BY WILLIAM AND PATTI FELDMAN
THE WEB IS POTENTIALLY a great equalizer for marketing a small company and interacting with business contacts. More and more prospective clients or customers are likely to look at a company's Website before placing a phone call. And almost two-thirds of all micro-businesses in the United States with fewer than 10 employees have high-speed connectivity, making it easy for them to do so. Are you there?
For many small contractors, the biggest hurdle to benefiting from all that a business Website can offer is getting started. The process of getting a domain name, building a Website and populating it with enticing company information can, indeed, be daunting.
Enter Microsoft Office Live, a beta (test-stage) online solution that is currently available free for the sign-up. Aimed at small businesses with fewer than 10 employees that do not yet have a presence on the Web and that don't have the skills or staff to host a Website, Microsoft Office Live (www.officelive.com) offers subscribers an opportunity to establish a professional-looking Website and run with it.
The first benefit of signing up for Microsoft Office Live is assistance in getting a domain name for your business. Microsoft even assumes the cost of domain registration.
From the core component Member Center (from which all primary services are accessible) new users type in the desired name and, if it is available, it's yours for free as long as you stay with the service. If you leave Microsoft Office Live for another hosting service, you will need to pay the annual domain name registration fee at the time of renewal. There are no set-up fees.
Microsoft Office Live's Site Designer provides Website design tools, including templates (and a construction-themed Website template with stock photography), layouts, color schemes and header images, that enable users to get a site up quickly, without having to learn Web design basics or a new language to do so.
Web content can include text, project photos, documents, testimonials, FAQs, employee bios, company calendar and a clear way to "contact us" on every page. The tools help make site-wide design alterations to every page at once, though you can also customize any single page.
Early on, you can also set up e-mail accounts with personalized e-mail addresses that match the business domain name. Up to five free accounts are available with the "Basic" service and up to 50 accounts (free only during the beta period) are available with the "Essentials" service.
With either service, you get 2 GB of storage with each account, enough gigabytes to send large documents or images to clients. The Essentials version allows users to access e-mail from either Outlook or Outlook Express in addition to the defaulted Web-based e-mail.
Microsoft Office Live users are automatically set up to become part of the Windows Live instant messaging community, enabling instant communication with employees, customers and other Windows Live messaging communities. Other core components of Microsoft Office Live Essentials (but not available in Office Live Basics) are Business Applications and Shared Sites.
The 20-plus business applications consist of five sets of online tools:
- Customers, which is composed of the Contact Manager and Customer Support applets;
- Projects, from which you can create, track and view projects, tasks, issues and milestones;
- Sales, for storing and sharing documents and tracking sales and marketing campaigns;
- Employees, which can serve as a central online repository of employee data; and
- Company Applications, which includes a group calendar, to-do lists and a general company document library.
In addition, Today Dashboard provides two different views to all business applications; Company View opens to all logged-in users with appropriate permissions; and My View can be customized by the boss to his individual preferences.
Shared Sites are distinct online work spaces that can be set up to share collaboration and information about projects, clients, employees or general company data. They are, in effect, stand-alone, password-protected intranet and extranet sites accessible to invitees only.
The stored data in each shared site is separate from other shared sites and is not shared with Office Live business applications. Office Live Essentials comes with a total of 50-MB private workspace for storing and sharing information online, with additional storage available for a fee. The pre-built shared sites in the beta version are Customer, Human Resources, Vendor and Microsoft Small Business Accounting Sharing Workspaces.
In Customer Workspace, you can set up a separate customer site for each active client to share project details, timelines, documents and other data, and track projects, tasks, issues and milestones within each. Likewise, in Vendor Workspace, you can establish distinct sites for each active vendor to share and track project details.
Microsoft Office Live Essentials also includes tools that enable monitoring of your Website traffic.
During the beta period, either service is free (and ad-supported). After the beta period, the "basic" service will remain ad-supported and free. Subscribers of Office Live Essentials will pay a fee, currently planned to start at about $29.95 a month. Beta-users of the Office Live Essentials service can convert to the free Basics service.
Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected]