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The business of bulletin board systems: a BBS can enhance your current business.

Your business is up and running, but you feel like you should be doing better. What's your next move? Perhaps you should start a Bulletin Board System (BBS), your branch office in cyberspace.

With some creativity, a BBS can act as a customer service representative, an electronic catalog, a conference host, a newsletter or a new business that can augment your existing one. "The only limitation is your imagination, says Idette Vaughan, systems operator of the Blacknet BBS in Brooklyn.

In its simplest form, a BBS is a computer that has been left on and hooked to a phone line through a modem so that it can answer incoming calls from other computers. With BBS software, people can read posted messages, receive and send e-mail, upload or download software, search databases and exchange ideas.

Vaughan, a former legal secretary who is also vice president of Renown Information Inc., decided to start a BBS in 1989, before cyber-talk was chic. She and her husband, Neil, who has a degree in computer science, initially wanted to compile a database of black companies on floppy disks. Instead of using floppies that would need to be updated regularly, they decided to put their information on a BBS. This eliminated distribution hassles and allowed them to update their database more often.

"At the time, a lot of people said not many black people have computers," says Vaughan. "I just said, `we'll have to see about that.' "

Today Vaughan's Blacknet has more than 600 users who pay a $10 quarterly subscription to access her BBS, which offers everything from African American games and screen savers to a list of black books and black databases. Also, through networking with her BBS customers, Vaughan has found freelance work transcribing audio tapes.

Unlike huge commercial online services, such as Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online, BBSs are more intimate and usually serve local clients. And they're much less expensive to start. If you already have a computer, you could get a BBS up and running for as little as $600. Even the slowest 386 computer can support a BBS. Your biggest investment won't be money, but time.

"The amount of time you spend running your business off-line is about how much time you spend running a BBS online," says Cary Harwin, co-author of How to Successfully Run a BBC for Profit.

Harwin, who owns InfoLink, a Yucca Valley, Calif.-based online management consulting business, says the mistake many BBS owners make is treating the bulletin board like a hobby--not a business. But if approached with the attitude that you're opening a branch office, a BBS can reduce costs for product support, maintain and expand a customer base, handle communications and help sell products. And unlike your regular business, a BBS is accessible to customers 24 hours a day. If you collect or distribute information, you can do it more cheaply with a BBS.

Think of how much you could save on postage and paper--costs that increase on a regular basis. Since customers use their phone lines to access your computer, you only pay your local telephone costs, unless you choose to operate from a toll-free number. Gone are the time delays and clutter of printing and mailing notices--when your customers log in, they're updated instantly. If you employ salespeople, they could access your BBS from anywhere to check inventory or log sales.

"Some people think, 'I don't run a high-tech business, so why do I need a bulletin board?"' says Harwin. "That's like looking at a telephone, and saying, `Why do I need a telephone?' It's just another way to communicate."

Although setting up a BBS costs little, both Vaughan and Harwin stress that starting a system should not be taken lightly. How you represent yourself online reflects on your company in general. So don't consider letting an inexperienced hacker mind your BBS. Ray Werner, author of BBS Secrets, says, "Only I in 100 people who run a BBS as a business actually makes money." He suggests that those running a bulletin board as an extension of a business will have better success.

Once you launch a bulletin board, you need to market it. Harwin recalls a man who bought loads of expensive software to create his BBS. "He had all this great stuff and no one was calling," says Harwin. "It's just like any other business. You have to market your bulletin board."

To market your BBS, get the word out by listing it with online organizations, magazines or on other BBSs. You should also consider joining a network of bulletin board systems.

Fidonet is the largest bulletin board network, which is structured so that BBSs can share messages. In these networks, messages posted on one BBS can "echo" through electronic mail to another.

Vaughan's Blacknet is linked to Fidonet, which is also linked to AfroNet, a group of nationwide black-owned BBSs'. So, theoretically, if you list your BBS on the mail-board of Blacknet, users of other BBSs, such as Afronet, will have access to your posting as well.

Vaughan is constantly enhancing her board and updating software. She has downloadable graphics software that offers users a colorful view of her BBS. She plans to offer Internet access in the near future. "You have to keep things updated to keep people interested," she says.

Solid advice no matter what business you're in. No matter how innovative your bulletin board is, you have to give people what they're interested in. So remember, before you invest in a BBS, if you don't have a good product Off-line, bringing it online won't make it any better. And use the same sound principles of business management that would apply to any company--online or off.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Corbett, Merlisa Lawrence
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Words:951
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