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DIGITAL MANAGER
By Alan Breznick
MARCH 1, 2000


Can We Talk?

Online bulletin boards promise lively talk and peer advice. Occasionally, they deliver

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Table: Rating the Online Forums

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For entrepreneurs in search of a helping hand, it's supposed to be a cinch. Just click on to a Web site, post a question, and presto: a quick answer from a fellow business owner who has dealt with precisely the same issue. Problem solved, right?

Yeah, right. Anyone who has spent time searching for answers on the myriad online bulletin boards, e-mail lists, and message forums for entrepreneurs knows the real score. On small-business forums across the Web, it's not uncommon to encounter unanswered postings from as far back as 1997 collecting cobwebs in cyberspace. Sure, an answer is out there somewhere. But you need the sleuthing skills of Philip Marlowe and the patience of Job to find it.

Just ask Ryan Johnston. The owner of Bay Provisioners, a travel company in Daphne, Ala., Johnston was seeking help choosing an online shopping-cart system for his Web site. Last August, he posted a query on a small-business forum at entreworld.org, the Web site of the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Six months later? Just one response--and not from a colleague offering assistance, but a consultant looking for a sale. ''I'm not too impressed,'' Johnston says.

Dearth of Users. Part of the problem is that the number of entrepreneurs using the Internet has yet to reach critical mass. In a recent survey of small companies by the Gallup Organization, 20% of those online said they send no business e-mail at all on a typical day; a further 20% transmit just one message. More than 75% of those surveyed send five or fewer messages each day.

It's a similar story at the more than two dozen Web-based small-business centers that sponsor many of the online discussion forums. Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., recently found that only 3 million small-business users--less than 10% of the total with Web access--regularly visit such sites. Even fewer frequent the discussion forums.

So should you skip the virtual bulletin boards altogether, and head instead for the actual one at the neighborhood Kinko's? Not necessarily. There's life out there in cyberspace, provided you know where to look.

Sites with moderated forums tend to be more informative--as opposed to the unmonitored free-for-alls for which the Web is so infamous. Yahoo's boards, for instance, get lots of traffic but are clogged by the stream of thinly disguised ads and multilevel marketing schemes. A moderator can keep such elements at bay and can also keep cyberschmoozes from becoming cybersnoozes.

As a rule, you want to head where the traffic is. The problem is, the busiest sites tend to be the ones offering the most general information, such as ''starting your own business.'' That conversation may be a little too basic for you. Still, if you are looking for general information--or just inspiration and war stories--consider a site like Inc.com. The clean, neatly organized site sponsored by the small-business magazine features a variety of moderated discussion groups that include advanced topics such as import-export with Asia and personal and professional growth.

Younger entrepreneurs may want to check out ideacafe.com, which is aimed at the Gen-X crowd. With yellow text and graphics on a stylish black background, it offers 19 forums under such headings as "Work-at-home Moms," "Tech Talk," and "Start-up Stew," which draw pretty lively crowds.

Beyond that, it's probably best to stick to sites that focus on your own industry. Katharine Andriotis, a freelance photographer in White Plains, N.Y., recently used a photography message board to line up equipment and services for a rush job in London. Posting her questions on the board, she found the best places in London to rent cameras, buy film, and get film processed, among other things. "I connected very quickly, very easily with some very professional photographers," Andriotis says.

Given the imprecision of most Internet search engines, finding useful industry-specific sites can be a challenge. A good place to start is Verticalnet.com, a five-year-old site that operates 52 different business communities ranging from food-and-beverage to medical supplies. All of the Verticalnet sites have bulletin boards, and although the traffic can be spotty, at least you know that users will be versed in your problems.

In addition to looking for colleagues in your own industry, try searching by subjects that apply to all businesses. For tax help, for instance, try Intuit.com. Thousands of people use the boards every day, with spirited debates over issues such as capital-gains taxes drawing round-the-clock traffic.

Frustrating. Wherever you end up, patience is key. It worked for Rex Hammock. The 45-year-old owner of a Nashville publishing company needed a new computer-projection device to make business presentations but didn't know what model to get or how much to spend. He wasted more than two frustrating weeks surfing countless sites, looking for an answer. Finally, he stumbled on to an e-mail subscription list for systems administrators. He posted his question and almost instantly had the advice he needed.

It was a hassle, but Hammock remains a believer. "That's the value of looking for conversations on the Internet," he says. "We need the wisdom that only small-business users who've walked in our shoes can give us." True enough. Just don't be surprised if you wander around in circles for a while before you find it.


Table: Rating the Online Forums

Small-business discussion forums abound on the Web, but you may feel as if you're talking to yourself. Some samples:

NAME WHAT IT OFFERS PROS CONS




IDEACAFE.COM 19 different "cyber-schmooze" forums aimed at Gen-Xers. Clever and hip. Lots of action among "schmoozers." Respondents have more enthusiasm than expertise.




INC.COM Nine discussion groups, each divided into specialized subgroups. More traffic than most. A wide range of topics. Moderators keep the chats focused. No industry-specific groups. Little traffic for many subjects.




INTUIT.COM Dozens of message boards and folders. Lots of tax-related tips. Many topics heavily trafficked. Boards have too many ads, too few answers.




OFFICE.COM 15 message boards, organized by industry and topic. Knowledgeable moderators keep the discussions focused. Light traffic.




PRINTNATION.COM 12 message boards, organized by printing industry topics. Easy to use. Great info for small printers and publishers. Light traffic.




VERTICALNET.COM Operates 52 different "business communities." information. Remarkably diverse. A good source of industry-specific information. Light traffic. It could take months before questions get answered--if at all.





VERDICT IDEACAFE.COM
Interesting, great for young entrepreneurs.
INC.COM
A good spot for general information.
INTUIT.COM
Great for tax info but not other topics.

VERDICT OFFICE.COM
Nicely executed but needs more visitors.
PRINTNATION.COM
Very new, promising.
VERTICALNET.COM
Promising, but needs more users to really work.



This article was originally published in the February 28, 2000 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy. http://businessweek.com/smallbiz/contact.htm



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