Meet Your Online, Tech-Savvy Business Partner

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted June 25, 2004
Starting and running a successful small business demands concentrated brain work and long hours devoted to building or sourcing products and services and, oh yes, actually serving customers.

Computers and the Internet can help in all this and also with administrative chores in the background, but figuring out how to use the technology, and learning and using it can be a major distraction from the main business of your business. That's why SmartOnline Inc. of Research Triangle Park, No. Carolina developed SmartOnline, its small business Web portal.

SmartOnline is a one-stop shop offering easy-to-use online services and tools that can help small businesses cope with legal, financial, marketing and human resources chores that would otherwise require hours of effort and/or hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in professional fees.

It's an impressive service that will appeal to any small business owner who lacks computer skills or the patience or time to develop them.

How Does it Work?
SmartOnline sells the service either as a subscription for $30 a month or à la carte. Using SmartOnline's interactive business plan builder, for example, costs $50 on a one-time basis. Creating a professional-quality HR manual costs $99 using SmartOnline's tool.

SmartOnline partners provide a few of the services, and subscribers pay extra for those. For example, business incorporation costs $130 to $310 plus state fees. A professionally written press release can cost between $150 and $450.

As well as providing the tools and services, SmartOnline stores subscribers' data on its servers — though they can optionally download and store information locally too. SmartOnline will also host Web pages with information, such as business plans, that subscribers want to share with others.

SmartOnline aims its services at any small business — which the company defines as fewer than 1,000 employees — but its "sweet spot" is small firms with 50 or fewer employees.

Back in the Day


SmartOnline's Homepage
SmartOnline.com offers a large selection of tools and services to help you run your business.
SmartOnline started out 11 years ago with a vision of providing badly needed small business software tools using the then almost-unheard-of application service provider (ASP) distribution model. The company was a little ahead of its time. Not enough small businesses were on the Internet in 1993. So it started by building shrink-wrapped software versions of the tools.

Today, the company offers a generous and broad — if not quite comprehensive — range of online tools and services for a single monthly subscription fee. The company keeps adding new services, though, and is planning major enhancements starting this fall that will fill in many of the holes.

Services available now include: online business loan applications; easy-to-access, in-depth market research for every state in the union; over 2,000 business and legal documents and forms that subscribers can fill in and customize interactively; customizable boiler plate business letters; a mailing list builder; plus e-mail access to experts in HR, law, business planning, finance and global trade.

Easy to Use — No, Really
The best of the SmartOnline tools are very good indeed and use Wizards — meaning subscribers simply answer questions and fill in information when prompted, and the tool produces a document or response at the other end.

One key productivity feature: SmartOnline remembers basic information about your company and automatically fills it in whenever it's required later in a document or form — a friendly, time-saving perk.

Take the business plan builder, for example. You start at a main page where you can launch a new plan writing project, view existing plan documents, create charts and graphs, submit a document for evaluation to the Business Plan Academy or post a business plan to a Web page.

When you begin writing a new plan, the Wizard presents a series of three pages that collects basic information — name and type of business, starting date, fiscal year end, etc. The simple, cleanly designed pages include detailed, easy-to-follow instructions at the bottom.


Start here to create your business plan.
Need a business plan? SmartOnline's business plan builder walks you through the steps for professional results."

After this set-up process, the tool presents a business plan outline, divided into chapters — Executive Summary, The Business, Market Analysis, etc. Within each chapter you'll find linked section headings — Introduction, Mission Statement, Key Considerations, etc.

Clicking on a section heading, takes you to a page with a word processing box for inputting text (there's a spell-checker built into the tool) or to a spread sheet to fill in. A detailed list of instructions at the bottom of each screen explains what information to include plus a toggle button to display a sample of a completed section.

At the end of the process, you'll have a complete, formatted business plan document that you can download and print. Or you can post it to a SmartOnline Web page and direct interested investors there.

The market research tool is also useful, and very easy to use. You start by selecting a region, county, city or state and then a category of information — demographics, banking, education, ancestry, etc. The next screen lists up to 20 or 30 information items, each with a radio button beside it. Select a button and click Next, and SmartOnline presents information —often in chart or graph form — which you can then download. Although this kind of market information is available elsewhere on the Web, it would take a lot of time to dig it out.

Theory in Practice
The HR policy manual and marketing plan builders work exactly the same way as the business plan builder. SmartOnline claims these tools can save small businesses significant professional fees as well as time and effort.


Marketing plan
Creating your own marketing plan can save you time and money.

Tom Furr, the company's vice president of sales and business development, cites the case of an ex-IBM employee who was launching a new consulting business. The man needed an HR manual because he was hiring 20 new consultants, but didn't know how to go about it because at IBM that work was always done by the HR department.

"He took it to a consultant who wanted $1,500 to write the manual," Furr says. "Then he tried SmartOnline and in less than hour, for something like $60, he had the same quality of manual."

While he was completing the SmartOnline process, this customer had a question about what he should say in the HR manual about his plan to offer select employees incentives in the form of additional vacation time, Furr explains.

When the customer submitted an e-mail question to the SmartOnline HR expert, he got an answer that potentially saved him a lot of headaches down the road. The expert told him to not say anything in the manual about the incentive plan.

"There's no point telling all your employees they might be missing out on something," Furr notes.

Is it Worth a Monthly Subscription?
The trouble with the subscription service is that the best tools — like the business plan builder and HR policy manual writer — will typically only be used once. The legal and government documents and boiler plate business letters, which can be customized using the same SmartOnline Wizard process, could certainly be useful. The question you need to ask yourself is, how many will you use and how often?

And remember, SmartOnline is not suggesting subscribers can get along without an attorney just because they have access to these tools. At the very least, Furr says, they still need an attorney "to submit documents." We wonder if attorneys will be willing to take the business if they can only charge for clerical tasks — and have to use somebody else's documents to boot.

Still, there's a lot of good, accessible information here. Consider trying the SmartOnline services on an à la carte basis first or subscribe for a month and examine the tools and services in detail before committing to a longer term.

Future Features
The enhancements the company plans will certainly make the product a great deal more attractive. SmartOnline plans to include an integrated small business accounting package — the company's in the midst of searching out a partner.

A "dashboard" feature at the subscriber's customized SmartOnline home page will display up-to-the-minute capsule information about company status, customizable for each employee or job function. This is similar to dashboards offered in much more expensive corporate executive information systems.

The new SmartOnline will also offer sales automation, customer relationship management and supply chain management functions, as well as enhanced abilities for collaborating online with remote associates and employees using application sharing technology.

It sounds good, but don't count on getting all that — plus everything the service already offers — for $30 a month. It will be worth more, and SmartOnline will certainly charge more.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit enduring.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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