Editor’s Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN “Adventures in Entrepreneurship” event, featuring Richard Branson. The event includes an online “panel discussion” around certain questions posed by Clay Shirky , our Facilitator.I and two other blogger panelists have been asked to write about business topics posed by the Facilitator. The following is the second question.
Question: There are a number of institutions that small business couldn’t live without — FedEx, Kinkos, Staples, Starbucks. What new functions are essential to small businesses today? Google? Ebay? What else?
Response: Once again, I could write a book about this topic, but I doubt that anyone has the patience to read a book online. So instead, I want to focus my discussion on one specific area: information resources. I will answer this question by referring back to the words and ideas of Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Companies.
Richard Branson started his business career as a teenager by starting a magazine, called “Student.” In his talk during the Adventures in Entrepreneurship event, he explained why he started a magazine, saying simply “I wanted to be a magazine editor, and that meant I needed to publish a magazine.”
I found it very interesting that Branson started his career with an information business. He had something to say and needed to create a vehicle to say it with. Were he 15 years old today wanting to be heard he would probably start an Internet site — perhaps a blog. But in the mid-1960s, he did not have that choice and so he started a magazine.
All of which brings me around to my response to the panel question. I think small businesses today could not function without access to the variety of excellent online information resources. The process of starting a business, running a business, financing a business, and marketing a business are all made much easier because of ready access to information — much of it free — online.
The following is my short list of the top five online information resources that I believe successful small businesses could not function (at least not function as well) without today:
- Google , Yahoo  and MSN  search engines – It is impossible to overemphasize how much these giant search engines have changed the way we do business. Want to research a product or service, find outlets in your area carrying it, and do some comparison shopping? Go to the search engines. Need to find out the background of a prospective employee or a potential supplier or business partner? Check them out online. Want to conduct market research or get competitive intelligence? Dig in and start at the search engines.It would be easy to focus solely on Google. After all, Google has by far the biggest share of business searchers, and its name has become synonymous with ferreting out information via the Internet. But I include the other top search engines, MSN and Yahoo, because they bring something to the table too. Perhaps most importantly, the competition among all three is part of the reason that Google and the rest keep getting better. Funny how competition works….
- Amazon.com  – You are probably thinking, ‘why would an online bookstore be among the list of functions small business could not live without?’ It’s because Amazon.com is more than just a bookstore.Once Amazon.com began to sell books, CDs and DVDs that the average Joe created, and became a distribution channel for the little guy, Amazon.com ceased to be a bookstore and became a marketplace. And once that happened, its value to small business skyrocketed.
Today, you can self-publish a book or produce films or music on your own inexpensively, and Amazon.com will sell them for you . With Amazon’s nearly worldwide reach, you can be assured that the tiniest niche audience can find your product. It’s turned the economics of marketing niche products on its head — suddenly it is affordable to get to market. Moreover, this has led to a huge increase in the number and variety of voices that can now be “heard” all over the world. How empowering!
- U.S. Government websites – The United States government websites used to be pretty bad, with few exceptions. They were boring, bureaucratic, and oriented to the agency, not to the citizenry. The past year and a half have seen significant improvements. I am amazed at the information available online at these sites, and even the transactions that can be carried out online. Never in recent history has our federal government been so helpful toward small business, and I only hope this is a trend that we see more of. (My apologies to my international readers. The same may be true for government websites of other countries — I just do not happen to be familiar with them.)Among the U.S. government sites essential to small business are (sorry — I could not limit this category to just one):
Business.gov – This impressive website is the government’s gateway to all sorts of advice on how to start, grow and run a business. ‘Nuff said — check it out.
IRS Small Business  – I know what you’re probably thinking… ‘Get help from the IRS? Right!’ But go over to this site and give it a chance. Trust me, you’ll find a lot of helpful information, including online workshops for business owners. You can even apply online for employer identification numbers (EINs).
Small Business Administration (SBA)  – The SBA is not just about loans. You’ll find a tremendous amount of information on the topic of financing a business generally. You can also find research about small business at the Advocacy section.
Census.gov – many people email me and ask me how to research businesses of a certain type, etc. Whatever you do, when looking for market research always start at the U.S. Census site. It is a wealth of free data that you can slice and dice multiple ways, with various online search and reporting tools.
- SCORE Biz Powerlinks – -SCORE’s (Service Corp of Retired Executives) website is impressive. While many of the resources are directed toward startups, you can find useful business information for established businesses, too. The Power Links section of the SCORE website is an exhaustive collection of links to helpful business websites.
- CEO Express – The fifth information website was a tough call. I actually could have named a dozen or more sites I find valuable. But CEO Express aggregates hand-selected links to a wide array of business tools and information sites, on topics ranging from travel sites, to office tools and calculators, to international newspapers, to health information. Definitely worth bookmarking.
Read what the other two participating bloggers, Dane Carlson at Business Opportunities Weblog , and Rob May at BusinessPundit, have to say about this question.
What do you think? What online information sources are essential to small businesses? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts. (To comment, click on the small “comment” link at the bottom of this post — it will bring up a small window at the bottom of the page where you can type in your comments.)
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The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.