Website wbsonline.com is free now, but owner Winmark hopes to turn a profit with it eventually.
Like most entrepreneurs, Marcia Appel tries to save time and money while running her company, Green Lotus Yoga and Healing Center in Lakeville.
So when she's looking for ideas, business forms or answers to small-business questions, she goes to Winmark Business Solutions' free, Twin Cities-based small-business information website (www.wbsonline.com).
"I use it a lot for HR questions, and I watch for both marketing and advertising ideas," said Appel, who started her business two years ago. "If I have an accounting or legal question, I can find the answer to that quickly there. If that's a 15-minute phone call (to her lawyer or accountant), that saves me $90 at this point. So information like this is really helpful now."
The hope, Winmark Chairman and CEO John Morgan said, is to draw more traffic to the site and, one day perhaps, to monetize what so far has been a not-for-profit endeavor. With little promotion, the site now draws 30,000 unique visitors a month, including users from around the country as well as from Europe and Australia.
One problem is that marketing to the country's 25 million small businesses is difficult, Morgan said. Even for Winmark, which has nearly 900 franchise-based retail stores operating under four brands -- Plato's Closet, Play It Again Sports, Once Upon a Child and Music Go Round. By the way, those stores, which specialize in used merchandise, generally have done well despite (or perhaps because of) the down economy.
"At 50,000 feet, the problem of selling anything to small businesses is how to get to them," Morgan said. "It's so eclectic, you can't find them. Except for the franchising business, most of them are a hodgepodge of different kinds of companies. Marketing to them is a real challenge."
The solution Winmark came up with was wbsonline.com, which it launched in 2004 with the intent of building an online small-business community. The site features 6,000 pages of business information, covering everything from starting a business to finance, insurance, technology and even selling a business. It offers downloadable business and legal forms, articles from business publications and links to discounted third-party products and services.
The idea was to provide a resource for franchisees, for customers of Wirth Business Credit, Winmark's small-business equipment leasing company and for unaffiliated entrepreneurs, Morgan said.
Winmark had hoped visitors might end up becoming lease customers, Morgan said. But the company has cut back its leasing business because of the recession and the difficulty small businesses are having in getting financing. That's hampered one plan for making money from the website.
"We're really on hold, improving the website and trying to figure out what this economy's going to look like going forward," Morgan said. "We think we're giving a lot of value to people. It'll get much better when the economy turns around and people are looking for financing or looking for ways to improve their business and using our website."
Recent additions to the site include PeerSpheres, where users can connect with each other to form online communities to offer and receive advice on business topics. A discussion forum, the Think Tank, lets users post questions and share tips.
"We were really impressed, especially given that this information is free of charge," said Barb Grieman, vice president of the local organization, which has 7,200 accredited companies, most of them small businesses. "For small businesses right now, I think free is probably a good word for them to hear."
Grieman said she thought the site's small-business tools -- model business documents, financial statement templates, model policies, business and legal forms -- were particularly helpful. "I think that's really a benefit," she said. "Why are 500 small businesses duplicating efforts?"
At Green Lotus, Appel said she likes the timeliness of wbsonline.com, where she has found polls asking whether employers have revised policies in response to the H1N1 outbreak and what-to-do checklists for the flu season.
"Sometimes I just watch the site because I don't know what I don't know," said Appel, who is highlighting wbsonline.com in her monthly e-newsletter to customers. "So I both use it purposefully and with intent and also browse it to be aware of what I need to know. What I'm really interested in is what other small-business people are experiencing now in the economy."
Living case history
Getting answers to her questions directly from experienced business owners has been helpful. "It's like a living case history every day," Appel said.
Steve Murphy, president of franchising at Winmark, said the site has seen steady traffic growth over the past 18 months. Many users find it through Internet searches, though Winmark isn't spending much on keyword search advertising.
"With 6,000 pages of content, we tend to come up in organic searches quite a bit when people are looking for small-business information," Murphy said.
Entrepreneurs also can find out about wbsonline.com at the Small Business Administration's more than 100 Small Business Development Centers that have Winmark Business Solutions brochures, in what Murphy called a grass-roots outreach effort.
"We're in a position where we can subsidize it because we use it in our franchise business and our leasing business," Morgan said. "The hardest part is marketing it. The value of the website is a little like a sports team. You might have negative cash flow for a number of years and then it has huge value down the road. With our website, while we might not make any money for a number of years, if we can get the traffic up to a certain point, it'll have huge value. It can be a very important asset."