When You Get Smart With Customers, You Succeed

No comments September 1st, 2014

Imagine this weekly grocery-shopping scenario: Log on to Cyber-Foods, key in a few needed items, and you’re reminded to include Braun coffee filters, Green Giant corn, and Plax mouthwash. Place the order, pay via credit card or direct debit, and have the groceries delivered to your door 20 minutes after you get home from work. Now let’s suppose you’ve been ordering online for months–long enough for Cyber-Foods to have built a database detailing your shopping preferences and to have monitored the rate at which you consume products. Soon, a second automated grocer is launched, offering the same services, quality, and price. But for you—or any customer–to get the same customized service provided by Cyber-Foods, you’d have to spend months placing orders. So it’s in the customer’s best interest to remain with the original grocer, who’s now gained an insurmountable competitive edge.

Whether you sell groceries or create greeting cards, market footwear or financial services, you can learn from clients, customize your services, and beat rivals using information technology. It’s what authors Don Peppers and Martha Rogers call customer-driven competition in their latest book, Enterprise One to One (Currency/Doubleday), from which this article is excerpted. This new form of marketing was inconceivable to entrepreneurs a few decades ago. But today, with huge databases; interactive mechanisms such as online storefronts, PINs, and debit cards; and customized distribution tools, businesses can serve clients better and build loyalty.

Track What Customers Tell You

Scores of businesses could gain an advantage by remembering the things customers teach them. For instance, Burger King has been promoting itself for years as the “Have it your way” fastfood chain, but few take advantage of this service because the company doesn’t recall how any particular customer wanted it the last time. It’s more trouble to specify what your way is than to say, “I’11 have a number 3.”

But imagine the success of the Burger King that allows its customers to identify what their way actually is by entering personal identification numbers with each order they place. In time, individual clients could announce “I’ll have my number 3, please.” Now that would be a fast–rood company that has made it convenient for people to eat there.

Whether you run a large franchise or small operation, you will gain an edge on the competition by being customer-driven. Take the florist who, after a client has ordered flowers for his Mom’s birthday, e-mails a reminder the following year–in advance of her birthday; the travel agent who remembers that a client prefers window seats on planes, four-door sedans, and hotels with dataports; and the bookshop owner who, by keeping a record of a customer’s past purchases, knows she likes mysteries, self-help, and romance novels and sends a notice when a new book arrives.

Inspire Clients to Inform

For you to gain information about customers, however, you must ask them to expend effort to teach you. Consider The Custom Foot approach. This made-to-order footware chain based in Westport, Connecticut, asks its customers to spend about 20 minutes informing its system. First, the client places her feet on a scanning device that measures each foot’s contours. Next, she sits at a computer, answering questions about the type of wear she’s experienced on current shoes. Then, after an additional set of marketing questions are answered, the customer is ready to make her purchase decision.

Once the customer has selected a combination of styles and features from the firm’s database, the information is sent online to Custom Foot’s manufacturing facility in Italy. Three weeks later, the shoes are either shipped to the store for the customer to pick up or delivered directly to her home. Sure, the Custom Foot customer must take the initiative, but once she has, she’ll think twice before switching brands.

Increase Loyalty, Lower Your Costs

Until you build a solid base of established customers, you’ll have to attract new ones with discounts and two-for-one offers, which get expensive. That’s because even though your promotions were intended for new clients, any current ones–many of whom would have been willing to pay full price–may also take advantage of it. In general, loyal customers are more willing to pay regular price and less likely to look for discounts. Therefore, your marketing costs for loyal customers decrease.

If lower marketing expenses aren’t enough to convince you to become a customer-driven company, consider this: Repeat clients buy more frequently, in greater volume, and over a longer period of time. Your firm has a higher value to your best customers, because you’ve reduced their risks. They don’t need to search for a new source, to qualify a new service, or to waste time making a decision. In short, they’ll pay more.

A perfect example is Streamline, a Boston home shopping service. By closely monitoring each of its subscriber’s purchases, the company knows exactly which tomatoes to select for a customer’s pasta, what videos his or her kids can watch, and other detailed information. With every order, Streamline is locking in the loyalty of subscribers by building a database. And because of this, the company can expect a larger portion of customers to be willing to pay extra for this convenience. To structure its fees fairly, the company charges subscribers who remain with the firm–and thus have a larger database–a “data handling” fee. What’s best, this approach is quite different from the unfair practice of charging the faithful customer full price for the exact same service that new customers get discounted.

Add Customized Services

Picture your company as an onion, with layers of ancillary services and features you could supply customers who purchase your core service. Besides building stronger bonds, you can beat competitors by finding out…

* how a customer likes a service delivered;

* when he or she wants to be invoiced; and

* what software the client prefers financial statements and other reports to be formatted in.

If you’re a building contractor, for example, it’s a safe bet that new homeowners will need insurance, mortgage financing, legal help, and leads to home inspectors. If you run a dry-cleaning plant, why not hold on to the extra buttons and material swatches that come with a new suit or dress? That way, when a customer’s suit needs repair, he doesn’t have to dig through drawers to find these items. Even better, offer a used-clothing donation service for clients. “Tired of those old dresses? Bring them in, and we’ll donate them to charity for you–and send you the tax receipt.”

In Colombia, Hotel La Fontana has locked in the loyalty of its international business customers. Guests simply inform the hotel that they have a trip planned to Bogota, and the hotel will set up their appointments in advance. There’s also a lawyer on staff for guests with such last-minute legal issues as customs regulations and tax transfers.

Indeed, the focus of your company should not be to find more customers, but to find more services for buyers. And if clients’ needs fall outside your core business, form alliances with firms that cater to similar customers. Capitol Concierge, for example, was launched to offer concierge-like services to office-building managers in and around Washington, D.C., allowing Capitol’s clients to enhance their offerings to their customers. Mercedes owners who lease their cars can benefit from Capitol’s services as well as Alamo Car Rental’s frequent drivers. There’s one caveat: This customization must take place within your enterprise; if the customer retains these services for himself, then your leverage could vanish.

Unfortunately, some businesses have nothing to offer clients at the time of the sale, even if they aligned themselves with noncompetitors. In that case, entrepreneurs must create a stream of value after the sale.

Consider the enterprising home builder who, to generate referrals, calls each customer a week before his or her one-year warranty expires and offers to inspect the home for any persistent problems. This builder is locking in customer loyalty–as should you, no matter what media you use to sell your services.

Customer Service in Cyberspace

The Internet is an inherently interactive medium. But at many sites, visitors see the same pages, no matter how many times they’ve been there. The sad fact is that most companies use Web sites to present what’s essentially “brochureware”–information taken almost verbatim from written, hard-copy documents and presented the same way to every customer.

A better way to customize your site to individual visitors would be to assign an identification number to each first-time visitor. Thereafter, each of those customers is managed differently based on his or her online interactions. Now combine this with a tool that allows the host to differentiate messages and visuals based on prior prospect data, and business owners can tailor home pages for various types of customers.

With such a system, small-business owners can create a dialogue using the Net. Here’s how.

Don’t ask for everything at once. Dialogue is not a onetime occurrence; it’s a series of events linked through time. And enterprising entrepreneurs will have an information system that points out the next logical question to ask customers when they call to schedule an appointment, when they call to ask a question, or when they call just to complain. Inventory your customer interactions to ensure that every action builds on the previous one.

Let the customer choose. Customer-driven companies allow clients to communicate through a variety of media. And your goal is to accommodate as many different ways as your customers might desire. For instance, do you know whether this particular client prefers to be mailed, e-mailed, or called? Do you know the best time and place–at home, in the office, or in the car–to call? If a client wants to be called on Saturdays, be sure this information is in your database.

Make the customer’s life better.

Selling with technology works only when the customer is inconvenienced less, his life improves, and he therefore places a higher value on your business services.

Establish a privacy bill of rights.

To build a database, you must get clients to willingly participate in a series of more and more intimate dialogues. To do so, you should adopt and publicize a policy that includes:

* the kind of information you generally need;

* the benefits clients derive from offering their time; and

* the things you’ll never do with customer information.

In the end, there’s no way to prevent competitors from matching your product, service, and price. That’s why you must excel in your execution. But there is a way to prevent rivals from copying your innovation. And that’s called customization.

Using Tech To Work And Gain Efficiency

No comments August 13th, 2014

Just before Christmas in 1985 Matt and Gail Taylor called a staff meeting at their Washington, D.C., office and gave each of 20 staffers a modem and a book on running their own businesses. They announced that, henceforth, they would be running MG Taylor Corp. from their home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. More than 10 years later, most of the 20 staffers are still active in their company, a network that has grown to more than 50 workers nationwide.

Whether individually or as groups of small organizations, more entrepreneurs are following the Taylors’ new business model. They’re organizing technologically linked workgroups on a project basis or as full-blown companies. Together, they deliver services or products that they couldn’t provide alone. They’re called virtual companies or distributed workgroups.

While technology is a key, it isn’t the most important ingredient. “This is not a technological problem,” says Charles Grantham, who has studied the trend as president of the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, based in Walnut Creek, California. “You don’t need online conferencing; you can do it with fax and a telephone. It’s a sociological issue.”

There’s no recipe for successfully organizing or running a virtual company, but an increasing number of entrepreneurs are making it work in a variety of fields.

MG Taylor is just one example. This $5 million enterprise defies easy description. Call them “management consultants” and you’re in trouble. “There’s one thing we don’t do,” says Matt Taylor. “We don’t manage people. In our organization a whole lot of what management does simply doesn’t exist.” It’s the same message they offer clients. Perhaps “unmanagement consultants” is more accurate.

The Taylors work in five-day “engagements,” usually On or near the client’s site, aimed at solving a problem: Create a strategic plan, merge two companies, improve a manufacturing process, to name a few. Clients have included NASA, Avis, Ernst & Young, and the City of Boulder, Colorado. For each engagement, MG Taylor provides a crew of “knowledge workers.” Depending on the engagement, they cull as many as 20 graphic artists, videographers, writers, analysts, or researchers from their network of experts.

The Taylors query their pool of knowledge workers by e-mail, but they use their years of experience working with these people to know which ones will work best for any given engagement. The group comes together to create an office of the future at the client’s site, including more than 200 feet of whiteboard, magnetic walls, more than 20 Macintosh computers, kiosks to the Internet, fax machines, a library of books and CD-ROMs, and other gear. MG Taylor’s group helps as many as 60 workers from all levels of the client’s company to brainstorm and plan until they reach a solution.

Regardless of the total number involved, the Taylors bring everyone’s creative energy and valuable perspectives–the client’s invitees, the Taylors’ knowledge workers, and even the Taylors’ roadies and truck driver–to bear on the problem. By finding the right combination of talents that they temporarily draw from their network, the Taylors continue to win renewed business. They anticipate revenues to hit $10 million over the next year or two.

Distributed Production

The Taylors’ virtual company provides a service, but David Cole’s virtual organization supplies a service and puts out a product. The Cole Group is a distributed newspaper technology consulting and publishing business that tops $250,000 in annual revenues.

The former systems editor at the San Francisco Examiner knew something about the equipment necessary for putting out a paper and wanted to tout his expertise to newspapers around the country. After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cole put together a disaster preparedness plan and distributed it for free as a newsletter to promote his new one-man consulting firm. Cole produced the newsletter by himself for 18 months, distributing it at no charge.

But in the middle of the last recession, few newspapers could afford the budget to hire consultants. So in July 1991 Cole put a price tag on the newsletter, and it sold. Suddenly, he was managing a growing publishing business that might have detracted from his consulting work. “I knew I would need help.”

He recruited two friends–a couple, he was the Sunday editor at the Baltimore Sun and she was a homemaker–to handle production and fulfillment. For a long time Cole made the film and shipped it to them. The couple later relocated to Urbana, Illinois, and a service bureau there now makes the film. Whether they lived in Baltimore or Illinois, the two were able to continue working with the San Francisco-based Cole.

Cole also recruited seven part-time correspondents in several states for the Cole Papers, which now has a circulation of just under 1,000, and a subscription price of $139 per year in the U.S. With regular revenue from the newsletter, Cole stepped up his consulting efforts and continued to use the virtual business model. He now has two part-timers helping build up the consulting business: one based in Honolulu, the other in Boca Raton.

Scoping Out Business Katie La Chance and Maureen Robinson not only created a virtual firm, they also met virtually. They formed Legal Services Institute Inc. 18 months ago, even though La Chance lives in Clearwater, Florida, and Robinson resides in south Philadelphia. They’ve met face-to-face only twice. Each is a scopist–someone who proofreads a court reporter’s notes to help turn them into a polished transcript. Robinson’s been scoping for 20 years, La Chance for five. Both were running their own businesses from home and–here’s the key–both were on CompuServe. Frequently.

“Through e-mail, we realized we were spending a lot of time consulting [prospective scopists],” La Chance says. “We were giving away a lot of time.” In August 1994 they decided to write down the advice they had been providing on the forum and create a training program. By the end of 1994 they were training would-be scopists.

Scoping itself pays mid-$30,000 a year. In the first nine months of their training business, La Chance and Robinson grossed more than six figures. They do all marketing and much of the training online. CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, the Internet–they work them all. Robinson runs many newsgroups and La Chance is a section leader on a Compuserve forum. They’ve got an online newsletter and are setting up a Web page.

A scopist needs about $900 in software and modules, followed by a year of support that sells for $2,185. The total start-up cost? About $3,000. Part of the training teaches students how to market. themselves and run a business. The year-long support consists of critiquing the first three or four transcripts.

La Chance and Robinson are incorporated in Florida for tax advantages. They split profits evenly. Would they consider a third partner? “Two works well. Three gets sticky,” says La Chance.

They finally spent 15 minutes together in person when La Chance passed through the Philadelphia airport in October 1994, then had some quality time–three days–at the annual court reporter’s national convention in Cleveland last summer.

Making It Happen
Virtual companies face a peculiar set of dilemmas. By their very nature, they require a different sort of person than is attracted to a traditional entrepreneurial company. Once you’ve made the decision to go virtual, the three crucial factors to your success are finding people you can work with, figuring out how to keep in touch with them, and managing the whole process.

Partners and alliances.

Like any company, virtual organizations need to find the talent that allows them to deliver products and services to clients. Some tap into working mothers who prefer to work from home. In many ways, these types of organizations resemble a traditional office, only distributed. However, virtual companies are almost always part-time alliances. Rarely do people work exclusively within one organization. They’re primarily Form 1099 folks to the IRS. Building trust is a key component.

La Chance and Robinson went through a get-to-know-you period before forming Legal Services Institute. “We found ourselves within the scopist on-line forum of the court reporter’s forum on CompuServe,” La Chance recalls. “We decided we had similar philosophies.” After getting to know each other online, they formed a business without meeting in person.

Their business marriage works because La Chance and Robinson both share a strong commitment to their craft, trade a lot of e-mail, use technology wisely, and complement each other’s talents. La Chance says she is more polished technically and Robinson has more highly developed social skills.

MG Taylor also follows a partnership model.

The company has a core salaried staff of about six–also distributed. The CEO lives in Waynesville, North Carolina, and the finance person in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides the core staff, five or six workers derive nearly 100 percent of their income from MG Taylor. All the others have additional outside work.

The Taylors talk a lot about “the net,” but they don’t mean the Internet. They mean their distributed workforce of more than 50 knowledge workers–and growing–from all fields. The ever-expanding net allows them to take on many more engagements than the core staff could handle. “Our knowledge worker group at any given time tends to be extremely eclectic and talented, many of them genius-level people,” says Taylor. “Often, they are people who have not done well in traditional environments.” New recruits usually join by word of mouth, and their first engagement is an apprenticeship–MG Taylor pays only expenses.

David Cole tends to follow a more conventional means of finding talent. He recruits writers from the people he knew when he was a systems editor–people who were doing similar work at other newspapers. Through CompuServe’s Journalism forum, however, he also met and corresponded with a writer in Connecticut who went on to become his top reporter.

Cole is a sole proprietor.
None of the 10 people he works with is an employee. “We keep the IRS independent contractor regulations close by,” he says. Everyone has other sources of income. Cole lines up the work, makes assignments, coordinates, and does the billing.

Keeping connected.
Once you’ve found people that you feel you can work with, you still need a way to stay in touch. OccasiOnally dropping by a desk to ask a question won’t work because there’s no office. You also can’t rely on simply picking up the phone to get an answer. Whether voice mail or e-mail, you need some way to leave the equivalent of a Post-it note for your part-time partner when she’s off working with a client for her other business.

For MG Taylor, e-mail is key. The Taylors themselves have been using e-mail since the late 1970s. Now they use e-mail on AOL or the Internet to keep their network active all the time. Several weeks before each engagement, they put out the call on e-mail. Within 48 hours, members respond about their availability for that particular event. From that population, the Taylors choose the right people for the team.

Business Traveling: The Tips You Need

No comments August 3rd, 2014

Every business traveler has a disaster story. Mine occurred on my very first business trip, when I installed a password-protection program during the plane ride. Securing my laptop seemed like a good idea at the time. But the next morning when I turned it on, I found that I’d locked myself out of my own computer. So much for productivity, connectivity, or computerized efficiency. From the hotel, I called everyone I could think of and even visited the local Apple dealership, without success. I spent the rest of the week lugging around a 10-pound paper-weight, and I took all my notes by hand. Fifteen minutes after I got home, I solved the problem. All I needed was my boot disk.

Whether you’re a first-time traveler or a seasoned jet-setter, no one’s immune to the mishaps that can wreck a business trip (take a look at “Travel Tales From Hell,” which accompanies this article, and you’ll see what I mean). The tips compiled here prevent or solve just about anything that could go wrong, so you can get down to work while you’re on the road–and safely return home, rating to go again.

Before You Go

The best time to trouble-proof your trip is well before you set your foot out the door. Try to do everything you can to make your excursion easier. For example, some hotel chains have several hotels in the same town, so ask to be booked into the one closest to your primary client or the convention location. Here are some other tips that are worth the proverbial pound of cure.

Care and Feeding of Your Notebook Computer

1. Don’t work with software or hardware for the first time on a trip. Put any new technology through several days of real use before you rely on it on the road.

2. If you can spare the disk space, install the online help files for your most important software programs. You don’t want to lug around manuals when you’re traveling.

3. Back up, back up, back up! If you lose or damage your notebook, having a system backup safe at home will minimize harm to your business and make the replacement of the notebook a simple matter of filing an insurance claim. Back up to tape, floppy, Zip drive, or even your home PC. Back up the day before you leave, and bring blank floppies with you on your trip.

4. If you don’t have a portable backup system, you could e-mail yourself copies of your most important files. Address the e-mail to yourself, and attach the files for uploading. Just remember not to read and download those pieces of mail unless you need them. Set up a secondary account as a backup dump.

5. Planning a presentation? Make Sure the facility has the equipment you need, and bring a backup (for example, if you’re planning a screen show, bring along overhead transparencies–just in case).

6. Install Norton Utilities or a similar protection program. The undelete feature, which restores accidentally deleted files, is worth the price of the software.

7. Install a remote control software program so you can view and retrieve files that are on your office PC (for more information on such programs, see our software roundup in this issue).

8. Bring along a write-protected floppy boot or system disk. If for some reason your system files have been corrupted, this floppy will give you peace of mind by giving you access to your computer. To create a boot disk (basic DOS method: FORMAT A: /S), follow the instructions in the latest For Dummies (IDG Books) book.

9. If you’re a Windows user, before you leave home, copy to a floppy disk all .INI and .GRP files from the C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM subdirectory, as well as CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. (Later, if your computer freezes up but you’re able to boot from a floppy, replacing these files on your hard drive may solve the problem.)

10. If you’re a Mac user, install a “Minimal Macintosh System Software” setup onto a floppy disk. When you boot up using this disk, your extensions and preferences won’t be installed, but you should be able to use most programs.

11. Keep your laptop’s warranty current. Many manufacturers offer one-day repair service but only to warrantied customers. Most computers warranties are valid for one year. Call your computer retailer for the details and cost of extending the warranty. If the warranty has lapsed, you may need to bring the laptop in for a checkup before you can extend coverage.

Luggage and Packing

12. Buy luggage for durability. Make sure that any shoulder straps and handles are attached with metal hardware. Also, rolling, flight-attendant-style suitcases are easier to manage than garment bags.

13. Begin packing your travel case as soon as you know you’re leaving, so you won’t have to look for important items at the last minute. Tear out articles from magazines so you can read them on the plane.

14. Wrinkle prevention tips:

* The fewer folds, the better. Gently fold several garments at the same time.

* Fold sleeves into the center of the garment before folding.

* Pack clothes with the dry-cleaning bags on; the plastic can help prevent creases.

* Stuff socks into shoes to prevent the shoes from getting crushed.

* Unpack and hang everything as soon as you reach the hotel.

* Steam out wrinkles by hanging clothes in the bathroom (not in the shower).

15. Make and bring extra copies of:

* The reservation numbers for hotels, auto, and airlines, in case your name was spelled wrong.

* Airline and hotel toll-free information numbers.

* Your health insurance number and your physician and health plan approval phone numbers.

* Your laptop’s purchase receipt or extended warranty form to speed repairs in case your computer crashes.

16. Don’t carry more credit cards than you need to. If you have a lot of plastic, consider joining a registry service. CUC International Card Enhancement Services offers comprehensive card protection. With one call, all your cards (including cash machine, debit, gas, and department store charge plates) will be canceled, and you’ll be protected against any unauthorized usage. The service also offers emergency airline tickets and a message service.

17. Carry your computer’s serial number on your person. If your computer is recovered, that may be the only way to identify it. Tape business cards to the machine, and scatter cards in your luggage.

18. Computer warranties don’t cover cracked screens. Your computer carrying case needs sufficient padding on both sides, especially next to the screen.

19. Whenever possible, carry on all luggage. Even though most lost luggage is just delayed, on an important trip the inconvenience isn’t worth the risk. Most airlines allow two carry-on bags; call ahead for dimensions.

20. If you must check luggage, never check valuables. Carry medication or jewelry with you. Airlines are only liable for about $1,000 of total losses.

21. If you’re worded about finding overhead space on a crowded flight, book seats at the back of the plane; most airlines board rear rows first.

22. Take a bottle of water and a snack onboard. If you get stuck on the runway, you’ll have a more pleasant wait.

Going Remote Is So Much More Than Networking

No comments July 26th, 2014

Networking is the small-business tool of the ’90s. You already network all the time–with colleagues at professional gatherings and cocktail parties, and with clients at meetings and lunches. Now, all the reasons that drive you to connect with other people are driving you to connect your computer equipment.

Maybe you need one scanner to work with multiple computers. Or you want to send documents from office to office Without copying them to a disk or running them off on your printer. Perhaps you want to invite all those customers and colleagues to contact anyone in your office Online and exchange documents and drawings. But if you’ve heard computer networking stories from the corporate world, the prospect may seem downright scary. Isn’t networking all about wires and expensive software and consultants? isn’t it a financial black hole? Does a small venture have any business considering building a network in 1996?

The good news is that computer networking isn’t necessarily about complex wiring schemes and expensive software–although at the high end it still can be. You can create a simple link between two or three PCs and printers for less than $300, build your own Internet mail for less than $2,000 ($10,000 with all the hardware), or fashion a corporate-quality network–including a few PCs, a couple of laptops, a printer or two, and a shared scanner, modem, and CD-ROM drive–for less than $5,000.

And in most cases, you won’t need a consultant. The small-office networking market is expected to explode over the next two years–Link Resources reports that 500,000 small businesses have networks today and more than 11 million have multiple PCs and printers, as yet unconnected. Thus, many network vendors have free forums on Compuserve, America Online, and increasingly, the Internet (for locations, see “Network Connections,” which accompanies this article). Hang out at one of these sites for a few days and you’ll soon find where questions about businesses like yours are answered. In addition, companies such as Artisoft, ACC, Cisco, Farallon, IBM, Microsoft, and Novell are offering online and live seminars all across the country. Although the information tends to be self-serving, it’s good enough to help you get a handle on terminology.

Because there’s more than one way to network, we’ve come up with five common small-business scenarios to help you identify the networking technology that’s best for you. Let’s start with the simplest and work our way up to the sublime. (All software, unless noted, is available for Windows and Mac.)

CHECK OUT THE REMOTE POSSIBILITIES

You have a laptop and two other computers, and you need to exchange information with clients.

Let’s say you and two partners share a small space and you each keep sales records on Excel spreadsheets. The way you work now, whenever one of you wants to update data on the sales records, you have to type it in and then give your partners a copy of the updated records on disk. This leaves lots of room for errors, and trying to find out whose record is the most up-to-date can drive you crazy. But if just one of your three systems is running Windows 95, you can use a remote control application such as Traveling Software’s LapLink ($149) to connect the three systems. (For more information on LapLink and other remote control packages, see the software roundup in this issue.) Just install LapLink software on the Win 95 machine and load the program’s file transfer applications on the other two systems, and you’ll be able to link two machines via serial port and the third by infrared.

This solution is a bit crude and it requires the systems to be just a few feet apart, but it’ll let you transfer files among the three computers. What’s more, you can send e-mail between the systems without using an online account.

In addition to its in-house possibilities, remote software lets you transfer files via modem (thus removing the distance restriction), provided the other computer is on and running the same remote control application. Microcom’s Carbon Copy for Windows 3.0 ($120), a remote computing package long used by corporate help desks, even includes a chat box that works like an Internet chat room: Users on both ends can send messages back and forth live and view documents simultaneously.

At such a low cost you won’t get a lot of speed, so if you need to transfer files constantly, this isn’t the solution for you. With too many transfers, screens start to freeze up, and graphical files take a long time to go through.

“But it’s a great way to send a couple of things each day,” says New York database consultant Kurt Monash, who uses remote software to transfer files between his office and a Boston client. “I’ve never had a glitch.”

Thanks to Win 95, you can now also use remote control software to network through the Internet. With LapLink’s special Internet tools and Win 95′s protocol, you can use any Internet service provider, such as Pipeline or The Well, as a switch between computers that share an Internet TCP/IP address. Just load up LapLink, configure your computer as instructed, click on your Win 95 Network Neighborhood icon, and click on the TCP/IP communications program. Next, tell both machines what your TCP/IP address is (you cart get that from your Internet service provider) and enter that number in your LapLink and Win 95 systems. Now you can network from your notebook anywhere in the country.

GO WIRELESS

You have two or more computers that need to share a single printer, modem, or scanner.

If your computers and other devices are within 75 feet of one another–it’s OK if they’re in different rooms Or on different floors–then you can share with absolutely no hassle. All you need is a radio frequency (RF) hookup and some software to tell the various machines that they’re part of a network. The Aviator from Momentum MicroSystems, a wireless network in a box, works wonders in this area. You can buy a two-system kit for $249, then add systems to your network for only $49 each.

The Aviator device is a black box that looks like a video remote control without the buttons. Using a specific radio frequency (RF) not yet’ licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, it broadcasts data from machine to machine. Stick it in your serial port, load the software, and you’re in business. The package comes With a one-disk network setup program, and total installation time on a Win 95 system is less than 15 minutes. Aviator will also work with earlier versions of Windows or with DOS,, but you may need to edit your computer’s system files to get it to do so. (For easy networking, you ought to have at least one Win 95 machine in the loop.)

Once Aviator is installed it creates a “virtual” drive. Where you had a C drive for your hard disk, an A drive for your floppies, and a D drive for your CD-ROM, you now also have a K, L, M, or other drive for the network. The result is the same as a peer network (in Which computers are connected to each other rather than to a central, dedicated computer) but without all the wires. You can plug an Aviator into Your printers, laptops, desktops, scanners; and modems and easily pool all your resources.

The downside? As with other peer netWorks, a wireless RF system works slowly and sometimes may seem to be frozen during file swapping. And the Aviator software merely establishes peer connections; it doesn’t provide management capabilities. For example, if two people both send something to the same printer, whichever file gets there first prints first. You can’t schedule print jobs like you can with a true network. Nor does Aviator provide automatic backup or network security.

BUILD A BULLETIN BOARD

You don’t share printers in your office, but you do swap files and want to give customers and suppliers an easy way to communicate with your network.

The best solution for you may be a bulletin board. You can start a powerful one with a middle-of-the-line PC (Pentium 75 with 32MB of memory and 2.2GB of storage), bulletin board software, and a multiport modem. The total investment can be less than $6,000–and the payoff incredible. (Alternatively, you could set up a Web site, but that technology still doesn’t offer the balance of technical ease of use and capabilities that a bulletin board does.)

For starters, you can use the bulletin board as your office network, especially if you don’t exchange enormous amounts of data between computers or if you don’t have to pay for local telephone calls. Assign one of the phone lines to the bulletin board and give each computer its own phone line, and then any member of your firm can call the bulletin board and exchange data. This means you have phone mail, file transfer, and chat boards for workgroup meetings where all those involved–on or off campus–can engage in a computer conversation. You’ll also need to figure in the cost of the monthly phone fees for the extra lines.

Your bulletin board can also be a powerful customer service tool. Mustang’s Wildcat! bulletin board system software (BBS) ($1,500 to $7,000, depending on the number of users) lets any caller send and receive files and messages to the PC for the price of a phone call. A small-business version comes with online help, easy-to-follow installation instructions, and a menu-creation system that lets callers point their mouse at the task they want (order a product, leave mail, check mail, and so on). Security features let you deny customers access to your internal communications but allow them access to announcements and e-mail.

Wildcat! includes TCP/IP tools and hypertext markup language (HTML) as well as other tools that enable you to turn your bulletin board into an online mail. For example, the board itself could include only information about your business, but you can add hotlinks (without doing any programming) to relevant World Wide Web sites. While your customers surf the Web, they’d be connected to your computer, so you’d incur the expenses. But you can charge a fee for this service.

In fact, we know of one Internet service provider–First Internet Franchise Corp. of Anaheim, California–that actually started out as a bulletin board. First Internet used Wildcat! and an eight-line multiport modem to provide bulletin board services to 20,000 home-based medical records businesses. Last year the business grew so large that owner Chad Meisinger started offering Internet access to members for a fee. That drew more business from clients looking for relatively inexpensive Internet access, and the new business was born.

GIVE IN TO PEER PRESSURE

You have two PCs, a laptop, two printers, a scanner, and a modem to share.

Most small offices and home offices can easily pile up as many as 10 devices that should be working together. The mere ability to share a printer or modem among three users makes a network worth considering. But a local area network (LAN), the kind commonly used by large companies to enable resource sharing, is a complex system that must be managed or at least checked out frequently–by an expert.

A more affordable option for small businesses is a peer network. Unlike a LAN, a peer network doesn’t require a dedicated file server. Instead of being connected to a central computer, all the computers are connected to each other, and thus can send and receive data directly to and from any other computer on the network.

Still, even these simpler peer networks require some wiring expertise. There’s a very good chance that you can do the job yourself, but you’ll need to devote several days of study to the building of your network–and you must be prepared to get inside your systems.

Peer networking is where Apple and Win 95 systems shine. Macs come equipped with peer networking hardware and the Mac operating system includes provisions for networking. But the connections on such a network are “thinnet” wiring (which looks like the line that goes into your cable TV box). You connect computers to one another and form a kind of computer-and-printer daisy chain. It works, but if just one computer or printer in the chain develops problems, the whole network goes down and you spend the rest of the day trying to locate the trouble spot.

The answer is Ethernet, a network architecture whose hardware has become so easy to handle that many small offices can finally use it without needing a professional information technology staff. (Other network architectures, such as Token Ring and ARCnet, have far too many quirks and requirements for a small office.) Ethernet comes in three variations: 10BaseT, 10Base2, and “fast” Ethernet. The 10Base2 card runs on thinner and is recommended only for the smallest and simplest networks. The 10BaseT Ethernet architecture, by far the most popular, sends and receives data at 10 megabits per second. Although this is extremely fast for standard e-mail notes, it’s a little slow for full motion video, but most small offices don’t need that capability. Fast Ethernet has a transfer rate of 100 megabits per second–but don’t even think about a do-it-yourself job with fast Ethernet.

To be part of an Ethernet network, a computer needs a Network Interface Card (NIC). The cards all have to belong to the same architecture and the wiring has to match the card, so it’s a good idea to buy all the components from the same dealer. You’ll need to install the NIC under the hood of your computer, near the modem. The card ends on the outside of your computer’s cabinet, with a receptacle like your present modem receptacle. Once you install it and close the PC case, you’ll have a new place to plug in a wire.

Ethernet networks are perfect if you want to connect a lot of devices from different manufacturers. Both Macs and PCs work equally well on Ethernet. For an Ethernet 10BaseT network, you may not need any extra hardware. Instead, you may be able to use a multiport Ethernet card on your various machines. For instance, you can install Farallon’s EtherWave ISA card ($139) in a Win 95 system in minutes. These cards have built-in Plug ‘n Play commands, so you merely pop them into the slot under the hood and start the system. Each Etherwave card has two RJ45 connections, which look like the sockets that accept your phone lines in your wall or in your modem, except they’re slightly bigger. This kind of connection is better than the old-fashioned thinner link, because Farallon cards have a Power Down feature. If one of your systems goes down, its Etherwave card does too, but the rest of your network remains running.

Installing a small Ethernet network is a two-day job that will inevitably include some trial-and-error connections. But it doesn’t require a high level of technical skills or specialized tools.

Your Ethernet: The Best Backbone For You

No comments June 27th, 2014

You want to build an Ethernet peer network but the wiring scheme seems too messy and complicated.

You’re in luck: This summer Cisco, Farallon, SMC, ACC, and other Ethernet peer networking companies plan to launch completely ready-to-go networking kits for small offices. And Novell will eventually introduce a product that lets you connect devices over household wiring. In the meantime, the closest thing to a prefab network may already reside within the walls of your building. If you’ve connected a TV to an outside antenna or installed an extension phone somewhere in your home or office, you can probably use the phone wires in your walls to connect an Ethernet peer network.

Most’ buildings constructed since the 1970s have an extra set of wires, which AT&T installed before the breakup of the phone companies. Called Category 5 Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP), the lines are still present in more than 70 percent of American homes. And it turns out that Category 5 UTP is exactly the wiring you need for an Ethernet network.

Is this extra set of phone wiring hidden in your home? If you have those contemporary wall jacks that accept a modem connection, chances are it is. To find out, remove the faceplate of the twin jacks and pull the plate away from your wall. If you see four screws behind the modular jack, that’s a good sign. The contraption probably has red, green, yellow, and black wire strands–a different color for each screw. The red and the green wires are connected to thicker wire in the wall. That’s your phone connection. The other pair may already be hooked to the yellow and black screws or it may be stuffed into the wall. Either way, that’s the extra connection.

Go to an electrical supply store and get an adapter for your faceplate so you can install the bigger jack required by the Ethernet connection wire. Just push it into your wall terminal, connect its back screws to the extra pair of wires, and reinsert it into the wall. Now you can connect a printer or PC or modem, provided it has an Ethernet card.

If you have about 10 machines on your network–including printers and other devices–we recommend Artisoft’s LANtastic software ($99 per system plus NICs and wiring), or even just your Win 95 or Mac operating system. All three of these systems will work with any wiring scheme you choose.

With LANtastic Network Operating System for Windows 95, your PCs and Macs can exchange files over the network as long as they’re in ASCII or text format. You can also share the files of applications that run on both platforms (such as Excel’s .XLS files). In addition, LANtastic offers user-level security, which allows the first user of the network to decide which files other users can access. For example, if you want to lock the office payroll records up while letting everyone share the accounting system, you can do it with LANtastic.

If you expect your business to grow quickly over the next couple of years, then you might want to investigate Novell’s Netware or Microsoft’s Windows NT. These are sophisticated network operating systems that can connect your telephones to your databases and run your systems 24 hours a day even when you’re out of town. With proper administration, they almost never crash. But they’re expensive–converting to a Novell or Microsoft NT network will cost several thousand dollars, even for a small one.

Birth of a Network

Scott Feldman and Lisa Yee didn’t plan to get into computer networking, but their business grew quickly and they found that they couldn’t live without it. The husband-and-wife team had worked for Walt Disney Corp. until three years ago, when they got the bug to go into business for themselves.

“Disney was a great place, but we wanted more control over our destiny,” Feldman says. So they started Magic Pencil Studios in Orlando, Florida, a home-based commercial design firm that uses Feldman’s talents as a designer and Yee’s as a creative director. Magic Pencil’s first client was, predictably, Disney itself. But the couple’s talent and ambition became known across town quickly and the business grew. Overnight they added three employees and had to move out of their home to a new house and rented office space just around the block.

Feldman had learned about Macintosh computers while working on a Disney project in 1988, and he and Yee agreed that the Mac was the system of choice for their business. “That turned out to be a happy event when we decided to network two years ago,” Feldman says. “Macs are natural networkers.” Even so, he adds, setting up a system is nor a no-brainer. Magic Pencil originally tried to use an office administrator to install its first network. The system crashed every time the administrator tried to set up a workstation. “It was some kind of glitch in the networking cards,” Feldman recalls. Later the couple hired a local consultant.

Magic Pencil uses the network only lightly. “We run our accounting system on the network so each person on the team can associate time worked with a billing figure,” says Feldman. But notes are still passed by hand, rather than by e-mail. The Magic Pencil network incorporates five Mac workstations in a peer network using Ethernet 10BaseT.

Network Connections

Before you attempt to set up a network in your office, it makes sense to consult with the experts. Fortunately, with so many of them offering online forums, you can get a lot of great advice for free. Here’s how to contact the key players in networking.