That's where the World Wide Web comes in. "It is a great way of finding leads right in your office, without burning shoe leather," said Larry Chase, founder of Chase Online Marketing Strategies, a marketing and consulting agency.
As a businessman who has been operating on the Web since 1992, Chase has been doing just that, by making contacts and getting referrals through his Web service.
According to Chase, the mistake that entrepreneurs make is to ask "How much money have you made on the Web today?" "That's like asking 'How much money have you made on your fax machine today?"' he said. "What you have to do is look at the Web as a networking tool that will put you in touch with interested parties."
Most small-business people will be able to find both interested and interesting parties on the Web. An obvious starting point is the Federal Small Business Administration site. It offers tips on such topics as "starting your own business," "financing your business" and "expanding your business," as well as details about how the SBA works.
Those who hope to become entrepreneurs should look at the SBA's answers to common questions about small businesses, which begins, logically enough, with "Do I have what it takes to own/manage a small business?"
Small-business owners discovered long ago that they could get the volume discounts and some of the clout of the big boys by working together in various lobbying groups and trade associations.
For instance, there is the National Association of the Self-Employed, with 300,000 members, that represents the "smallest of small business." The association's Web site offers computer users a chance to communicate directly with members of Congress on issues affecting small business.
For those seeking accounting and tax information, a comprehensive site is maintained by Rutgers University. Its "Accounting Resources on the Internet" is a listing that ranges from the Big Six accounting firms to simple tax preparation. Of course the last word on taxes remains the Internal Revenue Service site, which has a small-business page.
Like many sites the Small Business Resource Center is run by an entrepreneur. It offers a variety of free reports that cover important topics, from business plans to tax advice. It even has tips on how to start different types of businesses: from day-care centers to sports-memorabilia shops.
If you would rather buy an existing business than start one, a site to visit is the National Business Exchange, which lists more than 8,000 businesses for sale in the United States and abroad.
Trade shows are an important stomping ground for small as well as large businesses, and there is a site that details more than 10,000 trade shows in all kinds of places.
From "Cairo, Egypt, to Cairo, Illinois," is the promise of the Trade Show Central site, which can be searched by industry, date and country. For example, a search of animal-husbandry trade shows in Argentina in 1997 pulled up three listings, right down to the size of the exhibition venues.
Many small businesses find that a more efficient use of both the phone system and the mail can cut expenses. And now both of these areas are covered by sites.
To reduce directory-assistance charges, callers looking for telephone numbers should start with a search of some of the on-line phone books, such as Nynex's Big Yellow. The U.S. Postal Service, too, is on the Web, and at its site you can look up ZIP-plus-four ZIP codes and find the latest shipping rates.
An interesting way for small businesses to save money is to try the various bartering networks in cyberspace. A major listing of these barter networks can be found at Barternet.
But it is not always a smooth ride on the Web. The Internet still has to live up to the hype as a tool for direct revenue, and it can be especially tough going for smaller companies.
Selling products is difficult, not only because of the current level of consumer interest but also because electronic-payment security has yet to be perfected. With little immediate human contact, there is the opportunity for fraud.
Small-business surfers unhappy with any unethical business practices they find in cyberspace can contact a group that is often used in the noncyber world. The Better Business Bureau's site allows you to file a complaint on-line.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company