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Free online help for small business is big business

Jesse Berst, Editorial DirectorZDNet AnchorDeskCatering to the little guy is a hot market in Web services. There are buckets of free stuff for owners of small businesses.

Jesse Berst, Editorial Director
ZDNet AnchorDesk



Catering to the little guy is a hot market in Web services.

There are buckets of free stuff for owners of small businesses. Among them:

  • Web hosting
  • File storage
  • Promotional assistance
  • Email, voice mail and fax services

So what's the catch? These outfits butter their bread in a variety of ways, through advertising or service upgrades. Once you see the huge array of free services available, you can decide which ones make the trade-offs worth it. Here's a sampling:

FREE RETAIL STOREFRONTS
There are two basic flavors of companies offering to set you up with a free Web-based retail business:

  • Those that want you to sell their stuff
  • Those that help you sell your own stuff

Setting up an online store is truly just a few minutes away using services like Vstore or Affinia. Click for more.

Vstore supplies virtually everything in this deal, including the merchandise -- from electronics to crayons -- from a variety of suppliers. Your job is to market the site and collect the commissions on the sales.

Affinia lets you pick the products from Affinia’s list of online retailers, and your Web site funnels people through to the retailer sites where the sale is actually made. You make a commission off the sale. Often these just-add-water Web stores are theme bookstores directing surfers to Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. Big hitters in helping existing merchants set up online stores include:

Each will set up your store and supply the back-end technology, although some charge fees if you want to have the ability to accept credit cards.

FREE WEB SITE PROMOTION
All the free Web sites in the world won’t help you sell anything unless somebody knows about your Web site. Which is where sites like these come in handy:

Banner exchange: SmartAge.com's SmartClicks program, Exchange-it, bCentral and many other sites offer a free banner advertising exchange. Geocities has a banner exchange portal. Click for more.

Email list services: Sites such as eGroups, Microsoft's bCentral's ListBot and Topica offer free, ad-supported email publishing services. Click for more.

Free intranet services: WebEx.com, vJungle.com and hotOffice.com offer what amounts to free intranet services for businesses that have staff in far-flung places. vJungle also offers email, scheduling, accounting and file-sharing applications, plus free Web page creation. Click for more.

FREE FILE STORAGE

  • Driveway offers up to 100 MB of free online file storage
  • idrive goes a step further with unlimited free storage for Internet and MP3 files and 50 MB for your desktop files

FREE EMAIL, VOICEMAIL, FAX
Hotvoice is available in the U.S. and in 29 cities around the globe. Users can access a gateway number in foreign cities to avoid long-distance charges. The account’s owner can get access to either voice, email or fax from a page on the Internet. Lots of numbers involved, but it’s free.

Onebox.com offers a similar service and will give you one local phone number. Onebox also offers the ability to send voice email for those who have a microphone on their computer. (Disclosure: ZDNet has a financial stake in Onebox)

There are, of course, many more that I don't have space to mention here. But if you've used a free Web service that you liked, use the TalkBack button and tell us how it worked for you.