Question: I read recently that one of the online trading companies was starting up an online finance division. Do you think that this might be a viable way for small, growing businesses to go public?

Answer: That would be E*Trade's investment bank, called E*Offering. And, absolutely, I think this could be the wave of the future. It has been announced that this investment banking service will focus on $25 million to $50 million deals, both through the sale of bonds and stocks.

I don't know why they've set a $25 million limit, but if they won't raise less than that, you can bet someone else will in the future.

Like everything else done via the World Wide Web, this type of service probably won't put Merrill Lynch and DLJ out of business, but it might be another alternative for young, growing business to find an innovative, creative mechanism to raise much-needed capital.

What I find personally exciting about this new enterprise is that it's being engineered by Californians Walter Crittenden from Irvine and Sandy Robertson, former chief at Robertson-Stephens. I think it fitting for California (which by the way no longer has a major money center bank headquartered here) to launch a state-of-the-art banking service.

You can already get almost everything you need to know about a company on the Internet including research reports, annual reports, prospectuses, 10Ks, stock quotes and articles. Through an offering, a company could also have its road show online, and anyone at all who wanted to participate could, not just the institutional fund managers.

It will be very liberating for growth companies but, like everything else, I'm sure it's going to take time to perfect and a lot of scrutiny by the regulatory agencies.

Q: Our biggest headache as a small business without a lot of excess cash flow is collecting our fees on a timely basis. Many of our clients are large corporations and it can take sometimes 60 to 90 days to get paid. What can we do to shorten this process?

A: It can be a killer, not only as a cash-flow issue, but the constant follow-through to collect is often frustrating.

What you may want to consider is getting some of the fee prepaid in advance, or setting up a long-term contract so that some of the money is paid up front, the rest in the middle of the contract period and the final payment at the end of the job.

In order to make this palatable to your client, you might want to offer a slight discount if some of the money is paid up front. This will save you any finance charges you may have to pay through a line of credit, and it will obviously save you time and aggravation in collection.

Plus, we all recognize that even if a job was well done, there could be an element of stress that is put on a client relationship when you have to keep bugging them for your money. It would be so much easier if the pressure was off both of you this way the relationship can stay in perspective.

Q: My brother and I started our business out of our parent's garage some 10 years ago. We now employ 125 people and generate about $12 million annually selling high-tech tracking equipment for vehicles. We'd like to continue expanding our business but marketing to new customers can be time-consuming and costly. Do you have any suggestions?

A: If you don't already, you might want to consider doing business with the U.S. government. There have been some recent changes in federal law that will make doing business with the federal government easier for small-business owners like yourself.

Good old Uncle Sam has to buy products and services to the tune of about $200 billion this year. By marketing your products to the government, you can get a contract that could potentially be substantial, and if you continue to meet requirements might be renewable after the first year.

A good place to start might be to get a copy of "The Small Business Guide to Procurement Reform: Reinventing How the Government Does Business," published by the Small Business Administration and available by calling (202) 205-6533. After you get some basics, you can check with the Commerce Business Daily (CBD), which provides a listing of the major invitations to bid and requests for proposals.

Q: As a small, Los Angeles-based public relations firm, we find it really hard to keep up with our larger-staffed, well-capitalized, global competition. We recognize that providing specialized services designed for our customers gives us an edge. Where we fail in is research. Primarily, not having enough staff to keep up with our customers' growth, competition, financial status and industry. Where can we turn?

A: Let's do some out-of-the box thinking. You may need only to hire one additional person a librarian! Especially one who is fluent on the Internet.

A librarian could help your company keep with the Joneses whether they're clients or your own competitors. This individual might become one of your most valued employees. He could not only provide knowledge-management tools that will empower your business, a librarian could also do every type of external information-gathering you might need to service your customers and stay on top of your game.

This individual will help you sort through the inaccuracies you can find from browsing the Internet yourself and will free up time so that you can spend more quality time with your clients.

If you can't afford to hire a librarian full-time, you might be able to find a firm that will do the job for you for a monthly retainer fee.

Lorraine Spurge is a personal finance advisor, author of "Money Clips: 365 Tips That Will Pay One Day at a Time," and business news commentator. She can be reached at (818) 705-3740 or by e-mail at

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