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Wielding Virtual Tools

“Wielding Virtual Tools”

Using the Web to find — and capture — vital information you need to run your company

"Knowing how to use online tools is as important as knowing which ones to turn to," says Rich Williams, a FastTrac facilitator at the University of South Florida’s Small Business Development Center. Below, Williams highlights a few of his top picks, along with some tips for using them more effectively.

ABCs of Jargon Busting. Acronym Finder can decipher the alphabet soup of abbreviations that proliferate in various industries. Even better, the site allows you to refine search results, which is important when an acronym has more than one meaning. When multiple meanings exist, your initial search will list the most common term first. Yet by clicking on six different categories (information technology, military and government, science and medicine, organizations and schools, business and finance, and slang and chat), Acronym Finder shows you which meaning is most relevant in that arena. For example, RRR typically refers to "reading,’riting,’rithmetic." But click on the business-and-finance button and "real rate of return" appears first.

Legal Eagles. TannedFeet.com provides a number of free tools for entrepreneurs, but Williams loves its legal-forms section. Some 100 legal forms reside here, ranging from articles of incorporation to assignment of intellectual property rights. Because these are generic documents, they’re no substitute for a lawyer, but they can help you understand the legal process — and make the most efficient use of your time with lawyers.

Mapping Your Market. SuperPages.com, Verizon’s Yellow Pages, makes it easy to see where your customers — and your competition — are located. Are you a restaurateur who wants to open a new eatery? Click on "map-based searches" and enter the name of your target city. A map will appear, along with a box that enables you to search different business categories and plot the results on the map. Search results also display contact information, such as phone number, address and Web site. Besides researching the competition, you can also use this tool to find prospective customers. What’s more, the mapping function will create an efficient driving route for you.

When YOU Want Uncle Sam. Think you want to work with the government? Check out FedBizOpps. The granddaddy of government-contracting Web sites, FedBizOpps is a single point-of-entry for contracts of $25,000 or more.

Clicking on "Find business opportunities" takes you to a search engine for reviewing both active and archived documents. Refine your search by specifying a particular agency or code (procurement classification, NAICS or set-aside code).

For contractor wannabes, this site is great for learning the lingo and how the solicitation process works. You can monitor opportunities and even fill out online applications. Surfing the listings helps you understand the government-solicitation process, see if there’s demand for your products or services and learn how to communicate with people.

Starting Place for Startups. Last but not least, Williams is partial to "Entrepreneur’s Toolkit" on his organization’s Web site. Although tailored for Florida entrepreneurs, it offers some universal tools.

By clicking on "startup checklist," you can link to an SBA wizard to determine which legal structure is best for your company — sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation or LLC.

Writer: T.J. Becker