Two years ago, industry analysts predicted small-business owners would be managing most of their business operations online, including payroll, human resources, marketing and sales. That didn't happen, and many of the small-business-oriented application service providers went bust. However, there are a few good technology-driven solutions for budget-minded business owners. One company provides affordable marketing and design services to small players, another provides online banking services, and the third provides low-cost teleconferencing.
Marketing and Design Services
When corporate interior designer Paula DeGroot was ready to build her Web site last year, she went to Creativworks, an advertising, marketing and PR agency with headquarters in St. Louis. A basic business "image builder" package from Creativworks costs $1,799 and includes logo design, business cards, envelopes, letterhead and revisions.
According to Creativworks founder and CEO Keith Alper, the company's focus on small and midsized businesses-along with quick service and low prices-is ideal for small firms. "If you're a small business, the big agencies aren't going to call you back," says Alper, who launched Creativworks three years ago. The company has three storefront agencies in Indianapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis and plans to open another dozen stores.
Unlike traditional agencies, Creativworks does not work on spec and requires a 50 percent deposit on all projects. (Advertising agencies often create entire campaigns "on spec" to woo big clients-hours of work that the clients are not obligated to pay for unless they decide to hire the agency.) This won't happen if you visit Alper's company.
The site Creativworks built for DeGroot, www.degrootdesigns.com, cost her about $5,000 and won a Summit Creative Award for best B2B site. "They did a great job," says DeGroot. "I told them the feeling, the colors and what I wanted, and they put it together."
In the wake of the site's award-winning success, Creativworks and DeGroot are splitting the cost of a postcard campaign to promote it to both companies' benefit. The postcards will cost DeGroot another $500 or so for the design and printing of 250 cards. "It's an advertisement for them and for DeGroot designs," says DeGroot, "[and it] saves money, too." To cut costs even further, Creativworks has agreed to discount DeGroot's fee if she provides design consulting services to the company.
Online Banking Services
Business owners seeking to cut their banking fees are checking out CheckSpace, a Bellevue, Washington-based company that provides online payment solutions. CheckSpace client Edith Woodworth, who sells macaws, cockatoos and parrots at her Birds & More Exotic Bird Shop in Clarksville, Tennessee, signed up for the service when her bird supplier in Florida asked her to check out CheckSpace's e-payment service. Woodworth now uses CheckSpace to pay suppliers, send out invoices and receive payments from her customers. "I encourage [customers] to use it, but they can do whatever they want to do," adds Woodworth.
Woodworth pays the same flat rate of 95 cents whether she's receiving $100 or $10,000. In contrast, credit cards typically charge between 2 and 3 percent of the transaction total for processing, which can add up to big amounts-$20 or more on every $1,000. "It's much better than credit cards for me," says Woodworth, "I save $500, $600, $700 every month."
Businesses that use CheckSpace can pay anyone they choose. If the recipient is a member, then the sender pays no fee. (The recipient of the funds pays 95 cents.) If the recipient isn't a member, the sender pays 50 cents, and CheckSpace will send out a paper check.
According to research that CheckSpace funded, the average small business spends more than half an hour on each invoice it sends out. CheckSpace estimates the service can cut labor costs for business by 50 to 70 percent, saving them, on average, about $600 per month in bookkeeping time.
Audioconferencing and Videoconferencing Services
Companies, reducing business travel to trim costs, are relying more and more on videoconferencing. Toronto-based Astound grew out of an earlier business that designed computer presentations for companies. Now they've added features that allow a number of people to log on to Astound's Web site and look at the same application-based presentation together.
For an added cost, streaming-audio and -video presentations can be added to the conference, with a live-chat feature, though the virtual meeting itself is still best conducted via conference call on standard phone lines. (Internet telephony is available, but the sound quality is poor).
Steve McWilliam, the vice president of marketing at Genesys, a France-based videoconferencing company that recently acquired Astound, says many companies use Web conferencing as a qualifying tool to screen potential customers. "I have one client who says he's happy to pay to send a salesman anywhere," says McWilliam. "What he hates is when the salesperson gets there and, in the first 10 minutes, knows there's not a match."
Astound's service costs $15 per person, per event-an "event" is a meeting that lasts up to three hours-for streaming audio, and $25 per person, per event for streaming video. For those who want to use the service often, an annual subscription is also available to a "virtual boardroom" that costs $720 per seat for a 10-seat room. Once the system is in place, any user in a given location can use the "seat" to join a meeting. A basic version of Astound's conferencing service is available for free, for up to three users on the Astound site.
Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business.For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Prior contributed to this report.