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CLUED-IN: Take steps now to do business on the Net

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When NetMarketing last looked at e-commerce software, in July, a lot of you probably gulped, hard. After all, the challenge of taking a small b-to-b company to the Net seems daunting.

You need to support open orders, management approvals on purchases, electronic invoices and negotiated discounts. You also need to do some merchandising, a skill you may never have needed before.

For your multibillion-dollar competitors, the returns on this effort are measured against paperwork savings, giving them a quick return on the investment. But if you offer fewer than 1,000 products and have fewer than 1,000 customers, you may not be able to justify the effort so easily.

Still, you have to act. Here are some simple steps you can take now. This won't cost you a lot of money, and it may give you the knowledge you need to make some hard choices. To perform this exercise, you'll need a Web browser, an e-mail program such as Netscape Navigator, and an Internet connection.

Join some e-mail digests

With a shared list, unlike a newsgroup, your e-mail address should be secure from attack by hackers and spammers. A digest is also moderated, so you'll see only worthwhile posts.

Once you've joined, read and contributed to a well-run mailing list, you can look for other lists covering your industry.

Find a portal

Sites such as VerticalNet and Industry.Net have special areas devoted to professions and industries. You can get daily news and, as with shared mailing lists, join a community of people who might become business partners.

The term for a well-run site of this type is a portal. A portal should save you time by offering good links to the people and information you need to know your business better.

Build a portal

Find the sites of your competitors and add them to the bookmarks, or favorites, on your browser. Do the same thing with industry groups and valuable lists, separating them into categories. Search daily for news on your industry and bookmark sites that deliver consistent value. You'll be building a personal portal.

Links, lists and news sources should give you a thorough roundup of what is happening in your business in 15 to 30 minutes. Make that time limit your goal. You'll spend twice as much time in your first weeks.

Consider an auction

With your growing confidence, you may be ready to offer some hard-to-move goods in an online auction.

Don't just look to sites like www.ebay.com, where you can buy and sell all kinds of consumer goods. A growing number of sites specialize in b-to-b auctions, like Buildscape Auction.

E-mail your system suppliers

Any final solution to your e-commerce challenges will require a major upgrade to your Web site, taking into account your current methods for handling customer data, inventory and transactions.

Now that you're no longer an e-commerce naif, e-mail the suppliers of your current systems, because whatever you do tomorrow must be compatible with what you have today.

Finally, ask hard questions before you sign on the dotted line.

By taking time to learn what you need to know before you jump into e-commerce, you'll avoid some big mistakes.

Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues and is publisher of the Web site www.a-clue.com.

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