If you were a seller of steel products and needed to meet buyers, you could call on them individually, try to meet them at trade shows or find them at http://www.e-steel.com, a virtual crossroads for the steel industry.
Chances are, your small business has nothing to do with steel. But perhaps you're in the health-care industry, communications, food services or environmental services. Bringing companies together online is the job of a new breed of business-to-business Internet portals, and there's a chance that one exists for your industry.
VerticalNet (http://www.verticalnet.com) bills itself as a "creator and operator of vertical trade communities," which, essentially, are sites to help businesses connect with other businesses. The service operates about 40 "communities" serving a diverse range of businesses including aerospace, baking, medical design, plant automation, nursing, food service, packaging and more.
Each site includes industry news, links, discussion forums and live chat. You'll find a buyer's guide listed by product and service. The sites also conduct auctions geared to products and services needed by the specific industry.
Business Search Engine (http://www.smallbizsearch.com) lets you search for small-business information using virtually any term. Unlike the major portals, you won't get overwhelmed with information. Type in "postage," for example, and you'll get 14 hits compared to 97 on Yahoo, a whopping 85,000 on Excite and an overwhelming 617,000 on AltaVista.
In addition to these specialized business portals, the major mainstream portals offer sections aimed at small business.
Netscape's Netcenter has a small-business portal (http://www.netcenter.com/smallbusiness) that offers advice, links to small-business resources and specialized departments. The site offers links to a number of e-commerce sites from other companies that, collectively, offer more advice than anyone could possibly digest.
Anyone who plans to make a quick killing on the Internet ought to stop by here first. You might find just the resource you need. Or perhaps you'll find some articles that will convince you to take it slowly and stick to the fundamentals. Either way, you'll learn something.
Yahoo's small-business portal (http://www.smallbusiness.yahoo.com) isn't nearly as extensive as its main site, but that's the point. Here you'll find a limited number of links to handpicked sites focused on topics such as starting a business, finance, government sites, e-commerce and marketing. Each section of the site includes articles, news and "top sites" that are links to a small selection of sites in the field. The area is well-edited and worth a visit.
Excite and the makers of Quicken have collaborated on a small-business portal (http://www.quicken.com/small_business/) that offers articles, general advice and a directory of Web listings broken down by industry. The Web directory is useful and easy to navigate.
Another way to find connections, whether to Web sites, vendors or customers, is to visit the sites operated by your industry's trade associations, professional organizations and publications. Just about every type of business has at least one association and periodical dedicated to it.
If you're a member of an association or subscribe to a trade journal, the Web address probably is listed in their printed matter. If not, use a standard search engine such as Yahoo to locate the sites. Enter the name of the organization if you know it, or just type in your industry. You may be overwhelmed with links aimed at consumers, but you're sure to find business-oriented links as well.
The trick isn't finding information as much as it is sorting out what's useful.
For that, my advice is to stick with reputable sources, scrutinize everything you read, seek out a variety of sites and exercise extreme caution before engaging in e-commerce with unfamiliar companies.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."