Two years ago, industry analysts predicted that small-business owners would be managing most of their business operations online including payroll, human resources, marketing and sales. It didn't happen, and many of the small-business-oriented application service providers went bust, but there are a few good technology-driven solutions for budget-minded business owners. One company provides low-cost teleconferencing, another transfers funds and the third provides affordable marketing and design services to small players.

When corporate interior designer Paula DeGroot was ready to build her Web site last year, she went to Creativworks, a national advertising, marketing and P.R. agency, with headquarters in St. Louis. The company focuses its attention on serving small and mid-sized businesses. The focus is on quick service and low prices. A basic business "image builder" package costs $1,799.

It includes logo design, business cards, envelopes, letterhead and revisions.

"If you're a small business, the big agencies aren't going to call you back," said Keith Alper, CEO and founder of Creativworks.

Alper, who launched Creativworks three years ago, said the company has three storefront agencies in St. Louis, San Francisco and Indianapolis, and plans to open another dozen stores. "We're probably the only ad agency with cash registers in our offices," he added.

Unlike traditional agencies, Creativworks does not work on spec and requires a 50 percent deposit on all projects. (Spec work, or providing free design, is a convention within the advertising industry. Agencies often create entire campaigns to woo big clients hours of work that clients are not obligated to pay for unless they decide to hire the agency.) This won't happen if you visit Alper's company.

The site Creativworks built for DeGroot, degrootdesigns.com, cost her about $5,000 and won a Summit Creative Award for best business-to-business site.

"They did a great job," said DeGroot. "I told them the feeling, the colors and what I wanted, and they put it together."

In the wake of the site's success, Creativworks and DeGroot are splitting the cost of a postcard campaign to promote the award-winning site to both companies' benefit. The postcards will cost DeGroot another $500 or so for the design and printing of 250 cards.

"It's an advertisement for them and for DeGroot designs," said DeGroot. "And it saves money, too."

To cut costs even further, Creativworks has agreed to discount DeGroot's fee if she provides design consulting services to the company.

Online Payments

Business owners seeking to cut their banking fees are checking out CheckSpace, a Bellevue, Tenn.-based company that provides online payment solutions.

CheckSpace client Edith Woodworth sells macaws, cockatoos and parrots at her Birds & More Exotic Bird Shop in Clarksville, Tenn. She markets her birds to buyers through a Web site and ads in Bird Talk magazine, then ships birds, cages and supplies via air delivery to bird enthusiasts all over the country.

"I take the birds to the airport," said Woodworth, " and the customers pick them up at the airport at the other end."

Last year, Woodworth's supplier, a bird breeder in Florida, asked her to sign up for an e-payment service from CheckSpace (checkspace.com) to save the cost of doing business together.

Woodworth now uses CheckSpace to pay suppliers and to receive payments from her own customers.

"I encourage them (customers) to use it, but they can do whatever they want to do," said Woodworth, who uses the online payment service to send out five or six invoices a month and uses it to pay her two main suppliers.

Woodworth pays the same flat rate of 95 cents per invoice processed, whether it's for $100 or $10,000. Credit cards typically charge between 2 and 3 percent of the transaction total for processing, which can add up to big amounts $20 or more on every $1,000. "It's much better than credit cards for me," said Woodworth, "I save $500, $600, $700 every month."

Businesses that use CheckSpace can pay anyone they choose. If the recipient is a member, then the sender pays no fee. (The recipient of the funds pays 95 cents.) If the recipient isn't a member, the sender pays 50 cents and CheckSpace will send out a paper check.

According to research that CheckSpace funded, the average small business spends more than half an hour on each invoice it sends out. A CheckSpace spokesman estimates that the service can cut labor costs for business by 50 percent to 70 percent, saving them, on average, about $600 a month in bookkeeping time.

Remote Conferencing

Companies, reducing business travel to trim costs, are relying more now on videoconferencing. Toronto-based Astound grew out of an earlier business that designed computer presentations for companies. Now, it has added features that allow a number of people to log onto Astound's Web site and look at the same application-based presentation together.

For an additional cost, streaming audio and video presentations can be added to the conference, with a live chat feature, though the virtual meeting itself is still best conducted via conference call on standard phone lines. (Internet telephony is available, but the sound quality is poor.)

Steve McWilliam, vice president of marketing at Genesys, a France-based videoconferencing company that recently acquired Astound, said many companies use Web-conferencing as a qualifying tool to screen potential customers.

"I have one client who said he's happy to pay to send a salesman anywhere," said McWilliam. What he hates is when the salesperson gets there and in the first 10 minutes knows there's not a match."

Astound's service costs $15 per person per event for streaming audio, and $25 per person per event for streamed video an "event" is a meeting that lasts up to three hours. For those who want to use the service often an annual subscription is also available for what McWilliam calls a "virtual boardroom" that costs $720 per seat for a 10-seat room. Once the system is in place, any user in a given location can use the "seat" to join a meeting. A basic version of Astound's conference service is available for free, for up to three users on their site at astoundcorp.com.

Name Calling

One of the most cost-effective marketing tools you have is your company name. A great company name tells the world exactly what you do. So, we're looking for the best small-business name in America. It can be clever or stupid, but the winning company name has to be memorable.

To enter, just send a business card, taped to a postcard or put into an envelope to: Best Business Name Contest, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803. A panel of judges, led by this columnist, will select the winner and two runners-up. The winner will receive a library of small-business books and a free consultation by a small-business marketing expert. Runners-up will receive books and be mentioned in a subsequent column.

Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is CEO of SBTV.com, a multimedia site providing small-business resources. She can be contacted via e-mail at jane@sbtv.com, or by mail at P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.

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