In the days before the Internet became so popular, people starting businesses often asked attorneys and accountants for help, talked with counselors at the Small Business Administration (SBA) or Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), took a course or two at a local college or sought advice from other people who already ran successful businesses. All these resources are still available, but, thanks to the ever-expanding world of technology, now you can also obtain advice from online services and the Internet. In fact, you can get help from volunteer groups, government agencies, your online peers and even commercial firms--all without ever leaving your office.
Sandra E. Eddy is the author of HTML in Plain English (MIS:Press, $16.95, 800-288-2131) and Mastering Lotus SmartSuite 97 for Windows 95 (Sybex, $39.99, 510-523-8233).
The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) has more than 12,400 volunteer business counselors throughout the United States who advise about 250,000 clients each year. In June, SCORE established an informative Web site and a CyberChapter with more than 140 online counselors. This unique mentoring service is available around the clock, seven days a week, and is ideal for those who can't easily get to a local SCORE chapter office. The Web site had more than 10,000 visitors and 700 requests for e-mail counseling in its first three weeks.
To obtain online help from SCORE, visit http://www.score.org , click on "Get E-mail Counseling" and start the counselor-selection process. You can either select a counselor yourself or have SCORE automatically search its database and choose one for you. To do this, you again have options. You can select the skills you want your counselor to have from a list of 403 skills. Or you can type a request with information about your problem in a text box, then click on a button to start the search for the counselors who best match your needs.
To select your own counselor from SCORE's list of currently available counselors, browse through a page of counselor names, locations and short resumes. When you find someone whose skills match your problem, click on his or her name to open the e-mail program, then send a message. Regardless of the selection method you choose, you'll receive an e-mail reply from your counselor within 48 hours.
SCORE cybercounselor Ed Piekarz, a former Fortune 500 executive and founder of two businesses, helps people who are starting businesses and advises them about management, marketing and sales issues. Piekarz is contacted by one or two clients a day. "I check my e-mail many times during the day, and especially late in the evenings, for my West Coast clients," says Piekarz, who lives in Nokomis, Florida. "Invariably, the contact begins with a client's specific needs--a short message. I try to reply within hours; we are most effective if we make contact as quickly as possible, regardless of the day or time. Then they know we're concerned with their needs. We can help solve a particular problem, direct the client to various sources to get information, present options for completing a task or just confirm and support their thinking.
"If I don't have a skill the client needs, I can call on another counselor to `co-counsel' the case," Piekarz says. "Obviously, no single cybercounselor has all the answers, but we have many counselors with unbelievable background experiences to call on.
"When we counsel online, there is no face-to-face meeting where body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions come into play," Piekarz says. "This makes us choose our words very carefully--especially if we have to reply negatively or suggest that a client do something he or she doesn't want to do. We stay with the client until he or she no longer needs our assistance, but a client can always obtain more counseling at a later date."
Internet Discussion Groups
Internet discussion groups are a less structured means of solving business problems and enhancing professional skills. To use them, go to the discussion group and post a question, then return periodically to check for answers others have left for you. At their best, discussion groups are virtual brainstorming sessions with thoughtful and knowledgeable people trading helpful messages.
Discussion groups, however, have a couple of disadvantages. First, all those visiting a discussion group can read your messages and are free to respond--whether politely and intelligently or not. Also, you probably won't know your advisors' credentials, strengths and weaknesses when you're chatting with them in a discussion group.
On the Internet, discussion groups are known as "usenet news-groups," or simply "newsgroups."
The best, most structured discussion groups have a moderator who manages the group. A good moderator may be an expert whose messages contain important information and who may change the direction or tone of a discussion. Anyone can send any type of message to a newsgroup. If the group is moderated, the moderator decides what to post. If a message is interesting or informative, the moderator might decide to post it, whether or not it is related to the newsgroup's typical content; so the information you'll find at a particular newsgroup can change a great deal from day to day. The best moderators review all messages and post only appropriate ones. A moderated newsgroup reflects the personality and organizational skills of the moderator, who's usually a volunteer.
An unmoderated newsgroup is often loaded with messages that advertise products and services completely unrelated to the purpose of the group; visitors often must wade through such superfluous messages before finding any that are of interest.
One way to visit an Internet newsgroup on the Web is through Deja News (http://emarket.dejanews.com/emarket/about/), a news-group search engine based in Austin, Texas. Deja News provides several search options; Quick Search is the easiest to use. Within Quick Search, you simply type a question, a topic or the name of a group in a text box and click on the Find button.
How do you find a good news-group? One way is to visit the news.groups.reviews newgroup, a newsgroup that features users' reviews of the best groups. A more time-consuming method is to visit groups and judge for yourself. If most messages in a discussion group are devoted to get-rich-quick schemes, you'll know right away that you're visiting an un-moderated group, and it may not be worth your while to remain there.
Try searching for the following newsgroups through Deja News:
- misc.business.consulting (discus-ses issues related to consulting);
- biz.general (discusses small-business issues);
moderated (discusses marketing issues);
- misc.busi-ness.moderated (discusses small-business issues); and
- misc.entrepreneurs.moderated (discusses small-business and entrepreneurship issues).
CompuServe, America Online and Microsoft Network all have forums in which you can participate in realtime chats as well as newsgroups. You can also get information from categorized online libraries. The library at the Working from Home Forum (GO WORK) on CompuServe, for example, arranges information under categories such as Running a Business, Making Money Online and Telecommuting/Work. America Online's The Business Strategies Forum (Keyword "Strategies"), includes such topics as Home Business and Businesses Owned By Women.
Gwendolyn D. Moran, owner of Moran Marketing Associates (http://www.mmasite.com), a marketing firm in Ocean, New Jersey, regularly visits three CompuServe forums: the PR and Marketing Forum (GO PRSIG), the Journalism Forum (GO JFORUM) and The Entrepreneur's Forum (GO SMALLB). "All are invaluable sources of online networking and information," Moran says. "Imagine being able to build a network of contacts across the globe and tap their expertise and resources. That's what these areas have done for me."
If you want to participate in business-related discussion groups, visit these Web sites:
- Reference.com (http://www.reference.com/ ) maintains directories of newsgroups, Web forums and mailing lists in which information is sent directly to your e-mail address. You must register before you can use this free, easy-to-use service.
- Kim Bayne, president of WolfBayne Communications in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has compiled Marketing Lists on the Internet (http://www.bayne.com/wolf-bayne/lists/default.html ). This busy site includes more than 100 discussion and announcement lists, newsgroups and forums, both on the Internet and through online services.
- GovNews (http://www.govnews.org/ ) runs more than 200 moderated newsgroups for people interested in doing business with the federal government. Go to http://www.financenet.gov/financenet/mhonarc/ to access its newsgroups from the Web.
- The WomenBiz Discussion Forum (http://www.frsa.com/womenmsgs/ ) is sponsored by FRS Associates, an intranet design company in San Francisco. This active discussion group is a mix of advertisements and small-business messages.
- BellSouth's small-business site (http://www.smallbiz.bellsouth.com/ ) features articles on a particular topic each week. It offers two small-business forums: one that discusses BellSouth telecommunications products and another that discusses marketing and public relations.
Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, by John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong (Harvard Business School Press, $24.95, 800-988-0886). Discusses how an online company can set up a virtual community to better serve its customers.
"Getting Started," a two-cassette audio program, by Terri Lonier (Portico Press, $17.95, 800-222-7656). These tapes provide tips and techniques for planning and starting a business.
Moran Marketing Associates, 3321B Doris Ave., #3, Ocean, NJ 07712, (732) 663-1661 Ed Piekarz, email@example.com