- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

Buying and selling for mom-and-pop shops has always been a hassle. But as Beltway Internet companies identify small businesses as a potential market, those once tedious tasks are becoming easier.

Carlos Menezes successfully ran his Lorton-based carpet and cleaning supplies equipment shop for more than five years. Then he learned about what the Internet can do for small businesses.

Representatives of EqualFooting.com, a Web company that links buyers and sellers of industrial equipment on line, arrived in January at his storefront. Mr. Menezes said in just six months his business has grown more than 30 percent.

"It's the first time I've ever sold something on line," he said. "They came to us with the offer … ever since then, we've been getting a lot of calls all the time."

On www.EqualFooting.com, sellers like Mr. Menezes can reach more people looking for carpet cleaning supplies. The additional business is significant, and it comes cheaply, since EqualFooting takes only a 5 percent commission for each transaction on its site.

When the Internet boom began in the mid 1990s, business-to-business companies targeted big corporations hoping to cash in on their deep pockets. Big companies were not hard to find, since most quickly established a presence on the World Wide Web.

Now the nation's more than 24 million small businesses, which were slow to catch on to the Internet, are now seen as the next great frontier for Web entrepreneurs.

"Certainly, small business is an area in e-commerce that is getting hotter and hotter, just because people are recognizing the opportunity and how perfect the Internet is for bringing power and information and resources to these traditionally underserved businesses," said Angie Kim, founder of EqualFooting.com.

The Sterling-based company started heavily marketing in late February, and now has about 30,000 registered small businesses across the country.

"There are more and more small businesses that are trying to focus on their core expertise in order to grow," said Christine Goodno, spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Service Score Of Retired Executives (Score), a nonprofit group that mentors small business.

"So a number of business-to-business Web sites have evolved … offering everything from payroll services to Web hosting and development, to the sale of automobile supplies and office furniture," she added.

In 1998, 1 million small businesses used the Internet for business-related matters. In 1999, another million created their own Web sites. By the end of this year, about 750,000 additional small businesses will get involved in electronic commerce, according to IDC Research, a technology oriented market research firm in Framingham, Mass.

Today 85 percent of all small businesses use computers in some way, said Raymond Boggs, vice president of small business and home office research for IDC.

"That is outrageous and unbelievable. And it's really a competitive thing," he added. "You need a home page to touch people at odd hours, so you have to step up to some form of Internet access. Even my little movie house down the street has a Web site."

In response to small businesses' increasing interest in the Internet, business associations, and even the Small Business Administration, have started discussion panels and conferences where technology companies and small businesses can meet.

Ms. Kim says she goes to one almost every week. "It seems like every week there is something going on in small business e-commerce," she said.

Michael Orsinger, vice president of MV Enterprises Inc., a general contractor business in Purcellville, Va., realized early on the potential of the Internet. He often uses it for product research, tracking down different equipment and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors.

He registered his business with EqualFooting less than two months ago.

"Now I don't have to go to the Yellow Pages," he said. "It's like a third hand" in the business.

A variety of emerging tech companies are now focusing on the needs of small businesses. Second Century Communications, a 2-year-old company that recently moved its headquarters to Arlington from Tampa, Fla., provides bundled communications phone and Internet services to small to medium-size companies.

"Because the large businesses have a telecommunications infrastructure, they can do this for themselves," said John Prisco, chief executive officer of Second Century. "Small to medium-size companies don't have the capital to do this for themselves, so often they end up doing without."

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