Question: I am a graphic designer with a specialty in developing Web sites for my corporate clients. Like many small-business women, I work from home, and spend at least 75 percent of my time on the computer. In order to be more efficient, I try and retrieve as much information as I can via the Internet. But the amount of information is hard to sift through. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: I wish I had all the answers. In the United States alone, we generate more than 1 billion pages of information every single day of the week. Sometimes I think that I can spend the entire day just reading the trades, new books, newsletters, e-mails, faxes, and other documents that cross my desk. But I'll try to help you dig your way out of this avalanche of information to maximize efficiency.

Here are a few hints:

? Prioritize your mail. Separate the time-sensitive material (things you need to know and respond to immediately) from the bulk mail that you can peruse at your leisure. I try and print out e-mails and "hot" news items I get via the Internet and read them at the end of the day.

Remember, time is money. So if you're super busy making money with clients, you might want to hire a college student part-time to read, organize, clip articles, highlight paragraphs, summarize books and reports, etc.

Or pay for a clipping service that can cherry-pick topics that interest you. These services will search hundreds of publications and then fax you the articles you care most about.

? Learn to speed read. There are plenty of home courses available. This might help you in other ways as well, like finding better ways to manage and organize your time and business.

? Specialize. Try to focus on areas that specifically involve your business and clients. Though this is a time-saving method, I want to caution that it has its drawbacks. On the one hand, by specializing, you can limit information flow; but on the flip side, if you keep too narrow a focus you can throw the baby out with the bath water. So there's a fine line here on reading pertinent information while trying to leave yourself open for the raw material necessary for new ideas.

Q: I am thinking about buying a fast-food franchise here in Southern California. I have been a manager of a regional chain of restaurants and feel qualified to run my own business. What I'm not too comfortable with is the idea of being a franchisee. What should I look out for?

A: Before starting or buying any business, you must do your homework. And while managing restaurants certainly makes you qualified as a manager, you may still want additional tools to run your own franchise.

You should investigate what type of support programs the franchise offers. Franchises come in two flavors: owner-operated and absentee owner/investor. Both require you to invest money.

Either way, you will want several types of support: marketing, performance review, operations and construction. Obviously, having a good rapport with the franchiser is key to a successful franchise. Because you both have a lot to lose (and gain), you should be on the same page.

In the beginning, you will be very dependent upon the franchise for support. So you might want to talk with other franchisees about their experiences in getting the support they need to run the business.

How consistent is the service provided? Is the franchise flexible and how quickly does it respond to a new owner's needs? Is there a training program available? Does the franchise provide the owner with marketing tools that have been successfully developed and tested at other outlets? How is the performance of the franchisee monitored? Does the franchise share information learned from different operations?

Obviously, these are just a few questions to consider before picking a particular franchise organization to partner with. The quality of the product, the reputation of the stores, and the service expected are also extremely important factors to consider. Many of these questions you can answer yourself, just by visiting a variety of franchisees in different locations.

Q: Recently I had a close encounter with the Immigration and Naturalization Service when I almost hired an illegal alien. I am now aware of the 1-9 Form, but would like some tips on how to comply with it.

A: This is a very serious issue and it is critical to understand how to comply with the Immigration Reform and Control Law of 1986, which prohibits the hiring, or even recruiting or referring of, any alien who is not legally allowed to work in the United States. Companies that employ four or more people are required to complete the 1-9 Form.

In order to ensure compliance, you must have all new employees fill out and sign the 1-9 Form. You should do the following after you receive a signed copy of the document:

? Review it carefully. For instance, it must include a signed Social Security form, otherwise it is considered invalid.

? Transpose the information from the document onto the form itself.

? You must sign the form.

? Copy the documents provided as identification for your files. Keep the form and the copies for at least three years, or at least one year after the employee leaves, whichever is the longer period.

Note: some of the information included is personal, such as height and weight and a photo of the employee. Keep this information in a separate file from the employment file, as this might be considered personal or discriminatory, with penalties for violation ranging from $250 to $3,000.

Lorraine Spurge is a personal finance advisor, author and business news commentator. She can be reached at

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