NET.COLUMNS: An Internet Strategy for Small Businesses
The Internet is not just a luxury or an entertainment medium, it is a
business necessity, and more so, for small businesses. Bigger
organisations have many alternate ways of reaching out internationally
(trade shows, liaison offices, international trips,
tie-ups/collaborations), but for small businesses looking to grow and
expand, there aren’t too many choices. With limited resources and
pressures on time, small businesses are not just competing with their
bigger brothers locally but also with international
organisations. Today, as barriers between countries come down,
geography is increasingly irrelevant in doing business. In this
environment, the Internet offers an excellent medium for both
communications and commerce.
In this three-part series, we examine how small businesses in India
can successfully leverage the Internet for:
- Information Access
- Electronic Commerce
The Humble Email: More than meets the Eye
Electronic Mail is the third major revolution in communications in the
last 20 years, following the fax machine and the revolution brought
about by the courier industry (overnight delivery). Email allows
near-instant communications with people anywhere: in that sense it is
just like a phone or fax. The differences lie in two areas: the cost
of communications (email, like the Net, is insensitive to distance
between the two endpoints) and the ability to multicast (send the same
message to multiple recipients, akin to a conference call).
One of the best things that VSNL has done in India is not charging
separately for email. Get an Internet account, and you are only paying
for connectivity, and not for sending or receiving emails
separately. Today’s email packages allow you to send complex documents
(MS-Word or MS-Excel files) as attachments via just
point-and-click. Most organisations internationally have email
access. So, by using the Net as the distributor, you can not only
dramatically cut down your communications costs, and also send
documents electronically much more rapidly. It will still be necessary
to use fax/courier where a hard copy is needed, of course, but that
will probably be only at the final stage.
Getting your own domain is a good idea. It gives your organisation a
unique identity. So, instead of being firstname.lastname@example.org. , you can have
an email id of the form rajesh@companyName.com or
rajesh@companyName.co.in. In the absence of UUCP/POP, you can use
email forwarding by the ISP to have email routed into your mailbox (on
VSNL, Sprint, aXcess or Wipro BT). This way, the email address is much
easier to remember — for you and for your business partners.
If email is going to be so important, then how do multiple people in
an organisation get access to email? This is where there are no easy
solutions in India. If you want all addresses within your company to
have a .com or a co.in ending, you need technologies like UUCP or
POP. UUCP ensures that if you have a mail server set-up in the
company, you can give personal mailboxes to everyone. This way, email
can be routed to the individual person — automatically. If you
already have ccMail or Exchange installed, then you need an SMTP
gateway with UUCP. POP accounts ensure that even if you are
travelling, your email box is accessible from anywhere. The TCP/IP
account of VSNL is one such example (combined with the roaming
facility). A POP account works with your domain. UUCP is not yet
offered by VSNL in India.
An alternate mechanism to get multiple mailboxes is to use the free
email services offered by organisations like
HotMail. You still need the Web
access (via the VSNL TCP/IP account) to connect to them, but you can
set-up additional mailboxes within minutes.
Email also offers you a good way to stay in touch. There are mailing
lists and newsletters which send you — “push” — regular updates on
different topics. For example, c|Net’s
News.com offers a daily update of
developments in the computer/Internet world. The message comes into
your mailbox, with links to the Web for more details.
How much will email access cost? VSNL’s charges are Rs 15,000 for 500
hours, a domain name costs USD 100 (service providers in India charge
about Rs 5,000 for a .com address, along with limited number of
So, the first step in leveraging the Net is to use email smartly: for
sending messages, for receiving updates, by having easy-to-remember
addresses and by ensuring that messages that come in are replied to
rapidly. Email is not just an alternate form of communications: it is
becoming the primary channel. For small businesses, it allows rapid
and cost-effective international communications.
The next step: finding people to communicate with. We will examine how
to get business and trade information, and organisations, via the Net
in next week’s column.
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