Web Tools for Starting a Small Business

More and more people own home-based businesses. And these days, Web-based services make it even easier than ever before to get your small business up and running. “It used to be, back then, that you would be embarrassed about working from home,” says Barbara Weltman, an attorney and author who started a business in her Millwood, N.Y., home in 1983 and has since written numerous books on small business, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting an eBay Business. “You took an outside address so it wouldn't sound like you were out in the suburbs. But that's not so anymore.”

Web-based tools can now help you start a business, get legal work done, professionalize your accounting and billing, and collaborate with others. If your home business still needs to get out of the dark ages -- or you want to get off on the right foot -- here is how Web resources can help you get organized:

Step 1: Research how to start your business.
If you're just launching your business, the Internet is a great place to start your research. For basic information and resources, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)  offers tips on setting up a business, getting financing and whether there are any government programs for which your business may qualify. In addition, the Business Owner's Toolkit helps you select a business, write a plan, get loans, market your work and more.

Step 2: Make sure your business is legal.
Most state government websites allow you to download the forms you need to incorporate or to form a limited liability company (LLC). You can always hire a lawyer to help, but a lot of do-it-yourself resources online make such paperwork easy to navigate. BizFilings or Legal Zoom feature resources you can use to make your own legal decisions -- such as whether you should file for an LLC versus other types of corporations like a C Corp.

For tax liability issues, Weltman recommends turning to government tax websites, such as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and state tax departments, to research any obligations that you may have to meet. You can download the tax booklets you need and place an online order for a federal employer identification number or state sales tax number.

“You also have to be aware that if you have any employees, including yourself, and you incorporate, there may be labor rules you need to know about,” adds Weltman. She recommends federal and state labor department websites to research labor laws.

Step 3: Get cloud-based finance and accounting services.
Many home businesses rely on popular accounting desktop software, such as QuickBooks from Intuit. But QuickBooks now has a cloud-based subscription offering, which means that all your business financials can be maintained online. So if your computer gets stolen or crashes -- or you’re on the road -- you can still access and download your records from any online computer. And so can your bookkeeper or accountant.

One free product that Weltman recommends is MyBizHomepage which extracts information from your QuickBooks software and displays it on your computer screen in an easy-to-understand “financial dashboard” graphic. “It lets you follow -- for free -- all your cash flow, so you know when things are going to be collected and when things are owed,” says Weltman.

Outright.com is another free online accounting service for light accounting needs, such as tracking income expenses and tax obligations. Bill.com costs $25 per month for one user and automates many aspects of small-business accounting.

Step 4: Stay organized.
One of the drawbacks to running a business from home has traditionally been the difficulty of staying on the same page with others. But not anymore. You can get organized with a bevy of cloud-based tools. For starters, you may already be using an online calendar tool, such as Google Calendar, which you can share with clients or business partners to schedule meetings.

iGoogle is free too and lets you bring all your tools together in once spot including Google Tasks or apps you select like SmartSheet, which offers template spreadsheets you can use to manage and share projects online. Or you can manage projects, contacts and documents with a cloud-based tool like the $99-a-month suite from Highrise -- which you can also access from your mobile device. And if you need a truly “virtual assistant,” Onebox manages your calls, faxes and conferencing entirely online for between $49.95 and $99.95 a month, depending on how many extensions you need.

Can You Trust an Online Review?

It used to be the job of print, radio and TV journalists to review everything from restaurants to movies, products and customer service. But nowadays, anybody with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet can write a review.

That’s partly a good thing: The idea is that the democratic nature of consumer-generated online reviews will lead to more truthful, accurate information. But the reality is that online review sites are often filled with impostor reviews from owners who want their products to succeed -- or from competitors who want them to fail.

For example, the popular review site Yelp.com has been sued for allegedly extorting businesses with poor reviews -- allegations the company denies. Travel site TripAdvisor has reportedly been accused by a group of 420 hoteliers of failing to guard against fake online reviews and has since begun flagging suspicious reviews. But there probably isn’t a single review site out there that isn’t targeted by people trying to game the system.

So how do you differentiate between a suspicious online review and a review you can trust? Start with these guidelines:

Online Review Tip No. 1: Look for real names.
If a website encourages reviewers to post under their real names, its reviews are more likely to be the real deal. Amazon’s “real name” system uses the credit card that you have on file to determine your real name and then lets you choose some variation -- John Smith, J. Smith, J.S., etc. -- under which to post a review. A “real name” review is weighted more heavily than an anonymous review, but you can bet there are still plenty of impostors who post anonymously.

Online Review Tip No. 2: Look for real photos.

In the same vein, when reading an online review, look for accompanying photos connected to the reviewer’s profile. “If it’s a company that’s doing the reviewing, a lot of times they don’t take the time to put up a photo,” says Elysa Rice, a social media expert who blogs at GenPink.com.

Online Review Tip No. 3: Find other reviews by the same person.

If a review is attributed to a username, check whether the reviewer has written other reviews on the site. If you find numerous reviews, it’s less likely that the reviewer is a company pretending to be a consumer. Says Rice: “If there’s a person who has reviewed 50 other things, then I would take their opinion over someone who has reviewed just one.”

Online Review Tip No. 4: Expect a few low-rated reviews.

If every review glows, be suspicious. Even the best-rated restaurants occasionally overcook a steak or make people wait too long.

Online Review Tip No. 5: Read beyond the stars.

Consider why someone gave a poor rating. Recently, a critically acclaimed book received a huge quantity of one-star ratings on Amazon because it wasn’t available as a Kindle e-book. Although that had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, those reviews contributed to a misleading overall rating of the book. But you wouldn’t realize that without reading the one-star rants.

Online Review Tip No. 6: Use your sixth sense.

If something seems off, be suspicious. For example, people who have an agenda tend to talk in hyperbole. So if a few outliers call a spa “the most amazing experience ever!” or “a fantasy come true!” you’d be wise to ignore them. “There’s content that just sounds robotic as opposed to the way humans would talk,” says Rice, and that’s the stuff you should write off.

Online Review Tip No. 7: Stay skeptical.

No review site can guarantee legitimacy, so take what you read with a grain of salt. Go with your gut.

Finally, once you find your favorite review sites, check if they offer an app you can load on your smartphone. And as with anything good, give back. Get in the mix and write an online review or two of your own: You’ll be making the system a little more honest.

Holiday Party Planning in a Snap

For her annual holiday cookie exchange, Kimberly Notarianni loves to use the Web to streamline her planning. She signs on to Evite  to send her invitations and keep track of RSVPs, and she even sets it up to automatically generate thank-you notes after the gathering ends. "It makes everything so easy," says Notarianni, the mother of two from Fairfax, Va. "Every time someone responds, I get a notification in email. On the day before the party, the site will email a reminder to everyone. And when the party is over, I can upload pictures and send them with the thank you notes."

Party planning is even easier now, thanks to the cloud (the current Internet trend that offers Web-based services for your PC or mobile devices), which has gone way beyond the convenience of Evites. Check out these online resources to make every step of your own holiday party planning a snap:

    1.    Picking a Theme
    For your holiday get-together, first search theme ideas on the Web. "You could do 'fantasy and frost' with all snow and ice decorations," says Phyllis Cambria, who blogs about party planning and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Throwing a Great Party. "You can also do a wooden soldier theme from Babes in Toyland."

    Sites like Ehow also post videos that show you how to plan a holiday party for the office or your home. Or try Punchbowl, which offers tools for every phase of party planning. Various mobile device apps can also help you plan and manage your get-together, like Party Planner for the iPhone.

    2.    Inviting Your Friends
    The popular Evite has an assortment of holiday invitation designs you can send via its website or your mobile device. Competitors like Pingg offer artist-designed invites and allow you to connect them to your Facebook or Twitter account. Other services like Anyvite let you manage your invites on the go with your mobile device. Or just throw out the dated notion of invites altogether and simply create an Event via your Facebook profile and invite all your friends or only a few.

    3.    Making the Menu
    Whether you want to make prime rib with Yorkshire pudding or baked country ham and oyster pie, Epicurious and its mobile app offer holiday party menus for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Simple Soiree is a fun app that helps you plan your theme and menu, and send your invites using your iPhone or iTouch.

    You can also use the Web grocery store -- or make your list and check it twice. Big brands like Safeway and Bevmo deliver to Web shoppers, as do online-only outifts like Netgrocer And there are apps that will help you avoid getting in your car and waiting in long lines too. Check out MyWebGrocer to find grocery stores in your area that you can order from. If you want to peruse the quality of ingredients in person, then use your mobile device to search for an application like GroceryIQ, which lets you make a Web-based shopping list you can access from any online device or share your list with your party co-planners.

    4.    Decorating
    If you’re running out of steam, order your decorations online too using a site like Party411, iParty  or PartyCity, which carry everything from gold and silver foil bells to Santa costumes to holiday-themed party packs of matching plates, napkins and cups. Or just search the Web for "party supplies" to get started.

    5.    Playing Music
    You can customize the playlist for your fete through iTunes, where you can purchase “Jingle Bell Rock” by every artist from The Chipmunks to the Rat Pack. On the other hand, you can stream music or create a holiday music channel through a Web radio service like Pandora or Jango. You can stream the tunes through your PC or mobile device and blast it through your surround sound or home speakers. (Check our Pandora’s partner page for ideas.)

When planning a holiday party online, using the cloud will make your life so much simpler. "There is so much information out there," says party planner Cambria. "You start wondering how you ever planned a party without the Internet!"

6 Essential Rules for Safe Online Shopping

A few summers ago, Christie Cambio of Rochester, N.Y., looked for ways to keep costs down on a trip she and her husband were planning to Walt Disney World. When she logged onto eBay and saw that someone was selling discounted Park Hopper passes -- tickets that allow unlimited access to all of Disney's parks -- for about $300 less than full price, she immediately placed a bid. "I never for a minute thought that it was a bad idea," she recalls.

She won the passes, and when the tickets arrived in their official-looking package, complete with the Disney logo, she assumed she had successfully saved money. But the story changed when they got to Florida and tried to use them: "I put my card into the turnstile, and a big red X appeared," says Cambio. "That's when we were like, 'Uh-oh.'"

"Uh-oh" is right: The Cambios were the victims of an online con artist who had knowingly sold them stolen merchandise. Luckily the Cambios weren't held responsible by the theme park, but they learned a lesson: Whether you're buying or selling via websites such as eBay or Craigslist, scams like this can happen if you're not careful. Here are the top online safety tips you need to be aware of to avoid getting duped.

Online Safety Tip No. 1: Guard your personal information.
Even if you're selling an item, you can be scammed too. "If you get an email asking for your full name, address, phone number or anything financial, it's a scam," says Aliza Sherman-Risdahl, who’s written several popular social media books, including Streetwise eCommerce. Sherman-Risdahl speaks from personal experience too: When she posted a hot tub for sale on Craigslist, a potential buyer emailed her requesting personal details. She declined and the sale was off. "No trustworthy merchant or buyer will ask for confidential information through email," she says.

Online Safety Tip No. 2: Know your buyer, and sell locally.
If you're selling an item on a classifieds site and have an interested buyer, check that their name, address and phone number are valid. (A basic search on White Pages or Switchboard is a good way to do this.) If possible, try to deal with local buyers so you can perform the exchange in person -- and leave with the cash in your hands, not theirs.

Online Safety Tip No. 3: Don’t agree to unusual payment deals.
Here's one popular con that is often used in situations where people sell their own goods: A buyer writes you a fake cashier's check for an amount well over your asking price. Next, the buyer claims he made a mistake and asks you to refund him the difference through an online payment service, such as PayPal. Being the nice person you are, you agree … only to later find out that the so-called cashier's check bounced, leaving you out a significant chunk of money for the "refund" plus the item you already "sold" to the con artist.

The bottom line: If a buyer doesn’t give you payment for the correct amount, don't release the merchandise.

Online Safety Tip No. 4: Scrutinize the online payment service.
Before using an online payment service, such as PayPal or Escrow, read their terms of agreement carefully. You want to find out if the company offers any recourse for buyers and sellers who end up involved in transactions that go sour. Also, examine websites with a critical eye: Be wary of poorly designed sites that have spelling errors or claim to be affiliated with the government.

Online Safety Tip No. 5: Always pay by credit card.

For extra security, only pay with a credit card that comes with a "chargeback" feature. This virtually guarantees that your money will be refunded. That was how Cambio finally got her money back. On the other hand, never use your bank debit card to pay for an item you purchase online because doing this means you are essentially paying with cash. "Debit cards tap into your actual bank account," says Sherman-Risdahl. "You'll have little protection if the money is stolen."

Online Safety Tip No. 6: Do fight back if you’ve been scammed.
If you think you may have been the victim of an online auction or classifieds scam, or suspect that an item posted on an online auction site may be fraudulent, report it. On eBay, file a complaint at the Security Center. On Craigslist, go to Help to report abuse or scams. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The faster you act, the better your chances of recovering your loss. While the Cambios have vowed to swear off online auction sites for good, the temptation remains. "My husband was on eBay the other day and saw tickets to a football game he really wants to go to," she says. But if you play it smart, you don't have to avoid online classifieds and auction sites altogether -- just be cautious and keep your guard up.