The free stay-wired toolkit

Keeping in contact with the outside world at an affordable cost is the way to go.

No one said being in business was easy. But it doesn't have to cost a fortune.

For home-based and small businesses, staying wired to the outside world is a crucial part of any make-money strategy. Without a way to communicate, you might as well be standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign that reads "Need money to pay employees. Bless you."

Keeping on top of communications doesn't have to mean opening up your checkbook and writing down a bunch of zeros. Instead, take a spin through my SOHO toolkit of free services and software for the wired entrepreneur.

First on the agenda? Get online, even when your ISP makes like Woody Allen in a WWF ring, and goes down for a long count.

Be ready with a backup ISP

I wouldn't entrust my business to a free Internet access service even if you forced me to watch "Big Brother." Free ISPs are slow - 56Kbps is the best you'll get - they're packed with irksome ads, and they carry the stink of "cheap," not a characteristic I want my clients to smell. But I've still signed up with a couple. What gives?

Free Internet services should be considered for emergency use only, the ISP equivalent of "Break Glass in Case of Fire." When my paid ISP is down and out, but I still need a way to get on the Web, send files, or trade e-mail, I'm glad I have a backup already installed.

Which free ISP is the best? I don't know, and frankly, after the recent death of freewwweb.com, which didn't splash ads on my screen, I don't care. I use them so infrequently that my criteria starts and stops with a local access number. At the moment I have NetZero and FreeInternet.com installed on my PC, but with consolidation running rampant in the free ISP market, that could change within weeks or months.

Okay, you've covered your bases, and can get online no matter what. Your next step is to beef up your e-mail efficiency. After all, e-mail's the number one reason you're online to begin with, right?

Boost your e-mail efficiency

E-mail's the number one business application of the Internet. Has been for years, will be for just as long. After the phone, it's the most important tool your home-based or small business owns.

There are scads of services and software packages that help you stay wired via e-mail, but I have two to recommend.

Eudora 5.0. I once relied on Eudora, but tossed it aside when other, less cumbersome clients like Outlook and Outlook Express came down the pike. I think it's time I - and you - took a second look. Eudora 5.0, which is still in beta, automates two crucial e-mail chores: organizing messages and transferring files. Its Eudora Sharing Protocol (ESP) lets you set up groups of e-mail correspondents, then automatically collects all messages from each group and stores them in its own folder, eliminating the need to manually create filters to complete the task. Better yet, any files placed in a special folder on your drive is automatically sent to each person in the group. That's a slick way for everyone working on a project to stay in sync.

Yahoo Mail. I don't like to shoulder a portable PC for every trip. When I know that I'll find a Web-connected computer at my destination, I set up Yahoo Mail, one of the many free e-mail services, to trap my regular mail account and forward its mail to my Yahoo account.

Staying connected means more than the Web and e-mail. Your business probably relies on faxes to conduct commerce, too. But you don't need a fax machine and separate line anymore.

Bag your stand-alone fax machine

I've ditched my fax machine and recovered its phone line for voice calls as my reward. I still use the machine for the occasional outbound fax - when I need it, I plug it into a line - but JFax, a free fax service, now handles all my incoming faxes. JFax gave me a number, which I pass along to clients who want to fax me. The service then turns the received documents into file attachments and e-mails them to me. I can either read them on the screen or print them out on plain paper through my laser printer.

I can get away with JFax because I don't do any business locally, so it's not an issue that the number my clients fax is long distance.

But when a fax is overkill, I turn to another free stay-wired outlet: instant messaging software. Read on for my pick.

Blast messages instantly

For fast action messages that I don't want to get buried in an in-box, or that don't deserve a phone call, I use an instant messenger to connect to colleagues and some of my clients. (For more about how an instant messenger can help your small biz, check out my March 20, 2000 column.)

I use America Online Instant Messenger (AIM) most of the time, even though I know it's nowhere near as powerful and flexible as ICQ. But I found that I rarely used ICQ's upper-end features, and the fact of the matter is that more people use AIM than any other instant messenger, so it's more likely my contacts have it installed and running.

As an alternate - until instant messaging settles on a standard, multiple IMs are inevitable, and necessary - I've been trying out MSN Messenger Service. Its best feature: you can invite others to a NetMeeting collaborative session with just a click.

I may do all my business inside the good ol' U S of A, but your business may have more ambition. Click to the next section, where I showcase a free service that can help you dramatically cut your overseas long-distance bill without resorting to static-filled Internet phones.

Bring down foreign phone bills

Like a lot of sole proprietors and small business owners, I'm wedded to the phone. The quality of my connection and my phone number are paramount properties of my business. That's why I don't bother with Web phones: I don't want my clients to listen to static and jumbled conversations.

But if your small business does any business overseas, you know that you stare at a big-time phone bill at the end of each month. You may be able to trim that bill with HotVoice, a free all-in one voice mail/e-mail/fax service with local numbers in 45 countries and 62 cities. U.S. users can access their in-box and send messages to foreign customers via a toll-free number as long as those customers also sign up with HotVoice.