If you want a seamless backup system that requires little effort, check out online backup solutions such as Replica Network Data Manager from Stac Software or Connected Network Backup (www.autonomy.com). Connected Network Backup, for example, provides online backup and storage for as little as $20 per month. The beauty of an online solution is, there are no disks to deal with and no programs to initiate, and the backups don’t require your participation. Once subscribed, you have access to unlimited disk space and your data recovery can be done from anywhere, at any time.
DO IT YOURSELF
But no matter how well prepared you are, sticky situations can still arise: a virus could eat your hard drive or a disgruntled employee could delete financial files. In these types of cases, you’ll need a data-recovery software program, such as PowerQuest’s Lost & Found or Ontrack’s EasyRecovery (www. ontrack.com). At less than $100 each, both do-it-yourself data-recovery programs are affordable options (compared to the thousands of dollars you might pay an expert for data recovery).
Lost & Found is an off-the-shelf software utility that PowerQuest claims can recover almost any lost or damaged file, as long as your hard drive still works. The program runs off bootable diskettes and can search local hard drives as well as external drives. Lost & Found uses its own interface and color-codes files based on recoverability – green for recoverable files, yellow for probable recoverable files and red for unrecoverable files.
Ontrack’s EasyRecovery, on the other hand, is primarily an Internet-based solution for data recovery, although a disk version is available. The software can be downloaded from Ontrack’s Web site and must then be copied to a DOS boot disk. Again, the files are coded according to recoverability and can then be stored elsewhere until your hard drive has been repaired. The obvious beauty of this is that you don’t have to go out and purchase a product, and you can do your data recovery from the Net. The drawback is that if your machine won’t boot up, you won’t be able to access EasyRecovery.
Neither of these products needs to be installed prior to the recovery process, and neither will attempt to repair your damaged drive, a process that often decreases your chances for successful data recovery. Knowledge of DOS, a rarity in this Windows-oriented world, is the biggest requirement for utilizing these programs.
Kate Wilson, author of fashion-focused Blondette.com is an EasyRecovery user, and she loves it:
“You always know you have a solid backup, which is huge when you’re doing a lot of writing,” says Wilson. “Now that I understand how critical backup software is, I always feel like I’m quite safe.”
You may be one of those entrepreneurs who diligently performs hard-drive backups every week, but what about the data you generate between backups? One option is GoBack ($69.95 street) from WildFile . Not a backup or restore program, Go Back essentially lets you go back in time to a point when your hard drive worked. Capable of going back as far as a week to retrieve or restore files to the way they were before an error occurred, Go Back can be a miracle worker if, say, your hard drive crashes or you accidentally overwrite a document. If that’s the case, you simply tell your computer to go back in time.
Once GoBack is installed, you’ll only need to access it when a problem arises. One caveat: GoBack can’t be used on a system with a compressed disk The program requires 16MB RAM and uses about 10 percent of your hard-drive space – the larger your hard drive, the more data there is to recover and the more space the program needs.
Be your own art director:. Making sure your company looks good is important, so choosing the right desktop publishing solution is key. Adobe’s new PageMaker 6.5 Plus for Windows or the Power Macintosh ($499 street or $99 to upgrade for both versions) may be just the ticket for creating great-looking documents, such as advertisements, brochures, business cards, mailers and more. To help simplify the design process, Adobe includes hundreds of templates for commonly used business documents; thousands of professionally designed, high-resolution illustrations and photos; and tutorials and tips from design experts. In addition, the package includes Photoshop 5.0 LE. Because Adobe has long been involved in desktop publishing, its files are recognized by all professional printers, making high-quality printing seamless for the user. If you’re ready to upgrade from Microsoft Publisher, PageMaker makes it easy to do – the program will read your old Publisher files, and the competitive upgrade price is just $299 (street). Running PageMaker under Windows requires 16MB RAM and 140MB hard-drive space. For the Power Macintosh, you’ll need at least 9MB RAM and 26MB hard-drive space. A PostScript language printer is also recommended.
By the numbers: Software Sage is taking its DacEasy Accounting product to the next level with the addition of optional modules DacEasy Payroll ($250 street), Point of Sale and Job Manager. All modules should be welcomed by DacEasy Windows users, but Payroll and Point of Sale can also be run as stand-alone products. DacEasy Payroll includes a complete payroll- and personnel-management system, including employee-tracking functions, tax calculation, deductions, check- printing and more. The DacEasy Point of Sale module processes product, price and layaway information; cash drawers, bar-code scanners and receipt printers are supported. For job costing and estimating, turn to the DacEasy Job Manager, which can guide you through all phases of a job in progress, from initial estimate through job completion. All modules require Windows 95 or higher, 16MB RAM and 20MB hard-drive space.
YOU’RE ON THE PHONE WITH A PROSPECTIVE CLIENT. IN the course of a few minutes you learn that she wants to see your brochure, she’d like you to call again in a few weeks, she just got a new e-mail address, and she’s expecting a baby in three months (and can’t wait to take the little tyke to his or her first Detroit Tigers game). A PIM (personal information manager) could leave you scrambling to find places to transcribe this vital information. A contact manager, on the other hand, will simply absorb the details into the client’s record in an instant. The results: a ready-made cover letter to accompany your brochure; a follow-up call you’ll be reminded to make; a record of the e-mail address; and detailed notes about the impending motherhood and future Tigers allegiance.
In today’s competitive market, you may find it’s time to give your PIM the heave-ho. Nothing is more important to your business than sales, and yet PIMs– although fine for basic organization of names, addresses, appointments, and anniversaries-don’t have the muscle to provide effective sales management. A contact manager, on the other hand, lets you schedule follow-up calls, take notes during phone conversations, print contact-history reports, and produce mass mailings, faxes, and e-mails. In short, it gives you the tools you need to sell.
Indeed, to help simplify the sales process, a contact manager should offer strong call-management features, flexible note-taking abilities, lots of customization options, and built-in database synchronization. That last feature is particularly important for maintaining the vital sales directory. Suppose you and an associate are on a business trip and have met a few potential clients. Thanks to data synchronization, you can merge your notebook’s new contact management records with the contact manager data on your desktop PC. Not only will it accept the new entries from the notebook, it’ll merge new data that may have been entered at the office that same day. Some contact managers accomplish this via direct modem, some require a special add-on utility, and others send and receive databases via e-mail. An unfortunate few products in this roundup don’t support database synchronization at all.
The market is positively rife with contact management software right now. Although some take only baby steps beyond basic PIM features, others travel light-years toward improving your business life. For this buyer’s guide, we looked for Windows and Mac contact managers that offer e-mail links, the ability to link records (so you can access a sales client with his or her partner or other firm), file synchronization, and strong customization features. We did not include PIMs, such as Lotus Organizer, Starfish Sidekick, or Day-Timer Organizer, because these products do not have the rich feature set of full-blown contact managers. The 11 candidates in this roundup have much in common, but at the same time they’re apples and oranges. We looked first for ease of operation: Could you learn the program in an hour, or would you have to spend days wading through a thick manual? Next came the interface: Was it logically structured and easy on the eyes, or was it disorganized and stark?
Speed drew our scrutiny as well. There’s only so much idle chitchat you can make over the phone with a client while you’re waiting for his or her information to appear onscreen. If you don’t have the system resources to keep the contact manager running on your desktop, you’ 11 want one that loads quickly. We clocked each Windows product’s load time on a 75MHz Pentium system equipped with 8MB of RAM; each Macintosh product was run on a PowerBook 5300c with 24MB of RAM.
Finally, because upgrading from a PIM to a contact manager shouldn’t necessitate retyping all of your data, we checked each product’s ability to import information from outside sources.
As unlikely as it seems, Steve Seiller and his wife, Catherine, aren’t the only folks using the Internet to sell hay for pet rabbits. You can buy a mini-bale from the Web site they run out of their home in the Seattle area, and that scrumptious bundle of grass is a good buy at $3.99, Steve promises. But don’t think Bunny Bytes has no competition. The Seillers know of at least two other online outlets that serve up similar fodder.
All across the Web, businesses like Bunny Bytes are pushing home-business Web sites beyond the usual brochure-ware. Air-Fun Kites is a family-run operation based in West Chester, Ohio, selling kites that are a whole lot fancier (and pricier) than paper kites of yore; Julie Packer of Seattle-based Juliana Designs sells jewelry that’s made out of paper (it’s molded out of cotton fibers).
It’s becoming a bull market for Internet commerce. A recent CEMA survey says that 20 million people have already made a purchase online, despite much-ballyhooed privacy concerns. And according to a study earlier this year by Seattle-based E-valuations Research, three-quarters of small businesses that already have a Web site are likely to upgrade to a transaction site or Web storefront within the next five years.
Right now, full-fledged storefronts run by sole proprietors are rare–Tom Buehrer, president of E-valuations Research, says only 9 percent of the small businesses his firm surveyed currently have transaction sites, and this was in a survey that only considered businesses with Internet connectivity. So why haven’t you considered turning your Web site into a fully functional storefront? Depending upon how much time you are willing to put into your site, there are plenty of ways to set up shop.
Do-It-Yourself Storefronts If you want to jump into Web retailing, there are plenty of vendors who’ll sell you a discount warehouse worth of store-building options, priced from nothing right up through $10,000. But note, before you start writing checks, that it’s possible to sell goods on the Web without any storefront technology at all. Peter Kent, who runs Top Floor Publishing out of his Denver residence, started out selling Top Floor’s book, Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site (www.poorrichard.com), using a simple HTML form created using a standard Web page editor. For sales of a single item, Kent says, the approach is workable, though he recommends the extra step of using a secure server (that is, one that uses encryption when sending and receiving data across the Internet) for the order form.
Kent says a few buyers didn’t like using his form, though–not due to security concerns, but because they felt the form wasn’t interactive enough. “They wanted the form to calculate the tax that was due and total the order with shipping costs added in,” he says. Only about one in 20 customers complained, he estimates, but he nevertheless decided it was time to get a smarter store.
After taking a look at a daunting list of possible solutions, Kent opted for a shopping cart system called Hazel made by Netsville.com (hazel.netsville.com). Along the way, he compiled a list of everything he’d looked at, and it’s a great place to start if you want to do a little shopping cart shopping yourself.
With Hazel, Kent installed the software on a server housed and maintained by a Web hosting company, not on a server in his home (he doesn’t have his own server and doesn’t believe most small businesses need one). Hazel uses the standard Common Gateway Interface (CGI), a way of connecting Web pages to server programs. A carefully selected software package gives you a lot of flexibility and control, but such packages aren’t necessarily easy to install and configure. If you don’t have a technical bent, you may have to hire some help from your ISP.
Pre-Fab Web Stores Rather than choosing and maintaining your own software, you can also use one of a number of “rent-a-store” options. Two of the better known early contenders are iCat, popular because it gives a free store to beginners with 10 or fewer items to hawk, and Yahoo Store (store.yahoo.com), a startup venture acquired by the well-known Web portal.
With either service, store-owners pay monthly fees (beyond initial freebie enticements) based on the number of items they stock on their virtual shelves. At Yahoo Store, a 50-item storefront costs $100 a month; the same size store at iCat costs only half as much (the costs pull even at 1,000 items). The free store iCat offers is a compelling offer if your sales needs are limited, but note that your options for making it look like your own store, as opposed to looking like a small slice of the iCat mall, are limited.
It’s All in the Details Whether you install your own software or use a service, you should make sure you’ve got several important questions answered to your satisfaction. If you have a lot of products, can you store them in a database? If there’s a database, are buyers able to search it? If a buyer leaves in the middle of a shopping session, can you save his or her half-loaded shopping cart for later? Does the program make it easy for you to get at order information and add product-specific information (initials for monograms, for instance)? Is sales tax figured properly (ideally, by zip code)? What about support for multiple shipping options? And, as a general concern, is the shopping experience friendly and respectful of your customers?
As for payment, forget about digital money, cyber-wallets, and anything that smacks of the futuristic. The answer in the short term is credit cards. Particularly if you’re using a storefront service provider, you’ll find that transaction-hungry merchant services have partnered up with providers to make taking credit card payments a lot easier and more affordable.
Will you make a living off of your Web store? Not many of the Web retailers I spoke with can. Bunny Bytes, for example, has pulled in 400 customers in eight months; the Seillers aren’t ready to retire from their day jobs. Julie Packer says she hasn’t had time to promote her site, but in the first two months that Juliana Designs was online with iCat, she didn’t have a single order. Unfazed, she plans to find time for online marketing, but her experience is certainly proof that there’s nothing magic about having an online shopping cart.
Kent’s Poor Richard site is more of a going concern, bringing in what should amount to about $40,000 in gross revenue for its first year of operation. Such examples show that money is definitely flowing into small Web commerce sites. And getting into the game is getting increasingly affordable–certainly a bargain compared to setting up a bargain storefront.
Most people approach the installation of a local area network (LAN) with the same enthusiasm they reserve for IRS audits and root canals. First, there’s all that confusing terminology: Ethernet, 10BaseT, hub, router, and so on. Then there’s the labor: opening the computers to install special cards, running cables all over the place, messing with the operating system to enable its networking capabilities. Pretty daunting stuff.
But no more. Today, new networking solutions and improvements to existing technologies have taken the ability to connect computers out of the hands of brainy geeks and into yours. You might think that setting up a LAN requires a lot of time and expertise, and you’d be right–if the year were 1995. But thanks to a new generation of smarter software and faster PCs, you can connect all of the computers in your home without breaking a sweat or reaching for the aspirin. With some products, you won’t even have to open your PC and pop in a networking card.
Why should you network your home? Right now, each computer is an island–every time you want to move a file from one machine to another, you have to hop into a canoe and paddle across the channel. Likewise, if your printer is on Island A and you want to print a document from Island C, it’s hack into the canoe. If you had a bridge, you could retire your paddle and get hack to work.
With a LAN, you can build that bridge without breaking your back. Instead of buying a printer for each PC in your office, you can route all documents to a single printer. Instead of installing a new phone line for each PC, you can allow them to share a single Internet connection (even if it’s a speedy cable or ADSL link). And then there are the benefits of instantaneous file sharing. This not only saves you from having to manually transport data from one PC to the next, but enables simultaneous network-wide access to things like your contact manager, sales database, and presentation files.
Here’s all the network news you need to build speedy, reliable bridges between your PCs in your entire home. And like different styles of houses and computers, there are several different methods for making your machines speak to one another. We tell you how to connect PCs and notebooks via cables and wires, radio waves, telephone lines, and, in the future, through your electrical outlet. Let’s get connected!
Windows users, prepare to be jealous: Offices powered by Macintosh systems can deploy a network in about the time it takes to read this paragraph. That’s thanks to the built-in Ethernet capabilities most Macs have, which permit the implementation of a LAN with little more than a $50 hub (a little box that links the different machines) and some cables.
For the rest of us, there’s a bit more to it. As noted, both new and existing technologies are available for creating a LAN with Windows-based systems. Let’s look at the tried-and-true stuff first.
If you have only two PCs and simply want to share data and a printer, the most inexpensive solution is Windows 95/98’s Direct Cable Connection. All you need is a $10 null-modern cable, which links the two systems by their serial ports. (The parallel ports will work too, but that takes your printer out of the equation.) Tweak a few Windows settings, and you’re off and running. Of course, if you ever want to add a third PC to the equation, or you find the connection too slow (serial ports are notoriously sluggish), you’ll have to move up to a bona fide LAN. (See the sidebar “Teaching Old Style Networks a New Trick Simplicity.”)
What you’ll most likely create is a peer-to-peer Ethernet network, which supports anywhere from two to about a dozen systems. Each PC requires an Ethernet card–installed in an expansion slot–linked together with either coaxial cable (similar to the kind that brings cable television into your home) or twisted-pair cable (which resembles a phone cord). With that hardware in place, all that’s left is to load a few software drivers and enable Windows’s built-in networking capabilities. If all goes well, you’ll soon be sharing files, printers, peripherals, and Internet access.
When do things not go well? On the hardware side, you never know when a PC will refuse to recognize a new expansion card. If a system is already pretty loaded with stuff, the network card may cause a conflict with some other device. Fortunately, problems like these can usually be solved–leaving you to deal with the software. Windows 95/98 incorporates fairly robust networking capabilities, but getting them properly configured can be a hassle. This is one reason to consider one of the many small-office networking kits currently available–they usually handle the Windows grunt-work for you. You can save a few bucks by buying your network components piecemeal, but you should do this only if you’re an advanced user.
All Wired Up
If the thought of taking a screwdriver to your PC is too much to bear, fear not–new technologies promise to eliminate the need, and will even turn networking into a plug-and-play affair. Case in point: the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and the local-area network seem like a match made in heaven. Like the aforementioned Direct Cable Connection, USB requires no special cards, instead connecting computers via their built-in USB ports. However, a USB connection is significantly faster than a serial one, and it doesn’t limit you to just two PCs. What’s more, USB’s plug-and-play design makes it a natural for adding notebooks to the network, or for creating a network comprised solely of USB-equipped notebooks.
There is one caveat: Each system must be running Windows 98 or the last revision of Windows 95 (known as OEM Service Release 2.1 or OSR 2.1). Only these versions of the operating system have the necessary software support for USB. It’s not enough for your PC or notebook to have USB ports; they also need an operating system that knows how to use them.
Several companies are already offering USB networking kits, and more are sure to follow. At press time, cable manufacturer Belkin Components (800-2-BELKIN, www. belkin.com) had introduced its USB Direct Connect Adapter, a $99 entry-level kit designed to network two PCs (hut only two). A similar product, Anchor Chips’s EZ-Link Instant Network (Anchor Chips, www.ezlinkush.com; $90), is designed to connect two or more systems.
For obvious reasons, USB isn’t the best solution if you have only older PCs or notebooks in your office. You can install USB ports on desktops that don’t have them. But you can’t add them to notebooks. And because USB is a new and still-developing technology, an add-on USB connector may not work as well as one that’s integrated into a PC.
It’s possible, however, to mix and match USB with a traditional network setup. If you have, say, three PCs on a twisted-pair network, and only one is USB-equipped, you can branch off from that system to include other USB-equipped computers. Ultimately, assuming you have the hardware and software to support it, USB can eliminate a lot of the time and hassle normally involved with network installation.
Radio Free Networking
Of course, whether you opt for USB or coax or twisted pair, you’re still talking about running wires all over the carpet. If your computers are too far apart to make cabling practical, or they’re separated by an entire floor, you might want to consider a wireless solution. New technologies have made wireless networking more affordable and less complicated than in years past, to the point where it’s worthwhile for even the smallest offices.
Last August, Diamond Multimedia Systems (800-468-5846, www.diamondmm.com) introduced HomeFree, a wireless networking kit that costs less than $100 per computer. Where some wireless solutions require an unobstructed line of sight between each PC, HomeFree uses radio waves to pass data through walls and floors–at a range of up to 150 feet. In more radio news, Proxim has entered the radio networking fray with Symphony for Windows 95/98 (650-9601630, www.proxim.com; prices start at $150), its family of cordless networking solutions. You’ll still need to install a special card in each PC (or a PC Card in each notebook), but there are no cables to string. And you can’t trip over radio waves.
You can, however, interfere with them, and create network hiccups in the process. As any cordless phone user knows, wireless communications are subject to all kinds of interference. If your office has some stray waves bouncing around, your network might not achieve peak performance. On the other hand, the new breed of 900MHz phones suffers from very little interference, so it stands to reason that a 900MHz network would work accordingly. InnoMedia’s InfoWave (408-562-3535, www.innomedia.com) promises interference-free wireless connectivity, and costs a mere $250 for two base stations. You can connect these to two PCs, two notebooks, or one of each. The company promises transmission speeds of up to 170Kbps (slow, but adequate for most networking applications) at a range of up to 800 feet. Let’s see a hard-wired network do that.
Easy File Sharing on Line 1
Coming soon to a home office near you is another technologically advanced networking solution: the telephone line. Okay, so phone lines aren’t all that advanced, but using them as an in-home network pipeline certainly is. Spearheaded by Intel, the new Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) plans to provide fast, inexpensive, easily accessible networking by taking advantage of existing phone lines. Alliance members ranging from Compaq to Intel rival AMD have agreed on a 1Mbps phone line standard based on Tut Systems’s HomeRun, a networking technology that uses plain copper telephone wires.
At press time, not every detail about this telephone technology had been released, but Intel and its allies promise that you won’t have to stop speaking on the phone or dialing into the Internet whenever your PCs are connected over the same phoneline. The HomePNA standards make certain that the network keeps running when your voice phone rings or you’re visiting your favorite Web site. According to an Intel representative, you’ll most likely pay about $100 per connection for a HomePNA network, but will have to wait a little longer–Intel plans to debut its Windows 95/98-based phone networking kit by the first quarter of 1999. If the HomePNA standard proves as affordable and convenient as it sounds, it could emerge as the preferred network solution for home offices.
Over and Outlet
An even more magical solution than phone or radio-wave networking is the PassPort Plug-in Network from Intelogis (www.intelogis.com), which eschews phone lines in favor of the other wiring in your office–electrical outlets. PassPort sends data through ordinary AC wires, meaning you can network any PC that’s near an available outlet. It works with notebooks, too. because the only connection it requires is a parallel port. Now shipping, the $250 PassPort comes with the equipment needed to network two PCs and a printer. You can add more computers and printers for $100 and $60, respectively. The catch? PassPort transmits data at only 350Kbps-faster than today’s modems, but far slower than most other networking technologies. But things may be speeding up for power outlet networking: Intel is reportedly working on a way to connect different PCs through power lines and may have a product to announce by 2001.
Indeed, none of these emerging technologies is as fast as a generic 10Mbps, let alone today’s 100Mbps, Ethernet setups, but so what? Few home office workers will be affected y the speed of their LANs, unless you’re talking about a dozen machines all sharing a single Internet connection. For printer and file sharing between a few systems, speed is almost a nonissue. Convenience and flexibility are the key considerations behind these new efforts-important given the inconvenient layouts of many home offices.
Teaching Old Style Networks a New Trick: Simplicity
Not only are there new, no-sweat networking solutions, but even traditional networking kits have jumped on the simplicity bandwagon, as well. These easy yet powerful bundles cost anywhere from $80 to $300, depending on how many Ethernet cards come in the box and whether or not a hub is included. A hub makes it easier to add more systems to your network, though hubs only support a fixed number of PCs, usually four or eight. LinkSys’s Network in a Box (LinkSys, www.linksys.com; $150) comes with two Ethernet cards and 15 feet of coaxial cable; it’s a pretty basic LAN package for a two-PC office. 3Com’s OfficeConnect Networking Kit (3Com, www.3com.com; $120) also includes two Ethernet cards, and comes with a four-port hub and two 25-foot twisted-pair cables.
The Network in a Box setup essentially daisy-chains your PCs together, like lights in a Christmas tree. This is fine for two or three systems–any more than that and the arrangement becomes impractical. A hub-based setup like OfficeConnect is more analogous to spokes in a bicycle wheel; each PC is at the end of a spoke, with the hub at the center. Removing one or adding a few more is usually pretty easy. Additionally, networks built on twisted-pair cabling are generally faster than their coaxial counterparts, though there aren’t many small-office LAN applications in which speed plays a factor. More importantly, twisted pair allows you to add a notebook to the network, whereas coaxial cable does not.
If ads shouting “prices slashed!,” “year-end clearance!,” and “on sale for a limited time!” Kick your bargain-seeking radar into high gear, you’re in good company. Whether you’ve got money to burn or you run your home office on a shoestring budget, there’s something supremely satisfying in taking home an outstanding deal.
Though great buys abound on refurbished, returned, or slightly dated equipment, it’s also a cinch to score savings on brand-new, factory-sealed software and hardware. To help you do so, we asked five veteran home office shoppers to share their tips, tricks, and strategies for getting the good stuff–cheap. Plan your next equipment purchase with these insider secrets in mind, and you’ll be sure to save a bundle.
Best Bargain Ever
April 1997: A Packard Bell Multimedia F170 desktop PC with 166MHz Pentium processor, 2GB hard disk, 16MB of RAM, CD-ROM drive, and modem for $799
How It Happened
“Those were the days when MMX technology was just starting to become hot,” explains Nearman. While shopping for a new PC for her business, Nearman stopped by Computer City, finding the F 170 on sale for hundreds less than similar models. “The initial Computer City we went to was sold out of F170s, so we drove 20 miles to the next nearest store,” Nearman recalls. “We were in luck; however, the price at this store was $1,699.” At that point Nearman discovered that the system at the first store was a mismarked manager’s special. After an hour of sweating and scratching their heads in disbelief, the store managers stuck to their word, selling her the PC for $799. That same weekend, Nearman bought a Packard Bell 17-inch monitor for $299 at CompUSA. “The whole system was a steal that still brings a smile to my f;ace,” she says.
* Know a bargain when you see one. “Do your homework so you know exactly what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to pay for it,” advises Nearman. “Then, when you come across that needle in the haystack, snatch it up on the spot. If you go home to think about it, someone standing in line behind you is going to grab your great steal.”
* Research, then buy retail. “I like to research prices and product information on the Internet, then make purchases through a local retailer,” Nearman says. “[Buying] locally enables me to touch the equipment before I buy, and I avoid shipping hassles if there ends up being a problem.” When you shop retail, be sure to check for price matching or price protection policies that refund the difference between what you paid and the sale price. These policies can net you major savings.
* Don’t wait to rebate. For smaller items, Nearman takes advantage of the rebate offers advertised weekly by Computer City, CompUSA, and other national computer stores. “You can get many office items like paper, diskettes, mouse pads, and CD jewel cases free if you’re willing to send your rebate in,” she says.
Other firms with e-commerce sites fail to provide any feedback mechanism to let them know how many hits they get or how effective their site is. And simply because they lack such a mechanism, it is not uncommon for companies to believe that their experiments in e-commerce and electronic marketing have failed.
Charles Nichols, marketing manager of software supplier Business Objects, says, “Looking at Web sites is now part of the procurement and decision-making process for some customers, but then they will go to a reseller or shop to actually make the purchase. But you need to know how many visit and are influenced by the Web site.”
He suggests one way of finding out is to give a unique phone number on the Web site which customers call if they want to place their order with a person. “Once they use that telephone number, you know that they have been to the Web site,” Nichols explains. Another is to offer a reference number and a discount from the reseller if the reference is quoted.
Many sites fail to offer customers who choose to visit them any benefits, such as faster delivery or cheaper prices. Nichols says, “You have to encourage people to use the Web, certainly at this stage in its evolution at least.”
Amazon.com, for example, provides Web visitors with reviews of books, and customers therefore have an extra motivation to use the company’s site.
It should be obvious that e-commerce site information should be updated at least every day. The Web site of one white-goods manufacturer always features out-of-date products and prices, while for a time the Railtrack site was notorious for not giving a comprehensive listing of train times and special offers. “Their mistake was that they only put a limited subset of their information on the Web – another common error,” says Nichols.
Companies can damage their brand more than promote it by creating unrealistic expectations of the benefits of their Web site. Car manufacturer Fiat, for example, showed a full-motion video in television advertisements for its Web site, but when customers got there, all they found were static photographs.
John Nance, technical services director of software house Unify, adds that many companies fail to remember that Internet visitors often have a less sophisticated grasp of their products or services, and sales material often needs to be rewritten or “dumbed down”. For example, he says, “The Land Registry refers to lot numbers on its Web site, even though many Web visitors don’t understand what they mean by lot numbers.”
Niels Jaeckel, chief technology officer with consultancy Cap Gemini, says many managers are daunted by the technology and choices. Overwhelmed, they fail to start with a strategy based on their objectives and then proceed to find software or a solution that meets their requirements. Instead, they start with the solution and try to make it fit.
“They allow themselves to be sold to, rather than take a pro-active grip on Web-enablement. Many invest in Web sites and then find that what they have is completely inappropriate to their needs and fails to meet their expectations. There are a lot of sharks out there, ruthlessly selling anything with a short-term eye on their profits,” Jaeckel says.
He adds, “I know of several firms which have created a Web site and then found there is an unbridgable gap between the site and the information in their back office, or a gap between the Web site and the network. I frequently see situations where there are problems in the code between the applications. Often applications which perform well in isolation may behave badly in an Internet environment.”
Roland Hanbury, vice-president of Internet adviser NVision, has some sympathy with managers, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises, for it is easier to get Web-enablement wrong than to get it right. There is also a need to explain to staff the benefits of Web-enablement, the changes that it will bring, and how to use the Internet.
He relates a cautionary tale: “Failure to train staff in good practices and bad Web security allowed the employees of a large professional services firm to freely download pornography from the Web. Several were fired, and the rest are careful to only access acceptable sites.”
Even these days, it is not unusual to find Web sites where nothing happens, or links go nowhere or drop the connection. Obviously, these alienate potential customers rather than attract them. Remote employees who don’t have full access to the company’s mainframe may be affected, as may business partners who can’t download all the marketing collateral they need.
Meanwhile, other firms make access to information too easy: they happily post all kinds of price and discount-for-volume information on a public site, which any canny competitor can look at. Competitive predators find they can get to a rival’s stockroom through the Web site, because of sloppy Web management, and use that knowledge to adjust their own prices.
Overall, there is, according to several industry pundits, a widespread failure by firms and managers to choose Web technology that is appropriate for their needs. It is not unusual to find companies struggling with extranet or e-commerce solutions that are under-powered. Business Object’s Nichols says, “If a firm wants to run a commercial Web site seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the software has to be robust enough to deal with those demands.”
Equally, if an insurance company, for example, wants all its remote workers to access the host computer so it can provide customers with immediate quotes, the system needs to be able to perform tasks such as keyboard mapping, printing and file transfer.
One reason for a failure to meet expectations is that many Web-enabled applications grow out of internal and legacy applications that have Web-enablement bolted on as an afterthought, at least according to Jan Kilpatrick, managing director of connectivity firm Wick Hill.
He says, “If an application is written with Web-enablement in mind, then security and access control are prime considerations from the outset. But a lot of applications which use the Internet grew out of internal marketing-led programmes and initiatives which extended to include partners on an intranet and then eventually made the leap to be open to customers on an extranet.”
However, Mary Anne Trotman, marketing manager of software house Wall Data, disagrees, saying that many companies abandon investment in legacy applications that can be Web-enabled because of fear that they will not be efficient. “There is no reason why old applications and data cannot be opened up to remote employees, partners or customers, but it’s true that it does have to be done carefully.”
Kilpatrick’s point is that many sales initiatives come from the marketing department, not from IT; the IT staff is rarely involved in the creation and planning, “and consequently only lip service is paid to security”, he says. The answer is good consultancy to ensure that the final system is watertight.
With systems where security is poor, there is always the risk that firms may not be aware that they are vulnerable to breaches. “Sometimes companies in effect leave the front door wide open. and anyone can wander around, go right into the back office and go right out again, without anyone being any the wiser,” says Kilpatrick.
A Wick Hill customer once complained that it was having trouble installing a new firewall product. transpired that they were in the middle of a live intrusion and the box had immediately gone into attack rebuff mode. Someone was polling through their IP addresses,” says Kilpatrick. “They had no awareness that they were even at risk, and they had no idea how often the event had happened before.”
Wick Hill’s technical staff dealt with the incident by tracking the attack back to its source, enabling the customer to act and to prevent any subsequent break-ins.