By Monte Enbysk

Monte Enbysk is a lead editor for the Microsoft.com network and writes occasionally about technology for small businesses.

How a private Web site could help your business

Many small-business owners might see the word “extranet” and click to another Web site, or decide it’s time for another jolt of coffee. Or go fetch a dictionary, where you likely won’t find a definition.

In other words, the idea of a private company Web site, open to selected outsiders, is a relatively new one for small business. But here is why you should become familiar with it.

Say you run an advertising agency, and need to communicate constantly with your clients to hammer out the right creative strategy or the appropriate graphics. Or you are an architect working with builders and contractors on drawings for a new commercial building. Or your customers are heavily involved in the development of your product. These are just a few examples of where an extranet could save you time and money, and make your business considerably more efficient.

An extranet is an Internet site restricted to the external audiences that a company chooses ‚Äö?Ñ?Æ for sharing announcements, calendar and contact information, pictures, drawings, files and documents, and so on. Managed internally, it can bring partners, vendors, project team members and core customers together on product strategy or project management. (Similarly, an “intranet” is a Web site accessible only to employees and managers within a company.)

An extranet’s access privileges might be restricted to a few outside partners, a project team that spans more than a dozen businesses, or to hundreds of customers worldwide. In fact, one extranet could have several “sub-Web sites,” each serving a different combination of groups.

Creating such a site is no longer a high-tech task ‚Äö?Ñ?Æ companies are now offering solutions that make it easy for novices to build extranets and set preferences for information and access privileges.

Why you should check it out

As a small-business owner, you ask, isn’t an extranet way too fancy and way too expensive for your needs?

If you sell directly to consumers, and have little need for information sharing or collaboration en route to preparing your product or service for sale, you probably don’t have any use for an extranet.

On the other hand, if you sell to larger businesses, work in project teams, or collaborate with partners, vendors or suppliers, you owe it to yourself to check out purchasing an extranet solution. Here’s why:

An extranet can streamline communication otherwise done by telephone, fax and e-mail, greatly reducing the cost of sharing information across project and work teams.

As a single, central hub for large numbers of people, an extranet can significantly reduce the lines of communications between different parties, including major customers, increasing productivity and saving time.

  • An extranet can serve as a central record between collaborating parties, reducing errors in communication and decreasing the risk of costly lawsuits.
  • An extranet can be equipped with Web cameras and multimedia devices, to keep everyone up to speed on, say, the most current status of a construction project.
  • An extranet is increasingly considered a vital tool for B2B companies ramping up their e-business infrastructures. In fact, if you have large business customers, they may soon expect you to have an extranet.

The cost? More than 100 companies offer extranet solutions today, ranging in price from free to thousands of dollars, and ranging in clientele from one-person “free agents” to huge businesses. Many providers will host your extranet site or sites. Soon a B2B necessity?

“Any business that needs to communicate with its clients or providers would benefit from having an extranet,” says Joel N. Orr, chief visionary at Cyon Research, a Chesapeake, Va., company that publishes the Extranet News weekly newsletters.

Orr calls extranets “a killer app” for industries such as architectural engineering, where architects, engineers, contractors, and builders must collaborate. He produces newsletters for both the architectural engineering and manufacturing industries. But he also sees extranets benefiting businesses in law, advertising, public relations and many other services industries, as well as government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Michael Calder, senior business analyst for Line56, a Los Angeles-based B2B media company, calls extranets “a baby step toward setting up (the) private marketplaces” expected to predominate among many B2B companies in the future.

The differences between extranets and intranets are increasingly minimal, as solutions such as Windows SharePoint Services combine the two under a single platform and architecture, adds Toby Ward, founder and principal consultant at Toronto-based Prescient Digital Media. Also, companies are retrofitting existing intranets to offer extranet capabilities, or are adding intranet components to their extranets.

“If you know intranets, you know extranets,” Ward says. “The dividing line between the two is becoming nearly indistinguishable,” as companies begin to offer narrow or partial access to their internal Web sites to selected outside groups.

Some features you want

If you are interested in purchasing an extranet solution, Orr suggests you consider one with these eight features:

  1. Document sharing, with access control.
  2. Discussion areas, with access control.
  3. Shared and private calendars.
  4. Shared and private task lists.
  5. Synchronization with personal digital assistants (PDAs) and/or personal information managers (PIMs).
  6. The ability to assign people to roles and projects at will.
  7. Integration with Microsoft Office.
  8. Integration with project management tools.

“Of course, you should compile a much more complete list, one that reflects your needs more closely,” he says.

Timbercon also is using Microsoft Project and has created several private Web sites using Microsoft’s Windows SharePoint Services to collaborate on projects with customers. It’s currently setting one up for its largest customer, Lockheed-Martin, Meslow says.

Safeguarding your data is paramount

But you should not pick an extranet solution simply because you like the features it offers. You’ll also need assurance that the company providing the solution is trustworthy. Orr recommends using these three checkpoints:

  1. Make sure that the company offering you extranet software or services is financially viable. Many companies offering extranets today are startups, funded by venture capitalists. As private companies, they don’t have to disclose their financial information to you. Ask that they do anyway, so you can make judgments on their viability. If they won’t, find another provider.
  2. If you are buying a free service, know your business relationship with the provider. In other words, what is the provider’s obligation to a customer that pays them nothing?
  3. If you are buying a hosted solution, make sure that your data will be safe. Is it backed up regularly? Is it safeguarded in case the provider experiences an earthquake, fire or bankruptcy? Who has access to your backups? And what about system hacks? What are the mechanisms and precautions that the vendor has established to protect your data? These are things you need to know.

“Extranets are a powerful tool for increasing productivity and reducing errors in project-oriented businesses. Used wisely, they can catapult your business into a position of leadership and power,” Orr says. “But like any new and complex tool, there are risks. Invest the time to understand and mitigate these risks.”

Monte Enbysk
Monte Enbysk is a lead editor for the Microsoft.com network and writes occasionally about technology for small businesses.