Over the last few years, many small-business people got beyond their suspicions and found reason to open their doors to personal computers. It improved record keeping, invoice and inventory control and generally made doing daily business easier and, presumably, more cost-efficient.
Can the same be said yet for an Internet connection? Does it pay for itself in the small-business environment, or is it just a status symbol?
My wife, Patricia, works in a business of fewer than five employees, Vocational Training Consulting Services. Her work involves career counseling, labor market research, vocational examinations, expert testimony and lots of documents. The business has personal computers connected to a network.
They bought the computers because they needed to turn out finished reports and other documents that rely on common word-processing software. The investment also included some computer consulting to customize applications and classes on how to best use some of the database accessories that come with a Microsoft Office suite.
Over the last 18 months, the office has added e-mail capability through a single America Online consumer account.
The business has no Web site of its own, although some of its materials are available through The Times (https://www.latimes.com) site on jobs and careers.
Does the online connection pay its way?
The e-mail account costs $20 a month for basic service, or $240 a year. Other than answering the mail, there are no additional costs for e-mail. It is a business that does most of its promotion by word of mouth and client referrals.
Vocational Training Consulting Services has not invested the several thousand dollars that would be necessary to create a respectable Web site, but employees do use the Web extensively for research.
So far, the experience appears very positive:
* E-mail. From Web links, mentions and word of mouth, there are three to five new client inquiries a week. Some ask for small, immediately deliverable answers or services, others start a full counseling program. In any event, this is new business generating new clients and a few thousand dollars a year.
Some of the inquiries are from well beyond the geography the business has expected to serve. In addition, e-mail means better customer service because inquiries are readily answered and there are fewer phone interruptions.
* Research. Access to the Web has greatly expanded the resources used in the office. There is much more information available about labor market conditions, for example, about qualifications and skills needed for particular jobs, and there is immediate access to actual job postings in company and composite listings.
The result has been increased productivity. A search by one researcher for details about engineering jobs last week was completed in two hours, compared with the three days the researcher had suggested would be necessary to get calls back from sources. That means each employee will be able to handle more cases in the same time period.
* Growth. A year ago, there were a handful of career counseling sites at the most. Now there are hundreds of career-related sites. There is simply a lot more information available about the subject, and it is organized in different ways--by geography, job category and schooling. The result is information that’s not only more easily accessible, but better and more complete.
Susan W. Miller, the career counselor who owns the business, now sees the Internet as a boon. Like most businesses, she depends on outside providers; in her case, what she seeks is data, and the Internet is a useful, easy way to obtain it.
Among counselors, she added, the Web is only a starting point, and she describes her approach as “a combination of high tech and high touch.” She explained that getting information faster is great, but providing meaning to it is something that requires skilled employees. The Web essentially allows her business to hone in faster on critical issues.
What are some of the other possibilities for a small business making the Web connection?
Marketing is one obvious avenue. The Internet is well-designed to distribute targeted information to a list of businesses and individuals. At the least, it gives the average business the chance to hire or organize inexpensive direct-marketing tools.
A business like Vocational Training Consulting Services could look to offer explanatory materials, allowing the potential clients to acclimate themselves, peruse a list of resources and better understand what to expect in career counseling.
Linking Web sites to other similar electronic career centers might help the business reach new markets. A “chain” of linked, independent small-business services might prove more profitable than any one such business.
In general, information-based businesses probably will find more ways to grow via the Internet than might a sales company. Although a marketing or manufacturing company might increase sales by using the Web as an electronic catalog, information-based companies also use the new medium to trade or sell consulting services, data or reports and to work more closely with government, education and training programs.
Terry Schwadron is editor of Life & Style and oversees latimes.com, The Times’ Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org