Where You Can Find
Good, Cheap Tech Help
From The Wall Street Journal Online
Most small-business owners can't afford consultants or an IT
staff. For tech support, they draw on other resources:
neighbors, friends, relatives -- anyone they know who might have
a handle on a tech issue they don't understand.
But there are other sources that small businesses can turn to
for reliable, inexpensive and even free tech support.
We interviewed technology experts about where to find the best
help. We also asked small-business owners where they go to find
the latest and most comprehensive tech information. In the
process, we discovered not only what some consider to be the
most helpful Web sites on tech matters for small businesses, but
also government services that offer free consultations, and a
business school whose students give free support to local
companies facing network-security issues.
In other words, a lot of free help is available. Here's how to
Arvind Malhotra, associate professor at the University of North
Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, says he typically
directs entrepreneurs to three starting points online. The first
is baselinemag.com, the Web site of Baseline Magazine, a
publication of New York-based Ziff Davis Media Inc.
The site focuses on how companies use information technology
through news analysis and case studies and features tutorials
and tools, including calculators that can help a business figure
out the return on investment of tech projects.
Prof. Malhotra's second pick: CIO.com, the online arm of CIO
magazine, published by International Data Group's CXO Media Inc.
of Framingham, Mass. This site is geared toward chief
information officers, but it's chock-full of information on new
technologies, the professor says.
Next comes Informationweek.com, the Web site of InformationWeek
magazine published by CMP Technology, Manhasset, N.Y.
Informationweek.com is rich with news and other information that
can give a broad overview of what's happening in the IT world,
says Prof. Malhotra, who teaches classes on information
technology and business innovation.
Last year, CMP also launched smallbizresource.com, a free
technology-information resource for small businesses. It has
articles about what computers to buy, what software is best for
certain tasks, and evaluations of new technologies.
The site, which has generated almost two million page views so
far this year, says it also provides tutorials on a range of
topics, including setting up a wireless network.
"We're targeting people who work at home, at a home office or
who don't have a dedicated IT staff," says Cora Nucci, editor of
smallbizresource.com. While most of the information comes from
the site's writers, there are links to other Web sites, too.
Recently launched Biz Tech-Connect (biztechconnect.com) offers
free online tech training and information geared toward women
and minority entrepreneurs. Faye Lone, founder of Faye Lone
Creative Native Designs, based in Alexandria, Va., says she logs
on to the site at night after her kids go to bed. Lately, she
has been reading about financial-management software for her own
Web site, fayelone.com, where she sells high-end Native American
art and her interior-design skills. Biz Tech-Connect flags and
reviews products Ms. Lone has found useful. Tutorials there have
helped her learn how to design a more professional-looking and
business-oriented Web site.
Biz Tech-Connect was founded through a partnership of Microsoft
Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and AT&T Inc., and is managed by the
Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va.
Small businesses also can find free tools online from big
companies like International Business Machines Corp., which
encourages entrepreneurs to test emerging technologies from its
labs. At ibm.com/alphaworks, for example, users can find a Web
application called IBM Development Engagement Service, or
DevEngage. This is a tool, found at services.alphaworks.ibm.com/devengage,
with a simple user interface, largely using click and drag
functions, that helps streamline daily tasks.
For instance, say your business orders lunch frequently from a
local restaurant. You can build a Web-accessible online form
where employees fill in their orders. The application tracks
weekly or monthly costs, and helps the restaurant prepare the
right orders in good time.
IBM handles the hosting of the application, which becomes
accessible to a company after it registers on the alphaworks Web
"We are targeting business users with no technical skills," says
Cynthya Peranandam, emerging-technology strategist for
alphaWorks. The group uses feedback from users to potentially
build a marketable IBM product.
Another easy way to get tech help is from the federal
government. In every state, current and prospective business
owners can get management and technology support from Small
Business Development Centers, which are partly funded by the
Small Business Administration in Washington.
The Northern California Network of Small Business Development
Centers, whose region covers the San Francisco Bay area, was a
big help in the fall of 2005, when WeDriveU Inc., a San Mateo,
Calif., chauffeur service, was looking to standardize the
processing of driver assignments, invoicing and other e-commerce
processes on a single online platform across its offices in San
Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, as well as new locations
For six months, Dennis Carlson, president and CEO of WeDriveU,
worked with a Northern California SBDC consultant, who assessed
the company's current systems and made recommendations. The SBDC
then helped Mr. Carlson select a software provider and ensured
its proper implementation. Everything the SBDC did was free.
"Because of them," Mr. Carlson says, "I had the confidence to
buy the system," which cost $75,000.
"We know that business owners don't want to become tech
experts," says Kristin Johnson, region director of the Northern
California Small Business Development Center. "We want to make
sure that the technology decisions they're making are
The program works with 300 clients each year for as many as 40
unpaid hours per client on issues such as Web site security
audits, financial management and technology purchasing
Sometimes students can be teachers, too.
This spring, the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University
Purdue University Indianapolis launched a cyber-security
consulting program to help local entrepreneurs review and draft
The university teamed up some 30 graduate and undergraduate
business students pursuing accounting and information-systems
degrees with nine small companies in the area, ranging from a
two-person tax service to a midsize property-management firm.
One beneficiary was Indianapolis Appraisal Associates Inc., a
real-estate appraisal company. The firm and its subcontractors,
who sometimes work in remote locations, often exchange sensitive
financial information electronically. Brett Martin, president of
the appraisal company, says the students helped him devise a
policy for ensuring that such communications were secure. They
also helped make sure his Web site, www.appraisers.in, was in
compliance with financial-privacy laws.
"I'm pretty computer-savvy, but I don't have time to dig into
the details," says the 32-year-old Mr. Martin. "What's hard for
a small-business guy like me is that it takes so many hours to
read what you do for one thing. It's incredibly hard to keep up
Two students worked with Mr. Martin during the semester. They
told him that he had an unsecured fax line that could present a
liability unless a person in the office was trained to handle
nonpublic information. They also suggested that files sent
for the Web site that tells consumers their personal information
will not be shared with others.
"It was a good way to provide a student with a project and offer
assistance to the community," says Eric N. Johnson, associate
professor of accounting at the Kelley School of Business. Prof.
Johnson, who also teaches the class in IT security assurance,
says he plans to offer the program again next year.
By RAYMUND FLANDEZ
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal.