Build a company-wide network on the cheap
TEAMWORK IS the secret of many successful businesses. But not every start-up or small business can afford to install the sophisticated networking equipment and software required for creating its own, private Internet -- or intranet, as it's often called -- that allows everyone in an organization to share information easily and operate more efficiently. But thanks to the Internet, even if you don't have a company-wide intranet, you can still enjoy many of the benefits of one by subscribing to a Web-based virtual-office service for a few dollars a month.
Virtual-office services provide your business with a central location for documents, discussions, and messages in a special, private corner of the Internet. Anyone with a password can access your intranet from any computer with a modem and a Web browser. And because your network is based on the Web, you don't have to spend big bucks on technicians to keep the whole system running.
Web-based virtual-office services generally fall into two categories: business-collaboration services and community-building services. Business-collaboration services focus on keeping a business connected to its workforce. A leading example of this type of service is HotOffice (www.hotoffice.com). For $12.95 per month per user, HotOffice links with many applications on your PC, including Microsoft Word, and your Java-enabled Web browser to create a system with many of the features of a large, corporate network. Community-building services, on the other hand, specialize in chat rooms and bulletin boards. A good example of a community-building service is PowWow, by Tribal Voice (www.powwow.com), which charges an organization $49.95 per year to start.
HotOffice is best suited to businesses that need to collaborate on projects. When you subscribe to HotOffice, you can set up accounts for each member of your organization. Each person gets his own e-mail address as well as a calendar, a contact list, and a document folder. After installing the free HotOffice software, you can save documents to your HotOffice folders on the Web right from Microsoft Office or from the Windows 95 desktop and open those documents from any Web browser anywhere. The HotOffice software adds a button to your Microsoft Word, Excel, and Power Point tool bar to make HotOffice look like a seamless part of your computer system. If you want to share a document with all the member of your organization, just tell them what HotOffice folder you saved the document in, and they can open the file as if it were their own. You can also set up department and project folders devoted to a specific task, such as recruiting new employees. Chat rooms and bulletin boards are also built in to HotOffice.
Financial consultant Jeff Stello, president of IT Financial Inc., uses HotOffice to support a client called Healthy Pet Corp. Healthy Pet recently used HotOffice to develop a business plan and build a national network of veterinary-health-care providers. While the company could have created a business plan without online collaboration, according to Stello "it would have been difficult, especially with the time restrictions we had." After completing the business plan, Stello and Healthy Pet took advantage of HotOffice to allow Stello's company to communicate payroll and payables information for Healthy Pet's locations around the country. When Healthy Pet gets larger, it will probably need a conventional business network, but in its early stages HotOffice has been a lifesaver. There are other virtual-office products on the market -- eRoom (www.instinctive.com) and 3-2-1 Intranet! (www.iminet.com), for example. But HotOffice gives a small business the most bang for its buck.
Community-building services such as PowWow can both help a company communicate with its clients and supply a way for employees to stay connected. If you teach classes, provide emotional support, or offer a community service, a PowWow-style online community can be a central resource for all the people with whom you want to stay in touch. You'll need to have each member of your group install the PowWow client software (it's free to download) on his or her computer so that all can participate in online chats and post messages.
PowWow has developed some impressive technology for exchanging speech files and has enhanced its Internet services with multimedia capabilities. But you'll have to train members of your community in how to take advantage of PowWow's advanced features because they're not easily mastered and may be a little too sophisticated for entry-level computer users. On the other hand, you can manage your PowWow community easily through membership controls, complete with an automatic profanity censor. Those management tools make PowWow more suitable for hosting business-oriented communities than, say, Excite or Yahoo!, which offer more-general community-building services.