By Ronald Y. Perez, WC&P Associate Editor

New websites are created on (insert subject here) about as often as we hear about one of our sports “heroes” charged with some heinous crime as of late. Thus, it’s time we accentuated the positive and turned our attention to some of the newer sites—not forgetting some old standbys—that directly affect water improvement dealers and their small businesses.

Specifically, this column will discuss the matter of financing and the means to keep books in the black, as well as how to find the particular vehicle for your operation.

In this piece, we’ll focus on sites unrelated to government agencies designed for this specific purpose (i.e. the Small Business Administration or SBA: http://www.sba.gov), which are helpful but can be ubiquitous and are generally found in your yellow pages. After all, letting your fingers do the walking is so 20th century and as passé as the next person who mutters “been there, done that” (and you know who you are).

The following sites will be previewed on a step-by-step basis, and offer a wide range of business services. Financing is the main thrust here, but this sampling allows visitors other options and aspects of running a business that may help determine which path is best for you. Herewith, is a cornucopia of sites that offer what any small business, in particular those in the start-up stage, will need to make money and survive—more money.

http://www.goto.com
Checking the homepage offerings of your favorite search engine is always a good start. Under goto.com, of the 10 general categories listed, you’ll find a heading for “Finance,” but its mostly personal finance. The “Small Business” subheading includes 25 smaller categories, but functions primarily as a search engine—go figure—for related commercial websites. Each gives you a grouping of 40 sites to choose from, with options for more. Back at http://goto.com‘s homepage, though, you’ll also find the “Small Business Directory,” which is deemed the proverbial “NEW!” category. Disregarding the subheadings, click on the main title and it directs you to eight separate categories. Now, we’re getting somewhere. Under the Financial Services selection, click on Business Loans that takes you to, surprise, a roll call of 40 sites available for everything from online loans to e-commerce to your basic private institutions. It doesn’t stop there, though. Above to the left of the page is a seven-item directory of subjects including escrow, leasing and credit cards.

This site provides the most comprehensive information on all types of financial planning a small business may need. All the alternatives are plainly stated with a brief two-line description, and you can quickly scan over topics that bear no interest to your particular interest. To make it even more convenient, you can access any of the websites from the seven lists. Selecting a website at random will open up an even more elaborate home page with even more information on a specific topic. Basically, this site serves as the “middle man” to potentially hundreds of other sites in the business finance arena. The good news is there’s so much information available. The bad news is determining which sites are beneficial to your particular interest and finding them in a rather swift manner is difficult.

http://www.isquare.com
This site—under the heading of “Small Business Advisor”—offers a plethora of business services and information. Using a “frames” design, the home page includes subsections on What’s New, The Advisor, Books, Glossary, Biz Services, Tax Advice, U.S. Gov Biz, State Info, Biz FAQ’s, Checklists, Book Review, Stock QT’s, Newsgroups and Links along the left column guide to the site.

All of us have seen sites where it seems the host was asked to cram as much as he could into a given space. This site is a prime example. Everything from articles to an even wider search using Yahoo, Altavista, WebCrawler, Excite and Lycos is available on the home page. You also have the opportunity to subscribe or “unsubscribe” to their free newsletter. A little more difficult to track financing a business, I would suggest going to the search box, and maneuver the site from there. Under Business Tips!, you are asked to select a category, which may also help in finding direct access to relevant topics.

For such a small home page, the site is chock full of nuggets of wisdom. As an added plus, most of the departments under finance are updated on a monthly or weekly basis. Articles on topics ranging from operating a business to the vast Internet are at your disposal. All in all, http://isquare.com is an extremely busy site but surprisingly easy to maneuver once you find the desired keyword or subject.

http://www.mycounsel.com
The Judge Judy of this month’s listings, the site comes in like a lawyer’s brief—heavy on the text and complete with a thorough step-by-step checklist of things to ask and an emphasis placed on networking. Unless you’ve encountered a transaction where obtaining a lawyer is necessary, you may skip the introductory portion on the home page and go straight to the “Small Biz” tab located up to the right. I know what you’re thinking, I need a loan for my business to help it grow and reach its full potential, so what am I doing on a legal site? Sure, go ahead and laugh, but every long document written concerning a business transaction will have legal jargon and fine print designed to confuse those of us who are too busy or not informed enough to understand the details. At this site, categories include Starting A Business, Legal Structures for Business, Financing A Business and Employment Law. Under Financing A Business, a list is provided that gives a one-sentence description of 15 strategies for financing new and existing ventures.

It’s less an informative source than it is a marker for your starting point. If you haven’t started your search for ways to raise capital or protecting your finances, this is a perfect place to begin the long road to a healthy business portfolio. Or if you were concerned about legal matters in dealings with a loan institution or any other money-lending source, this would be the place to seek advice before a potentially bad move is made. A list of possible sources for loans is given that includes relatives and friends as a choice. If you happen to be flummoxed by certain legal jargon, a directory of legal terms can be defined with the help of a dictionary. Of course, having to deal with legalese will almost always mean a heavy dose of text, but features like the dictionary and searches for terms or certain areas of law assists you in cutting through the unnecessary information.

http://www.bankrate.com
OK, you have decided on the loan amount you’ll need. Now, the next step obviously will be to procure the best rate you can from the Internet. Perhaps local bank branches are advertising rates that only the Bill Gates of the world can afford, or your trust in them is fleeting. Whatever the case, this site does the legwork for you and provides a comprehensive look at what institutions are offering the best rates for all different types of loans. First, skip all of the four different columns and boxes, and go straight to the sixth (of seven total) tabs at the top of the page labeled “Small biz.” Voila, more search boxes and columns of text. But now we’re getting somewhere. No matter if you run your business out of your home or a high-rise office in downtown, there’s something for everyone. You want a guide to the best lenders in California? Boom, it’s here. As an added bonus, there’s a power search available if you don’t wish to scan over the ample text.

Conclusion
Even for a neophyte of the Web like myself, these listings were relatively easy to garner the information I was seeking. Virtually all the sites listed here recommend you first try the SBA initially before deciding the needs your small business necessitates. Websites, many financed by large advertisers, are apt to try and steer you through a certain company or service, but that’s the nature of the beast. Besides, we’re all smart enough to see through the smoke and mirrors. We tried to give you practical sites as well as more technical ones having to do with more legal issues.

If you’re patient and have an idea what financial advice you need, the abundance of information can be overwhelming. The advent of online banking in previous years has made it an even more convoluted proposition. For those of you who know exactly what kind of financial steps should be taken, the web will provide a comparison among the many options presented. For someone starting out on his/her search, nothing could be better than having so many resources at your fingertips. And how many things could be more important than the welfare of your business. It’s either contemplating that or going back to the police beat disguised as the sports section of your local newspaper.


BOX:
In addition to the sites covered in detail in this article, check the following for more assistance:

http://home.about.com/smallbusiness/index.htm
Yes, it’s all about everything! Fill in the blank and be amazed at what you will find under the scarcest of hidden gems.

http://www.exp.com
Did you ever think there were this many experts on any one topic? Maybe they’ve lowered the standards?

Others to check:

http://www.financialassistance.com
http://www.bizfinance.com/
http://www.smallbiz.com/*
http://www.smallbusiness.com/*
http://www.businessfinance.com/
http://www.smallbizservices.com/*

* Under construction at time of review.

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