Dig into data with your browser

It's cheap, easy and flexible. A new ASP service that allows you to manage your business information through just your browser.

Small businesses aren't that different from those on the Fortune 500 list. Sure, they may be puny, but they prosper and wither by the same rules as any other enterprise. And for my money, Rule #1 is: information makes the business.

Traditionally, small businesses handle information a lot less efficiently than their larger brethren. They don't have the resources (software, programming expertise, money) to create, organize, manipulate, maintain, and utilize big chunks of information. Most of the small businesses I know do the info dance with make-do software like a puny contact manager, a spreadsheet, or even a list typed into Microsoft Word. That's if they even use a computer.

Processing information really requires a database, and databases are notoriously tough to crack for the uninitiated. Microsoft Access? Forget it -- unless you pull in a programmer, it's beyond the ken of even tech-savvy small business owners. FileMaker Pro? It may be a lot easier to handle, but it costs $200+ per seat.

These are some of the reasons why I'm taken with a new online alternative:. QuickBase, Intuit's ASP-style database. It works on the Web, running off Intuit's servers and delivering your data to any browser. I've been skeptical of ASPs for a lot of reasons, including security and speed. But from where I sit, QuickBase is such a great idea that it's made an ASP believer out of me, because it's cheap, easy, and flexible. Read on to find out the specifics. It's cheap

Nothing makes a small business owner's heart beat faster than a good deal. QuickBase fits the profile -- although it's not free for everyone, it won't bust many businesses' budgets.

QuickBase is free to all who use or view the databases, so you're not paying a per-seat fee for employees or customers who access your information. It's also free if you want to create three or fewer databases. After that, QuickBase's fees run $14.95 monthly for up to 15 databases (the basic plan) or $49.95 for 16 to 50 databases (the premium plan). Most small businesses should be able to squeeze in under the 15-database limit for the lower price. You also get a free 90-day trial period of the basic plan before you lay down any money, so you have three months to work out the kinks before you pay a dime.

Almost as important as the out-of-pocket expense is the low cost of implementing QuickBase. All that you need to access QuickBase data is a computer, browser, and an Internet connection. There are no servers to buy and set up, no programmers to hire or contract with. Your capital expenses and management overhead should be zero.

I admit it: I can't stand databases. I know my way around more software genres than a sailor has seen red-light districts, but I've always been leery of databases. They're just too hard to set up.

Not so with the Web-based QuickBase. This database stresses ease of use, and backs it up with more than 20 ready-to-use templates for such applications as a contact manager, call logs, event and project planning, and asset tracking. You can import data from an existing database on your drive, or copy information from Word tables or Excel spreadsheets, then monkey with the sample fields until the database is to your taste. I had three databases, including my 1,800 record contact list, up and running within half an hour.

Ease of use is as evident for users as for database owners. Since QuickBase is browser- based, there's virtually no learning curve for employees, or even customers, should you open your data to them. Browser-standard navigation - hit the Back button in your browser and you see the previously viewed page - organizational tabs, and links in lieu of menus make operation a breeze. It's flexible

While the one-two punch of cheap and easy may be enough to make your database day, I like QuickBase mostly because it's flexible. The whole Web angle makes QuickBase accessible to anyone in the company, from anywhere, a boon to businesses with spread-out employees (such as salespeople in the field) or those who want to give vendors and customers access to information.

You can share any QuickBase database, determine who has access, and to what degree. Some users can get total control, while others have only viewing privileges.

I'm really gung-ho on the idea of using QuickBase to share information with important customers, prime suppliers, and crucial outside consultants. Rather than try to create an extranet - with all the expense that that entails - you can put data up on QuickBase, where everyone can view, print, and use it. That's instant collaboration. (For tips on building a small-business intranet, check out my Jan. 31, 2000 column, "10 tips for your trial intranet.")

QuickBase doesn't cost a bundle, it's within your technical reach, and it leverages the collaborative traits of the Internet so your data are available to anyone in the company, or even select outsiders. I think you need to give it a whirl.