Free Online Resources Help Small Businesses Thrive

As a small business owner, it often feels like everyone is trying to sell you something. But sometimes, companies give stuff away. That’s the case with the online resources offered by Dell, HP, Microsoft and Yahoo. Granted, they hope you’ll eventually buy something when the need arises, but the information and services each vendor tailors to potential customers can be a boon to business owners—and all of it’s free.

Microsoft Small Business Center: A Complete Resource
With more than 10,000 pages and expert advice on mobility, marketing, security and more — plus in-depth help using Windows, Office and other Microsoft products — the Microsoft Small Business Center sets the bar high for free business-oriented Web portals. And with its recent overhaul (to bring it more in line with the look and feel of Windows Vista), the site is more approachable than ever.

Not to be confused with Microsoft Office Live Basics (the company’s online service that offers small businesses free Web hosting, e-mail service and more) Microsoft SBC is a resource center divided into three distinct areas: Products and Demos, Security and Support, and Articles and Research. No matter where you surf within the site, an omnipresent panel on the left part of the screen gives quick access to Microsoft’s tech support options, security guidance center, product info, learning center and purchasing options.

Microsoft Small Business Center
The Microsoft Small Business Center’s clean layout makes finding the right product info or articles a snap.
(Click for larger image)

The Products and Demos area helps current customers get more from the Microsoft products they already own, and it teaches potential customers how other Microsoft offerings might help a small business. Simply select a product from the extensive drop-down list, and you are taken to a page that offers answers to FAQs, tutorials from product experts, training Webcasts (when available) and document templates for that application (where appropriate).

In particular, the templates are hidden gems (you can access them directly here. You’ll find pre-built, nicely designed documents for agendas, award certificates, brochures, calendars, contracts, invoices, newsletters and dozens more, so you don’t have to spend time building them from scratch.

The in-depth help product information is what first drew Nancy Simon, creative director for PRX, to the site. The Chicago-based writing consultancy has 20 associates spread throughout the country, and Simon needed to learn how to communicate and collaborate with them more effectively.

“The area I’m weakest in is technology,” says Simon. “And since I work for myself, I have to do my own research on products.” Indeed, Microsoft SBC is geared toward proprietors with no IT department to lean on. “The site is very clean, very informative,” she says.

Once you’ve learned all there is to know about the software you own (which will take several visits, at least), you can start exploring other Microsoft offerings to see if any fill a need (Microsoft Dynamics Point of Sale, anyone?). The product pages are easy to scan quickly, offering top-level synopsis of the product’s key features. Most also have product demos so you can see the app in action.

But Microsoft has gone far beyond just providing information about its products. The Articles and Research area lets you explore 13 subject areas, from Communications and Customer Service to Mobility and Networking. Each topic has a dozen or so articles and case studies — mostly written by outside experts, not Microsoft employees — that are heavy on the advice (“How to write an effective sales letter: 11 tips”) and light on the sales pitch. Recent highlights in the Articles and Research area included “5 Ways to Win Over a Dream Client” and “Is Your Business Disaster Ready?”

Simon points out that not all of the pieces are as deep as some people might need. “They’re going for broad appeal, which may loose some people,” she says. But generally speaking, especially for business newcomers, there are plenty of pearls to glean.

In addition to the year-round updates of Microsoft SBC, the company offers its annual Small Business Summit. The 2007 event is being held from March 19-23, and offers free online (and in-person, in select cities) sessions covering a range of topics pertinent to small businesses. Session leaders this year include Julie Clark (the mom-turned-entrepreneur who built the Baby Einstein Company, recently purchased by Disney) and author and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki.

HP Small Business: Way Beyond Printing
Like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard has a wealth of free tools, tutorials and templates on its site geared toward small business customers. Unlike Microsoft, however, the material is woven more tightly with the company’s online small-business product offerings (You can access it here, or you can click on the Small and Medium Business tab from the main site. Tucked below the main Browse & Buy Products area of the site, you’ll find a header entitled Learn & Use. HP says this expertise center draws seven million visitors per month.

One of the main attractions of the site is the Business Templates area (not surprising for a printer company), which offers about 700 pre-built designs for Microsoft Office, CorelDRAW, QuarkXPress and more. Most interesting to small business owners is the collection of agency-quality graphic design templates from StockLayouts, where you’ll find great-looking brochures, letterhead, flyers and so on. There’s even a selection of royalty-free logos you can customize, as well as stock photos you can use in your marketing materials. Additional Web-ready images (over 750,000) are available for just $1 apiece.

HP's Small Business Resources
More than 700 document templates are just the beginning of what you’ll find in HP’s free small-biz resources.
(Click for larger image)

But templates are just part of the story. Beneath the Learn & Use banner is a link to free online classes in HP’s learning center. These have the feel of genuine online college or post-graduate courses — complete with lesson breakdowns and even recommended prerequisites — and are taught by well-qualified instructors. You need to register and enroll for a given course, but all are free of charge.

HP offers a few dozen courses in all, broken down into specific areas such as Software & Technology, Business Skills and In-house Marketing. Recent additions include an introduction to using Adobe Photoshop CS2 and understanding Microsoft Vista Business Edition. You’ll want to bookmark the page and check back often, as HP conveniently flags which lessons are new or updated and shows which new courses are coming soon.

If a full online course is more than you’ve bargained for, HP also offers a host of how-to guide that give solutions to a range of technology problems. You can learn how to build a point-of-sale solution, network your printers, manage documents with workgroup scanners, manage a Windows server environment and much more.

When you are ready to buy a product, HP’s site offers buying guides to help you choose the right (HP, of course) notebook, desktop, server, printer and so on. We especially like the “help me choose” tool, which asks you to characterize your typical usage scenario (for example, for a notebook it asks the type of apps you tend to run, how often and far you tend to travel with a notebook, your budget and so on) and recommends the appropriate HP model.

Dell Small Business 360: A Newcomer With Promise
The newcomer in the group is Dell Small Business 360. While we applaud the effort, Dell still has a ways to go to make SB 360 as useful a destination as the others in this space.

The site is easy to follow. A list on the left shows the portal’s main areas (IT Solutions, Business Resources, Your Industry, Success Stories, Forums and more); clicking on one brings you to that area’s menu page, and clicking on one of those entries brings up the list of available articles and videos. Navigating is straightforward, though you’ll find yourself clicking several layers deep into the site to arrive at the meat. And of course, at the bottom of each article you’ll find a list of recommended Dell products. Still, the sales pitch is decidedly low-key overall.

 Dell Small Business 360
Dell’s new Small Business 360 portal delivers technology information as well as general business advice.
(Click for larger image)

The IT Solutions area leads you to articles on Mobility, Networking, Data Management and Storage and Security. Clicking on any of those choices brings up a list of four to eight articles and videos (with more to come) devoted to a specific topic. For example, under Mobility you’ll find an informative piece explaining mobile broadband and another offering troubleshooting tips for accessing a Wi-Fi network on the road.

While technical neophytes will find most of the articles helpful, some of the pieces just skim the surface, giving the benefit without any practical advice. For example, the piece highlighted in a recent banner promised how going wireless could boost productivity and save money. The article explained how switching to a laptop PC from a desktop could let you be productive in coffee shops, at the airport and at home — but it provided no specifics.

For new and existing entrepreneurs, Dell offers the Business Resources area. Here you’ll find advice on starting a business (managing customer data, estimating startup costs, how to write a business plan and so on), building an existing one (budgeting, motivation employees and more), communication (collaboration solutions, creating a newsletter, etc.), customer service and e-commerce and Web marketing.

Here again, some of the advice just scratches the surface of what a prospective business owner might want. For example, the article entitled “3 Ways to Get Investors Interested in Your New Business” advises you to write a business plan, prepare your spoken pitch to potential investors and create relationships. Moderately helpful, but you’ll likely come away wanting more (like advice on how to find potential investors and financing in the first place).

Small Business 360 also includes a handful of multimedia case studies (under the Success Stories banner) that tell how business owners used Dell technology to grow their businesses. The Your Industry area of Small Business 360 currently has areas for real estate, law, accounting and finance, architecture and construction, and retail businesses. This area is clearly still a work in progress, as each industry has only two or three articles devoted to it, although Dell says it plans to add more content on a regular basis. Similarly, the Dell Forums area doesn’t yet have the critical mass to make it truly useful yet — though we give the company credit for letting stand all the posts complaining about Dell’s service!

 Yahoo's Small Business Resources
Yahoo has collected hundreds of helpful small-business articles from all around the Web. (Click for larger image).

Yahoo Small Business: Not Just e-Commerce
Yahoo has made a push for the small business audience with its attractively priced domain registration and Web hosting. But the company’s small-business portal offers hundreds of original and reprinted articles. There’s advice on starting a business, sales and marketing, management and HR, legal, finance and more.

Under the Sales & Marketing banner, you’ll find 10 subcategories covering search engines, e-mail marketing, market research, PR and other topics. The Legal link leads to six article categories, including more than a dozen on legal structures, several on choosing and trade-marking a business name and a raft of pieces on employment law.

Established businesses may be beyond some of the advice doled out here, but people just starting out — or thinking about striking out on their own — would do well to peruse the articles. It’s a good way to find out what you don’t know you don’t know. There’s also a handy, searchable business dictionary that explains more than 1,800 business terms. In addition, the site’s tools area offers a small-business loan calculator, Zip-code lookup and more.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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