It seems business owners are forever searching for information. We know this because we read your letters and e-mails imploring us to send you the necessary facts and figures. But because we don't always have the resources to provide you with every detail of business ownership, we have put together a fairly comprehensive list of government resources that will help in your informational quest.
Business.gov: Sponsored by the SBA, this site asserts that its purpose is to make the relationship between business and government more productive-and it's got a good chance of getting that task done. The home page is easily navigable, with rollovers on the left-hand menu items indicating what you'll find if you click on that link-a handy tool for those of you who don't want to waste time clicking over to something you don't need. The "Laws and Regulations" link will take you to a page where you'll find more links to regulatory information.
Minority Business Development Agency: A product of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the MBDA offers access to capital, management and technical assistance, education and training, and plenty of other features to keep minority business owners busy. You'll also find, for your reading pleasure, links to several MBDA publications, including Demographic Trends and Industry Trends.
Small Business Administration: The SBA provides a wealth of information to entrepreneurs and should indeed be one of your first stops on this list. They've got key advice on starting, financing and running your small business. If you're looking to obtain a SBA-guaranteed loan, the financing section is crucial; it's got links to forms, explanations of different lending programs, workshops and more. In the starting area, you'll find tons of checklists, FAQs and resources that'll help you get started. And if you're looking to cash in via the government, the "Business Opportunities" section provides help on government contracting, federal procurement and grants, among other things. The SBA's "E-Business Institute" also offers dozens of online courses and workshops.
Small Business Development Centers: A partner of the SBA, SBDCs are one-stop shops for small-business info. Located in every state with more than 1,100 service locations (often on college campuses), you can stop in for training, counseling and one-on-one sessions. Since most of the links on the SBDC site point back to the main SBA site, the main purpose of it is to locate your local office-but that's pretty handy.
SCORE: Otherwise known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, SCORE offers plain-old good advice from those who've been in your shoes (or at least a similar style) before. It's free, it's convenient (you can even get counseling via e-mail, but face-to-face consultations are available), and it's confidential. So what are you waiting for?
U.S. Postal Service: All mail jokes aside, the USPS delivers when it comes to helping you figure out the ins and outs of shipping your precious letters and packages. Of particular interest: a section on direct mail--how to do it, rates and mailing info, templates, FAQs and more.
Export.gov: If you've never thought of exporting, you might change your mind once you visit Export.gov, if only for the fact that they make international business sound exciting. Register to receive the Export.gov newsletter, and you'll get monthly updates on feature articles, trade events and new market reports.
FedBizOpps: It seems there's no shortage of government Web sites with information on finding government contracts-but why not add one more to the mix? This site boasts it's the "single government point-of-entry for federal government procurement opportunities over $25,000." Here, government buyers publicize their business opportunities, and commercial vendors seeking federal markets for their products and services can search, monitor and retrieve opportunities.
Small Business Administration's Subcontracting Network: This site could prove useful in landing that much-needed government contract. And if you get tired of looking at this site, you can always click back over to the main SBA site and check out the available resources.
WomenBiz.gov: This site, of course, is directed at women-that is, women who want to sell to the government. You'll learn the basics of government contracting, finding your market, getting started, finding business opportunities and links to key contacts. There's nothing fancy about this site, but it serves its purpose.
Government Branches and Agencies
Federal Communications Commission: All things radio, television, wire, satellite and cable fall under the FCC's jurisdiction. If your business relies on one of these means of communication in some fashion, get familiar with this Web site.
Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship: You'll get a different version of what's important, compared to the House's website, if you visit the Senate's small-business page. You can decide what's important to you.
U.S. Census Bureau: Nothing's more important in selling your product or service than being able to sell it to the right people. Census Bureau stats are useful for determining the appropriate demographic for whatever you want to sell-find out who's doing what and where, and half the battle of starting a business is done with. Check out the business patterns by county for an even closer look at demographic data.
U.S. Department of Labor: Anything you need to know about wages and hours, workplace safety and health, retirement and health benefits, and other employee rules can be found on the DOL's site. The links to state labor offices could prove useful if you need a local contact.
U.S. Department of State: Go straight to the "Business Center" if you're looking to do business overseas. There are plenty of links to information you need, like the "U.S. Government Export Portal," "Overseas Building Operations" and "Travel and Living Abroad." Even if you're just starting out, don't overlook this site-if your business gets big enough, you might need it some day.
Legal Aid and Information
BusinessLaw.gov: This site purports to be a plain-English guide to all the regulatory hoops business owners have to jump through, and it does a pretty good job. The layout is simple: On the left, you've got links to guides on starting a business, handling finances, managing employees, doing business and getting out of business. You'll also find state and local info through a pull-down menu and search for compliance assistance for several industries. Go deeper, and you'll find tools that will let you apply for an employer identification number, find a lawyer, create an emergency evacuation plan for your business, e-mail your local representative and more.
Environmental Protection Agency: Keep it clean, kids. Click here (under "Browse EPA Topics") to get to the small-business section of the EPA's site. You'll find links to business information, technical assistance and more as well as information on laws affecting small business.
Federal Trade Commission: Go to the "For Business" link for information on fair packaging and labeling as well as information specific to certain industries, such as wool and fur apparel and jewelry. It might sound tedious, but complying with the laws for your particular industry just makes good business sense-if you plan on sticking around for a while.
Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition: If you prepare any kind of food or drug for sale, you've gotta be within the letter of the law. Everything from food and drinks to cosmetics carries restrictions. Check out the "Small Business Guide to the FDA" for information specific to you.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Safety and health in the workplace aren't just niceties; they're priorities (or they should be). If you haven't thought about whether you're in compliance with OSHA regulations, get started now-before they get started on you.
Office of Compliance: What immediately catches your eye on this site is the "Employee Rights" section. Ponder the potential lawsuits headed your way if you fail to practice equal opportunity employment or fair labor standards, or if you're not up to speed on the latest Family & Medical Leave rules. The moment you get that first employee-and every employee thereafter-you better make sure you're in compliance.
Regulations.gov: Take advantage of this site if you're looking to cut down on your intake of headache medication. Find, review and submit your own opinion on the countless regulations that business owners need to know about. The site is fairly bare-bones, but really, why would you want something complicated when you're trying to cut to the chase?
Securities and Exchange Commission: The SEC has a very straightforward purpose, and they'll tell you all about it on their Web site: "The laws and rules that govern the securities industry in the United States derive from a simple and straightforward concept: all investors, whether large institutions or private individuals, should have access to certain basic facts about an investment prior to buying it." If you need to know what you're getting into as far as investing, or if you envision your company eventually getting to the point of public trading, you'll want to get cozy with the SEC.
U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. If you import, export or travel internationally, this site is for you. Like any government Web site, there's an insane amount of information here-tariffs, ports, international trade agreements (including NAFTA), export license and document requirements, and travel alerts, to name a few. You'll also find links to other informative sites, like the International Trade Commission's Tariff Database.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: Manufacturers, distributors, importers and retailers might want to find their way to this site and click on the "Business" section. There are regulations, laws and business information by product, as well as a link directly to a small-business section.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: This is your one-stop shop if you want to get a patent or trademark. (Looking for a copyright? Check the Library of Congress site. You can download forms, read informative FAQs, and perform patent and trademark searches. Two sections you want to know about: the guide to getting a patent and the Trademark Electronic Application System, where you can do all your filing online.
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance: This is the storehouse and search engine for federal grants for state and local governments; federally recognized Indian tribal governments; U.S. territories; domestic public, quasi-public, and private profit and nonprofit organizations and institutions; specialized groups; and individuals...meaning there are a lot of grants to be had but you're probably eligible for very few. Still, the site's got lots of information-like advice on writing grant proposals-and, most important, a search for grant programs and several ways to browse the listings. "By Applicant Eligibility" is the one you'll want to check out, since here you can choose to search for small-business-specific grants.
Export-Import Bank of the United States: The Export-Import Bank, the official export credit agency of the United States, supports the financing of U.S. goods and services. There's extensive information here on applying for financing, calculating fees and more. So if you're looking to international markets, or plan to, here's your ticket.
IRS: The tax man cometh-and he cometh several times a year, so it pays to know what deductions you qualify for, how to get them-and how to avoid overpaying your taxes. Click here to get to the "Small Business One Stop Resource" for information specific to small business.
Office of Management and Budget: If you've ever felt left out of-or happy with-the allocation of government budget dollars, you have the OMB to thank. This agency makes its list and checks it twice, doling out dollars to the agencies it deems worthy (and withholding from those it doesn't). If you want to know anything about the budget, this is the place to go.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: One reason to come here: Grants. Also be sure to check out the "Small Businesses" section for information on gaining one (or more) of the agency's contracts.
Research and Business Development
Economic Indicators.gov: It's not enough just to guess at what lies ahead in our economy. This Web site, a product of the Economics and Statistics Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce, presents timely information on key economic indicators, as noted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. One handy feature allows you to sign up for a free subscription service to have files e-mailed or faxed to you as soon as they're available, allowing you to keep up-to-date on the latest research.
Federal Citizen Information Center: This is basically a giant repository for government-related FAQs, including information on Social Security, federal grants and loans, locating military personnel, savings bonds, and more. And guess what? There's a phone number you can call, (800) FED-INFO, to actually speak to a government representative. Don't go straight to the phone number, however; spend some time clicking around to see if your question has been answered already.
FedWorld.gov: Go to this site's home page, and it may not look like anything special--it's basically just a gateway to government information. But the best part is the page with links to top government websites, organized into navigation-friendly drop-down menus.
Firstgov.gov: The best thing about this site is the way a ton of information is organized into neat little categories. You don't have to click five or six times to get to what you need; just click on the "For Businesses & Nonprofits" link at the top of the home page, and you'll find a host of topics on everything you might want to know about doing business with the government, filing your taxes, registering an employer ID number and more. There are even subcategories designed especially for minority, self-employed and other specific groups of entrepreneurs. And this page is useful for those just starting a business or looking to buy and sell with the government.
Library of Congress: This site is huge, but there are two particular areas of interest for entrepreneurs: The U.S. Copyright Officeand Thomas (as in Jefferson), where you can find legislative information. First, on the copyright site, you can learn how to register a copyright for different types of works and the fees involved. You can research the laws of licensing copyrighted works, download publications and forms, read up on applicable laws, and search copyrighted records. If you're interested in specific legislation, Thomas is the place to go. You can read legislation text, find out what's currently going on in Congress, and find links to Web sites for legislative agencies, senators and representatives.
SciTechResources.gov: Here you'll find a catalog of government science and technology Web sites-useful if your business is geared toward those areas of expertise. Get links to government resources, services, laboratories, information centers and more.
SearchGov.com: Tra-la-la, and tee-lee-wee, this site will find anything for thee. You'll be pleased to learn that this government search portal is powered by Google. Need we say more?
U.S. Government Sites for Kids: So maybe you're not a kid anymore...or maybe you are. Maybe you have one of your own, and you'd like it if he or she got interested in, say, investing or the U.S. Patent and Trademark's website for kids. Get them started here.
Not Exactly the Feds
Click herefor a portal of state and local government sites, regularly updated.
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.