Type "venture capital" or "small business" into Alta Vista or HotBot and you'll get the search-engine equivalent of AOL spam: "Don't struggle alone!" the links scream. "Get help now -- big financial help!" Don't go there, friend. We've shoveled past all the exclamation points and found these sites of interest to owners of small businesses who want to expand -- or stay afloat:
Visit Business Week's Frontier for news, advice columns and tools, tools, tools. Use the calculators to compare credit-card payments or figure out which loans cost less. Search Dun & Bradstreet's massive business directory for prospects. Or locate a business development center near you. The advice columns are fresh, useful and often entertaining. Go to the "Smart Answers" feature to consult Business Week's small-business experts.
SCORE has more than 12,000 volunteer counselors ready to share their expertise via e-mail. The service is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day. It's easy: Choose a counselor based on areas of expertise -- 583 are listed, from accounting to yarn spinning (!) -- and submit your question.
"The Web site for growing companies" offers news, features, bulletin boards, instant polls and a "Virtual Consultant." The latter includes the usual searchable databases, software, resource lists, Web links and worksheets. But its "Good Forms" stands out as a useful feature not offered on other sites. It's a detailed look at actual reports, letters and agreements used by growing companies. You'll need Adobe Acrobat to view the forms. Another feature unique among these sites: You can create your own modest Web site, free.
The site's unstated goal, of course, is to sell you accounting software. But there's plenty of good information here: tools, tax resources, business forms, news. A search tool allows you to scour scores of publications for articles on your industry. Oddly, technology and computers are not among the industries listed, and you get only abstracts, not the complete text. Other tools: Find a lender, assess your insurance company, get credit reports and locate a business consultant in your area. The discussion forums seem easy to use but aren't very active.
Need money to grow? At many capital-search sites, you'll have to endure endless sales pitches and pay a hefty fee. The Business Funding Directory is all business: A thoughtfully organized wizard walks you through the process. The service is free to companies seeking capital; the site charges lenders and investors a membership fee. You can also download a workbook on how to prepare and present a successful funding pitch.