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.
The self-proclaimed "world's largest business finance search engine" might be among the world's homeliest sites. But it appears to be a solid way to connect businesses and lenders. Search a database of thousands of financial-service companies, specifying financing type and amount of money needed. Membership is free to businesses in search of capital; the site charges finance professionals an annual fee.
An interesting tutorial, Entrepreneurship 101, covers a broad range of topics, from cutting red tape to enhancing cash flow. The final lesson is: "You Got It Off the Ground and Flying, Now How Do You Safely Land It?" It's a good package. But excellent reporting on small business -- especially the case studies and trend pieces -- is what makes this site worth bookmarking.
Don't overlook government resources. The U.S. Small Business Administration is a good place to start. You'll find primers on financing, regulations, patents, taxes and insurance. Click on "Outside Resources" for access to more than 3,000 other sites of interest to small business. The site also offers interactive courses on writing a business plan, preparing for Y2K and raising capital. The courses look interesting, but I can't recommend them. After spending five minutes downloading and installing the required ScriptActive plug-in, I discovered the course page refused to function on either major browser.
This state agency's modest site has details on grants, loans and technical assistance available to Minnesota businesses.
Need a confidence boost? Click on "Business Startups" for inspirational profiles of entrepreneurs who made it big against all odds. The top stories this month: "Hot entrepreneurs under 30" and "If this online retailer can do it, you can too." If stories of unalloyed success depress you, check out the succinct product reviews (Techtalk, Wise Buys, Inventions) or topical features (Starting Out, Money Matters, Guts). The site has a robust set of tools for finding money or learning more about an industry. The forums seem fairly active and spam-free. There's live chat, as well, but how many entrepreneurs have time for that?
-- Ben Welter is a startribune.com producer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.