Such a Deal: A Smorgasbord of Small-Business Bargains
You can get it wholesale, if you know where to look
Few words are sweeter to cash-strapped entrepreneurs than "discount."
It seems so unjust to be paying full price for basic office products
and services when you know that big companies never pay retail -- just
because they're big!
Don't despair. A little resourcefulness can close the gap. The discounts are out there -- and other breaks that level the proverbial playing field. Use
them regularly, and you could see a real reduction in costs. You qualify
for some simply by signing up on a Web site. For others, you'll have to
pay a fee to join an organization like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or
a small-business association. Several credit cards for small businesses
also give discounts on such services as shipping, car rentals, and telecommunications.
With your interests ever in mind, Business Week Frontier Online has
unearthed a list of places entrepreneurs can go for savings. It's not exhaustive,
but it will point you in the right direction.
SmallBizSavings.com, started last year by entrepreneur Victor Cheng,
promises registered users 10% to 20% discounts on hotels, rental cars,
printing, office equipment, and even hourly secretarial services. After registering, you get a group identification number to give vendors, which include
national chains -- Marriott, Alamo Rent-A-Car, and Howard Johnson
-- and more obscure companies, such as NEBS, a mail-order printer based in Groton, Mass. Deals may be ongoing or limited offers -- 20% off first-time printing, for example.
no charge to join SmallBizSavings.com, and so far 2,000 small-business members have signed up, says Cheng.
"I think small businesses get ripped off because they don't know any better,"
he says. If you don't see a company or service listed, E-mail Cheng. He'll
try to strike a deal.
Women Inc., a nonprofit organization geared to women entrepreneurs,
offers discounts to 32,000 members of both genders. Membership costs $49
annually. You can find the details on discounts on its Web site (www.womeninc.com).
"One of our tag lines is, 'Save as much as the Fortune 500,'" says the organization's
chief executive officer, Lindsey Johnson-Suddarth. She claims that entrepreneurs
who take advantage of Women Inc.'s discounts regularly can shave 20% to
25% from their expenses.
Well, maybe. Patti Koltnow, president of the Koltnow Group, which advises
nonprofits, says Women Inc. discounts trim 5% a year from her operating
expenses. What she likes most is the break she gets on AT&T's long-distance
charges -- 5% off her monthly bill and a waiver of her $7.50 monthly fee.
Through the organization Koltnow also got a corporate credit card, which
she couldn't get elsewhere despite an unblemished personal credit record.
She used the Advanta corporate card to buy a Dell computer. "I was able
to get a business lease and...establish a lot of business things because
of that," she says.
Computer purchases are among the most expensive investments small businesses
make, and nailing down a real discount among the myriad offerings is murder.
Lou Richman, finance editor for Consumer Reports in Yonkers, N.Y., says
small businesspeople should take advantage of the Web's researching capacity
to compare prices aggressively. One way to do that is to use a Web shopping
agent, like computershopper.com, shopper.com, and killerapp.com, which
scours the offerings of retailers, value-added resellers, warehouses, and
online sellers. There's also PriceSCAN (www.pricescan.com), an online price-comparison shopping service.
A buying club that offers free shipping is Clubcomputer.com, which you can join for
$49.95 a year. Stewart Pierce, vice-president for sales and marketing at
the Cary (N.C.) company, says it marks up products 3% to 5% over cost, compared
with 15% to 20% in retail stores.
Small-Business Credit Cards
Credit-card companies have discovered entrepreneurs as they tussle for
market share. The issuing banks for American Express, MasterCard, and Visa have
all developed small-business cards. Generally, you won't get one without
a business credit history, though -- no matter how clean your personal credit
is. Still, if your company is at least two years old, here are two credit-card
discount programs for you:
American Express Co. recently announced a partnership with IBM, promising up to 7% off the lowest advertised price
on thousands of IBM products. You need to buy them with an Amex small-business
card, which has annual fees ranging from $55 for a green card to $300 for platinum. The Optima cards, which unlike other Amex cards allow you to carry
a balance, have no annual fee. The cards also get you discounts when you
do business with Federal Express, Mobil, Hilton Hotels, Hertz, and Kinko's.
GE Capital, the financing arm of General Electric Co., has a program
called Commercial Direct offering discounts ranging from 3% to 20% on
such goods and services as stationery, shipping, and hotel rooms. It even
offers rebates on Exxon gasoline. The bulk of the discounts are only for
those who hold GE's Corporate Plus Visa, which carries a fee of $45 per
year per card. However, discounts can be had on office supplies from Standard
Register and on shipping with Airborne Express simply by calling 800-GE-VALUE.
Startups with no business credit history can apply for Advanta's Business
MasterCard. "We have been testing and going after startups," says Michael
Nowles, senior vice-president of Advanta's business-card unit. "Most other
issuers are looking for a two-year horizon before they will issue a card."
There's no annual fee and cash advances carry the same annual percentage
rate as purchases, unlike most cards. The average rate is prime
plus 6 or 7 points, or 13.75% to 14.75% now. Nowles says Advanta wants entrepreneurs
to use the card's credit line as working capital.
Chambers of Commerce, Small-Business Trade Organizations
Membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, primarily a small-business
advocacy group, costs $300 a year. The USSC offers a 401(k) plan through Fidelity
Investments for companies with 13 or fewer employees and promises
that the administration fees are half what a commercial plan's would be.
Membership also gives you a 7% discount on IBM's Aptiva, ThinkPad, and
I Series products, as well as IBM software. The Chamber of Commerce also says
it will do custom market research for half the price that private companies
charge. "We hope the deals we offer now will be the most competitive,"
says Jane Sanders, vice-president for business information and development
for the Washington (D.C.) group. Local chambers offer deals as well,
she says. By June, the USCC will announce discounts on shipping via Federal
Express and insurance from Mass Mutual.
One Business Place is a discount site so far available only to small
businesses in the Orlando (Fla.) area (Find it at www.onebusinessplace.com
or the Orlando Chamber of Commerce homepage.) Membership is free. The site
promises 10% discounts, primarily from local merchants, some of them representatives
of national chains. It's currently offering deals on supplies from
Officemax, printing from PaperDirect, car rental from Alamo, and on attorneys'
fees from LegalWise. Paul Twyford, a spokesman for One Business Place,
says the corporation plans to roll out the concept in 80 more cities in
the next two years. The next one, in New York City, is slated for this year.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses throws group-purchasing weight behind health care for its members. The 55-year-old organization claims that monthly administration fees for its group medical, dental,
and vision insurance package cost $10 to $30 less per employee than commercial
plans. Fees vary with coverage. The NFIB's insurance -- excluding
administration fees -- costs employers an average $1,850 per employee
annually. One drawback: Health insurance is offered in only nine states.
But that will expand to 16 by yearend. The federation also offers medical savings
accounts administered through Wells Fargo Bank. The NFIB's minimum membership
fee is $100.
In any case, don't take formal offerings as the last word on discounts.
It's a bazaar out there, and many things can be had for less with a little
bargaining. "The best arrangement for any small businessperson is to go
into any business service that he or she will rely on most and negotiate
their own discount," says Richman of Consumer Reports. Some of the price
breaks may seem stingy, but when added up, they could make a real difference
to your bottom line.
By Jeremy Quittner in New York