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Internet Businesses Worth A Second Look

Summary: While the news media highlight the Internet's recent failures, online business continues to grow, providing opportunities for visually impaired entrepreneurs. Here are some bona fide Internet-related businesses that "level the playing field."

Author:  Nan Hawthorne



The Internet: Is the Party Over?


A Level Playing Field

An Internet Business-Idea Buffet


Where to Get Ideas, Leads and Help




The Internet: Is the Party Over?


After listening to some of the journalists talk about
the future of the Internet, you'd think it was like
the hula hoop, a clever fad with a dying following.
This could not be further from the truth, and blind
and visually impaired entrepreneurs are ideally
positioned to prove the skeptics are wrong in their
assessments.

Why do they predict doom for the Internet industry?
Media watcher James Tedford of Radioenthusiast.com
cites the preponderance of baby boomers in journalism.
He points out that boomers, compared with those under
30 and over 60, tend to distrust technology. They
regard it as cold and unfriendly.

But, specifically, he attributes the news media's
skepticism about the Internet to the fear baby boomers
have about becoming obsolete themselves. "They see the
Internet as a threat to their traditional role as
gatekeepers of news and information. Who needs Dan
Rather to tell you the official Chinese reaction to
the recent spy plane incident when you can go to the
Xinhua Press web site and read it yourself? A news
editor's judgment about what is and isn't newsworthy
is irrelevant when you can tailor your news reading
and watching to what you are specifically interested
in."

Look at the statistical reports published by the
Computer Industry Almanac. The growth of the Internet
as a consumer service is obvious. The number of
personal computers worldwide nearly doubled from 160
million to just over 300 million from 1993 to 1996 and
then nearly doubled again by 2000. And, while the
United States may be losing ground (dropping from more
than half to about one third of the world's Internet
users in one year), it is only because other areas of
the world are catching up.

The advances made in Internet communications after
the invention of the Web have no doubt fueled this
growth. The computer is no longer just a glorified
typewriter or adding machine. The recent news stories
about relatives of captured U.S. airmen in China
receiving e-mails from them demonstrates that the
Internet has changed the very nature of communications
and information sharing. And Brent Schlender, writing
in Fortune Magazine's "Future of the Internet" issue,
claims, "We ain't seen nothing yet."

Anyone following industrial development can recognize
this pattern: Progress and improvement follow consumer
demand. Since the Internet is now used as a primary
tool for a wide variety of functions in every country
and for all generations, it's difficult to agree with
the news reporters who gloat over the Internet's
temporary setbacks.
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A Level Playing Field


Computers and the Internet may create an even greater
equality of access for entrepreneurs than for wage
earners. An employee's access may be stymied by a
mainframe-dummy terminal setup that won't allow screen
magnification, speech synthesis or Braille output. You
may have a foot-dragging boss who makes you do without
adaptive aids for weeks while still expecting you to
give it your all. Chances are that the small
businessperson will rely on her own choices for
access. There is cost for that but no more than that
of many other startups, and the entrepreneur can
ensure all her equipment is accessible.

Since the destination computer controls the format in
which it is received, the Internet is ideal for blind
and partially sighted people. No one has to supply
large print, Braille or recorded materials. No matter
how the e-mail is sent, it will appear on the
entrepreneur's monitor as accessible. Therefore, doing
business via the Internet presents exactly the same
access to information and communications for blind
people as it does for sighted.

One of the greatest barriers for those of us who have
a visual impairment in the business world is our
inability to provide our own transportation. That can
be a difficulty at best and an impossibility at worst.
But the Internet allows us to not only work from home
but also to receive most of the tools and supplies we
might need for a small business.

Finally, there is one more characteristic of doing
business via the Internet that helps level the playing
field for all entrepreneurs who have a
disability. "When dealing over the Internet, clients
do not see the individual involved and cannot form a
prejudice based upon a limitation," explains Dr.
Phyllis M. Olmstead, Academic Computing Specialist for
the Fischler Center for the Advancement of Education
at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. "You
cannot tell from corresponding with me whether I have
a disability. People approaching a business person
with shades, thick glasses or a cane may automatically
assume the person cannot perform the business duty as
fully as the person without those outward signs of a
disability. The Internet forms a 'shield' or cocoon to
preserve the anonymity or protect a person with a
limitation so that limitation doesn't discourage
business interactions. I deal regularly on the
Internet with people and have no idea about their
physical or mental conditions."

Olmstead concludes, "The Internet can play an
important part in allowing the blind and visually
impaired an equal chance at business opportunities
with those with normal vision."
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An Internet Business-Idea Buffet


Web site design and e-commerce may be among the most
well-known Internet enterprises, but they are by far
not the only possibilities. As the industry grows, the
list of potential businesses that follows will also
grow. I invite you to tell us about new businesses you
have found -- or started!

  • Audio and Broadcasting

The opportunities within Internet audio range
from programmers who develop and service audio
software to audio technicians who supply webcast
support for companies which hold broadcasting events
or meetings. The audio opportunities include Internet
radio stations, which probably hold the most risk in
terms of the potential for generating income. But,
like any other radio station, Internet radio can be
supported with advertising revenue. And the Internet
is virtually limitless in its appeal to people with
special areas of interest, such as cultures, hobbies
and industries. Add to these possibilities the
musicians and producers of music needed for corporate
web sites, and you have some of the many opportunities
for the audio side of the Internet.

  • Consulting and Training

Everyone from the government and business to the
non-profit sector wants to know how to get wired and
what to do with their Internet access and their web
presence once they're online. Again, this is such a
new industry that previous experience in the old
economy plus a positive and open attitude towards the
Internet (and the ability to transfer your skills to
the online world) can make you qualified to be a
consultant for clients who need your help. This
consulting and training can range from evaluating
network needs, recommending web marketing strategies,
teaching others to design sites and offering advise
about human resources for Internet startups to using
the Internet to consult or train on any topic.

Cathy Anne Murtha is well known for her work as a
teacher via the Internet. Herself blind, she teaches
other blind and disabled people as well as others
about how to use applications that relate to work and
the use of the Internet.

  • E-mail Providers and Internet Service
    Providers


Thanks to the development of web-based e-mail
applications, it is definitely possible to actually
provide e-mail accounts via your web site. You will be
competing with free e-mail, such as Yahoo! and Hotmail
services, but, if you can find a niche, you can
overcome this competitive disadvantage. You might
provide an interest-specific e-mail address, such as I-
love-cats.com, or secure anonymous accounts, a
business similar to Hushmail.com.

Becoming an Internet Service Provider may seem out of
reach, but Seattle entrepreneur Kaley Davis started up
Drizzle Internet, which is now a firm with a number of
employees and a very dedicated customer base. The
opportunities in smaller or more remote communities
are still to be exhausted.

I'll include another category of businesses under "e-
mail." While there are numerous free discussion group
services, such as Topica, some individuals and
companies prefer to have total control of their
majordomo, listserv or other such e-mail distribution
service. A local professional organization in Western
Washington elected to contract for e-mail announcement
distribution from a small company in Michigan called
North Star Technical Services. The group preferred to
pay for the service (instead of having its members
receive the free services' ads), and, as a result, it
gain quicker and more responsive customer service. As
people tire of dealing with free services, the
opportunities in this area may well increase!

  • Marketing and Advertising

Whether you are selling advertising on your own
site or selling ads for companies to other sites, you
can make money as an ad representative. Some experts
feel that advertising is a fizzling opportunity. But
that holds true primarily for general advertising. The
ads on web sites that work are very targeted.

If, for example, you sell advertising for polymer
clay art supplies, you can succeed by marketing them
to related club or craft sites. While Joe may not
click on the amazing credit card offer on MSNBC™, he
probably will click on the banner ad for a nifty new
polymer clay tool on Polymer Clay Central, a craft web
site.

You can also promote the sites themselves. One recent
Super Bowl had almost nothing but web site ads. We can
learn a couple of lessons from the fact that many of
these Internet companies have since folded. One is
that the future is probably not in portal sites that
try to be everything to everybody. The Internet is a
natural for vertical sites which cater to narrowly-
focused audiences. These sites have no need for TV or
any other broadcast medium. They do, however, need
niche-focused advertising, publicity and promotion --
both a online and in traditional media such as
specialized, print periodicals.

Throw in "branding" consultants who help clients take
a long view about to present the best "e-face" to the
world, and you have several opportunities!

  • Information Providers

Someone once said, "Before the Web, the guy
sitting next to you on the bus telling you everything
about railroads was a nut. Now he's an Internet
information provider." That is yet another beauty of
the Internet. Before the Web, if you had a specific
expertise (or even obsession), you had little or no
way to make it useful -- without convincing someone in
a publishing or broadcasting company it was a
moneymaker or financing the project yourself. Now
anyone with access to the Internet can make specialty
information useful. In fact, I saw an early effort by
a "railroad nut" online that was an attractive,
interesting, and useful site (and probably cost him
nothing to set up). It had history, schedules, travel
information and art.

Some behaviorists believe that the Internet's value
to those who make or seek this information online is
in group formation and identification. Perhaps it's
part of humanity's tendency to flock into small groups
with very narrow interests. True or not, or bad or
good, it remains a business opportunity. Whether you
are a movie buff, a gourmet fish chef, a fix-it
specialist, an ancient architecture expert or a UFO
enthusiast, you can draw others to your site. Whether
this is profitable is yet to be seen, but the web
site, e-Volunteerism.com, charges subscriptions for
access to its information about improving the
effectiveness of voluntary action --- and it's getting
subscriptions.

Subcategories of information providers are archivists
( who are paid to collect articles and other forms of
writing and catalog them), directory producers (who
set up sites such as phone books and bibliographies on
specific topics) and anthologists. One researcher
caters to Hollywood buffs and keeps track of whether
celebrities are still alive and, if not, how they
died. Still another lists the locations of celebrity
graves for tourists and other curious people.

Finally don't forget research. The Web was originally
designed to be useful for a very narrow group of
people on a very narrow topic: nuclear physicists and
physics. So it was not designed to be easy (and still
isn't) to search. But some of us are really good at
it, and others in the world need that skill (or the
results that skill produces).

Researchers might be good at Web searching and they
may use special research sites, but, whether they
stick to the Internet or combine it with other types
of research, they are paid for looking into anything
and everything. I know a woman who researched online
resources for a disabled children's program. Providing
clipping services, monitoring news stories,
identifying trends within specific fields, and doing
fact checking for journals are just a few other
research-type businesses.

  • Professionals and Artists

I mentioned musicians under "Audio and
Broadcasting," but let's not forget other
professionals and artists. Writers have found the
Internet is a treasure for freelancing and contract
work. They can find more "gigs" faster on web sites
dedicated to freelance work, such as Freelance.com. On
some of the clearinghouse sites, a writer can list her
experience and expertise, and the sites will cull
opportunities specifically according to those
criteria.

These writers, should they have no luck, can always
publish their own work. You may have heard about
author Stephen King publishing a short novel online
and using the honor system to ask readers to send him
what they thought the book was worth. He reported that
he made considerably more than he did through his
usual publisher. You might not be the celebrity that
Stephen King is, but then he is no Shakespeare,
either. Again, a niche audience for your work is a
plus.

The Web itself has spawned an entire new writing
form: Web journalism is distinct from print journalism
and is developing its own specific style, standards,
ethics and techniques. Those who can "write for Web"
will continue to be in demand.

Web publishing also needs those who specialize in Web
graphics, animation, audio and video. They need legal
advice, and that's sprouting an entire new industry of
attorneys who specialize in electronic communications
and copyright law. I'll address marketing below, but
remember web publishers need writers who can develop
content within various specialties, such sports,
fashion or travel.

  • e-Commerce

Here I'm referring to sites which include online
stores. Possibly the most famous web sites today was
one of the first e-commerce sites: Amazon.com, the
bookseller which has also become the seller of many
other products. The greatest challenges to Web-based
stores has been getting visibility and convincing
consumers that online sales are safe. Services like
Yahoo! Shopping and Catalog City help vendors get
visibility through a common search tool. Banner
exchange programs such as bCentral give general or
targeted exposure to stores. And word of mouth does
well for those with patience.

But having your own online store is not the only
opportunity in e-commerce. You can be a supplier to
other stores which have online catalogs. A woman who
produces and hand-dyes wool sells her products to a
knitting store on Yahoo! Shopping. You can be the e-
mall owner who rents space to vendors such as
CyberVPM.com's Volunteer Recognition Gift e-mall. You
can also create, supply or maintain e-commerce
software and hosting.

Finally you can collect customer information and
develop and maintain company databases, or you can
provide customer services for brick-and-mortar or
online stores -- an opportunity that may mushroom as
the Internet goes wireless and comparison shopping
with a Palm Pilot at home or in the mall becomes
common.

  • Programming

The Internet is another new outlet for
programming skills. For example, an application
service provider (ASP) is a company that offers
individuals or enterprises access over the Internet to
applications and related services which would
otherwise have to be located in their own personal or
enterprise computers. For example, eProject
provides "meeting" space and message centers in its
virtual office building.

You can also program applications specifically for
web sites. This service is different than what is
provided by ASPs, which use their web servers to host
the applications they offer. People who program for
web sites create a number of different products. Some
develop specialized databases. Others develop applets,
small applications that do what HTML coding cannot,
such as password protection, message boards and other
interactive features. And still others create image
maps, web graphics that allow the visitor to click on
links embedded in the graphic. Coffee Cup Software,
for example, sells the JavaScript applets and
applications that allow web sites to have web cams and
other special features.

Often these services require a team of different
technicians. Yet another Internet business opportunity
is brokering the services of other professionals,
being a talent scout or (like a movie producer)
putting together teams whose skills and experience
suit the project at hand. You could be the Jerry
McGuire of web applet stars!

  • Web Site Service, Last But Not Least

Having illustrated only a few of the multitude of
growing business opportunities created by the Internet
and its pioneers, I'll finally get around to web
services. You can host web sites. NonprofitSpace, for
instance, rents server space from a host company and
resells it with design and maintenance services to non-
profits and associations.

You can design, build and implement sites. You can be
the help desk or webmaster for a site -- which may
include the work of web site maintenance.

You can develop and maintain specially formatted
components such as forms, databases, polls, instant
messaging and chat areas.

You may do contract work for a web hosting company in
other capacities, such as marketing or customer
service. You can monitor message boards or other
interactive services for a site. You can train
company staff to use the web site you designed and
developed for them.
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Where to Get Ideas, Leads and Help


First, you need to know how to do the work you want
to do via the Internet. Take an inventory of what you
know and either work with that or decide what training
you might need. That wonderful Internet professional's
web site, Webmonkey.com, lists specific curricula to
help you discover what you need to learn. Those lists
are under the site's "Jobs" tab.

Then just explore the web to see what others are
doing to get ideas. Remember the Unique Selling
Proposition we explored in another article (see
Related Links). Once you know what potential
competitors are doing, you can create a business that
does it better or differently.

You might want to start with the Yahoo! Directory's
list of industry-specific Internet businesses. From
employment agencies to web site memorials, the
possibilities are really only limited by our
imaginations. While I was looking at this list, I
thought of yet another service -- a brainstorming
service that would help an entrepreneur get new ideas.
Then I soon discovered that someone has already
thought of that idea and has the service already set
up! Well, almost. They do everything but brainstorm
for you. Maybe you can fill that niche! Take a look at
the United Kingdom's Change your Life with
Brainstorming site in Related Links.

Join. There are literally hundreds of associations
and alliances of Internet businesspeople. Speaking on
Webmonkey Radio, entrepreneur Patricia McGillis
comments on the value of communities for
entrepreneurs: "Right now especially it's a really
great time to try being a freelancer because there are
so many people doing it that there really are
communities," he says. "There are mailing lists where
people compare ideas and talk about new opportunities.
E-mail them, show them your work right online."

And there are organizations that offer support and
advocacy for Internet businesses, such as CommerceNet
for online store owners and managers and WebGrrls,
which supports women in all aspects of Internet work
and business.

Networking in this context is a must. When you share
what you are doing with others, you get both a reality
check as well as practice in defending your ideas. You
meet people who may be looking for similar work and
who steer you to work more suited to your expertise.
You can get advice and ideas from others and a boost
when you're stuck. You can share your work and get
feedback. Every new person you meet in your field is a
potential path to new opportunities.

They say there is strength in numbers, and that
certainly works in Internet businesses. If you're a
freelancer doing illustration for children's books,
join the Illustrators Partnership. You'll have access
to other illustrators, to standards for work, to
intelligence on the publishing industry and more.
Nearly every kind of business online has a web site
for its practitioners.

Read. Find the publications and the discussion groups
for your area of interest and read everything you can
get your browser to load. The more you read the more
you'll learn not only about how to create your
business but also how to make it a success.

Then start working. Save the money. Get the tools.
Find the space. Make the product. Then don't just sit
back and wait. Get out there and tell people what you
do or have. Join expert sites like Guru.com and
Ask.com. Do some marketing. Prove yourself.

This article just skims the surface of the Internet's
potential for entrepreneurs. At 46, I started a
whole new career with contract Internet resource
development, content development, training, and web
hosting and design. If I can do it, so can you.
Welcome to the boundless universe of Internet
enterprise!
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