Services That Power Your Small Business

When it comes to business services, companies that cater to smaller players are your best bet.

Two years ago, industry analysts predicted small-business ownerswould be managing most of their business operations online,including payroll, human resources, marketing and sales. Thatdidn't happen, and many of the small-business-orientedapplication service providers went bust. However, there are a fewgood technology-driven solutions for budget-minded business owners.One company provides affordable marketing and design services tosmall players, another provides online banking services, and thethird provides low-cost teleconferencing.

Marketing and DesignServices

When corporate interior designer Paula DeGroot was ready tobuild her Web site last year, she went to Creativworks, anadvertising, marketing and PR agency with headquarters in St.Louis. A basic business "image builder" package fromCreativworks costs $1,799 and includes logo design, business cards,envelopes, letterhead and revisions.

According to Creativworks founder and CEO Keith Alper, thecompany's focus on small and midsized businesses-along withquick service and low prices-is ideal for small firms. "Ifyou're a small business, the big agencies aren't going tocall you back," says Alper, who launched Creativworks threeyears ago. The company has three storefront agencies inIndianapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis and plans to open anotherdozen stores.

Unlike traditional agencies, Creativworks does not work on specand requires a 50 percent deposit on all projects. (Advertisingagencies often create entire campaigns "on spec" to woobig clients-hours of work that the clients are not obligated to payfor unless they decide to hire the agency.) This won't happenif you visit Alper's company.

The site Creativworks built for DeGroot,, cost her about $5,000 and wona Summit Creative Award for best B2B site. "They did a greatjob," says DeGroot. "I told them the feeling, the colorsand 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 postcardcampaign to promote it to both companies' benefit. Thepostcards will cost DeGroot another $500 or so for the design andprinting of 250 cards. "It's an advertisement for them andfor DeGroot designs," says DeGroot, "[and it] savesmoney, too." To cut costs even further, Creativworks hasagreed to discount DeGroot's fee if she provides designconsulting services to the company.

Online Banking Services

Business owners seeking to cut their banking fees are checkingout CheckSpace, a Bellevue, Washington-based company thatprovides online payment solutions. CheckSpace client EdithWoodworth, who sells macaws, cockatoos and parrots at her Birds& More Exotic Bird Shop in Clarksville, Tennessee, signed upfor the service when her bird supplier in Florida asked her tocheck out CheckSpace's e-payment service. Woodworth now usesCheckSpace to pay suppliers, send out invoices and receive paymentsfrom her customers. "I encourage [customers] to use it, butthey can do whatever they want to do," adds Woodworth.

Woodworth pays the same flat rate of 95 cents whether she'sreceiving $100 or $10,000. In contrast, credit cards typicallycharge between 2 and 3 percent of the transaction total forprocessing, 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 everymonth."

Businesses that use CheckSpace can pay anyone they choose. Ifthe recipient is a member, then the sender pays no fee. (Therecipient of the funds pays 95 cents.) If the recipient isn't amember, the sender pays 50 cents, and CheckSpace will send out apaper check.

According to research that CheckSpace funded, the average smallbusiness spends more than half an hour on each invoice it sendsout. CheckSpace estimates the service can cut labor costs forbusiness by 50 to 70 percent, saving them, on average, about $600per month in bookkeeping time.

Audioconferencing and VideoconferencingServices

Companies, reducing business travel to trim costs, are relyingmore and more on videoconferencing. Toronto-based Astound grew outof an earlier business that designed computer presentations forcompanies. Now they've added features that allow a number ofpeople to log on to Astound's Web site and look at the sameapplication-based presentation together.

For an added cost, streaming-audio and -video presentations canbe added to the conference, with a live-chat feature, though thevirtual meeting itself is still best conducted via conference callon standard phone lines. (Internet telephony is available, but thesound quality is poor).

Steve McWilliam, the vice president of marketing at Genesys, aFrance-based videoconferencing company that recently acquiredAstound, says many companies use Web conferencing as a qualifyingtool to screen potential customers. "I have one client whosays he's happy to pay to send a salesman anywhere," saysMcWilliam. "What he hates is when the salesperson gets thereand, in the first 10 minutes, knows there's not amatch."

Astound's service costs $15 per person, per event-an"event" is a meeting that lasts up to three hours-forstreaming audio, and $25 per person, per event for streaming video.For those who want to use the service often, an annual subscriptionis also available to a "virtual boardroom" that costs$720 per seat for a 10-seat room. Once the system is in place, anyuser in a given location can use the "seat" to join ameeting. A basic version of Astound's conferencing service isavailable for free, for up to three users on the Astound site.

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the authorof 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business.Fora free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," sendyour name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 ore-mail it to Prior contributed to this report.

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