with nearly any Web browser, and you can get monthly updates ($9.95) on CD-ROM.

Will off-line searching tools like these completely replace free search engines like Yahoo! and InfoSeek on the Web? Probably not. But they can make more efficient use of the time-and money-you spend online.

Public PCs

You already know all the ways computers can make money for your business-boosting productivity, increasing your professionalism and more. But now there's a new way to profit from computers: by setting one up in your business for customers to use.

USA Technologies and Dell Computer have teamed up to create the Credit Card Computer Express system, which allows customers to use a computer on a pay-as-they-go basis via credit card. Besides a convenient payment system, one of the biggest advantages is that unlike computer rentals at most copy and printing centers, Credit Card Computer Express also offers access to online services.

"There's a real need for people in the community to have access to computers," explains George R. Jensen Jr., president of USA Technologies in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Jensen points to a USA Today article that reports 60 percent of U.S. households can't afford PCs. With computer access still so limited, Jensen sees a great opportunity for small-business owners. The computer system generates increased traffic and revenue (usage fees are determined by the individual business); what's more, it can run unattended, so you don't need to hire additional employees. Businesses buy the computers under a lease agreement and receive 80 percent of transaction revenues as well as 24-hour support.

Customers just swipe their credit cards through a slot to take advantage of word processing, desktop publishing and printing features, or just cruise one of the six available online services.

At least 150 credit card-activated computers are expected to be open for business by August. For more information, call (800) 633-0340.

'Netting Tenants

The internet can make money for nearly any business. Want proof? Consider the case of Arlan Hurwitz, owner of SpringTree Apartments in Anaheim, California. In a competitive real estate market, Hurwitz was looking for a way to boost rentals in his 112-unit apartment building. He found it: offering tenants 10 free hours of Internet access each month.

Last year, Hurwitz and Internet consultant Rainer Freytag began working with an Internet access provider to provide the free service. Hurwitz also turned a vacant apartment into a classroom where free computer classes could be held. Then he hung a large banner on the building advertising free Internet access. Within one month, says Hurwitz, he'd rented 10 apartments as a result of the new Internet program, increasing his cash flow by approximately $8,000. Today, the building is at full capacity-and there's a sizable waiting list of Internet users eager to apply for apartments.

"I was completely overwhelmed with the results," marvels Hurwitz. "It was sort of a nice idea that I wanted to [test], and before I knew it, I had almost all my vacancies filled."

Besides generating additional revenue, Hurwitz says the program has helped him attract more qualified tenants; his existing tenants also seem to like having the educational opportunity on-site.

Inside Job

Sick and tired of diagnosing your computer problems yourself? Good news: A growing number of computer manufacturers are implementing remote support programs that enable them to tinker with your PC from afar.

How does it work? All it takes is a modem and some remote-control software installed on your machine-and your permission, of course. "A technician can dial right in, search around and make the changes so the user is up and running right away," says Kathy Krais at Artisoft Inc., which makes a popular remote communications software program, CoSession 7.0. "Often, they can fix the problem in minutes or even seconds."

This kind of hassle-free service, which takes the problem-solving out of customers' hands, is what many small businesses lacking on-site computer staff need, says Krais. Most users jam customer-service lines with difficulties that are easily fixed once identified, such as problems with configuration files and printer drivers.

Moreover, you may already have remote access software and not even know it: CoSession 7.0 comes pre-installed in many PCs from IBM, Hitachi, Gateway 2000, NEC Technologies, Zenith Data Systems, Midwest Micro and Data General-and is expected to be included in more than 2.5 million PCs this year.

Code Red

The addition of 12 new area codes this year may have your employees pulling out their hair in frustration. The problem? Companies with PBXs (or private branch exchanges) may have difficulties dialing the new area codes, not all of which have the traditional '0' or '1' as the middle digit.

"Problems occur when business customers haven't updated their PBX," says Ed Dyl, North American numbering plan project manager for Lucent Technologies, a subsidiary of AT&T. "Many companies' PBX systems can't dial the new area codes, or even the new 888 toll-free numbers."

Particularly if you own a PBX system purchased prior to 1992, says Dyl, you'll probably need to upgrade your software or equipment this year. Of the businesses that have experienced problems so far, about 90 percent required updated software-costing small businesses anywhere from $850 to $5,000. Hardware upgrades, of course, are considerably more, Dyl says.

To put your PBX to the test, call the designated test number at (561) 615-8484; if the call doesn't go through, contact your PBX manufacturer to get the appropriate software or equipment.

Basic Training

Healing a work-related injury is only the first step on the road to recovery. What should come next is training in the proper use of equipment to avoid future injuries, says Mike Peterson, manager of the Center for Assistive Rehabilitation and Vocational Services at Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis.

"Often after the injury is cured, individuals go back to the work site and reinjure themselves," explains Peterson. "But proper body training and ergonomic equipment can help cut down on reinjury."

The center also helps prevent injury in the first place through a program that sends specialists to perform work-site analyses at companies nationwide. Analysts make recommendations for ergonomic equipment, adjustable workstations and even software designed to cut down on extra typing. Many of the ergonomic products-including a "floating arms" keyboard that attaches to office-chair arms, one-handed keyboards, and "sit-to-stand" workstations that raise and lower hydraulically-are available at the center.

A work-site analysis generally costs about $70 per hour, says Peterson-well worth it when you consider that injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per employee. As they say, an ounce of prevention . . .