Like any office supply store, Office Depot sells books, forms and products that can help you start, manage and run a small business. Now, much of this information is on the company's Web site for free.
Office Depot has added an advertiser-supported Office Solutions section to its Web site (http://www.officedepot.com) that provides a great deal of information and advice to small-business owners, including plenty of forms, sample letters, contracts and spreadsheets that you can download and use to help you with your business.
I don't usually write about commercial sites, but this one is particularly useful. The list of free files is long and impressive; it includes a balance sheet template, a cash-flow budget work sheet, a daily cash sheet, an income statement template and a trial balance work sheet, all of which are formatted for Microsoft Excel.
You'll also find documents with important business advice, such as a work chart that shows what types of activities employees have to be paid for and what activities can be on their own time. You'll find a sample employee sexual-harassment policy, a smoking policy, a non-compete agreement and even a work sheet to record employees' long-distance phone calls.
The list of more than 70 documents and templates is easy to navigate because it's divided into meaningful categories: business finance; compensation and benefits; recruiting and hiring; vehicles and equipment; employee management; marketing; worker safety; starting your business; and firing and termination.
The site includes a directory of Web resources that serves as a useful portal for the types of tools businesses need, such as airline telephone numbers, reference tools, Web search tools and business research sites. All of this information is available elsewhere on the Web, but Office Depot has done a good job putting it all in one place.
There's also a small-business handbook with dozens of useful articles about starting, planning, financing, marketing and running a small business. My only complaint is that there is no byline. Aside from the fact that it's nice to give authors credit, I like knowing the source of information that I might rely on.
Of course you can also order office supplies from Office Depot's Web site just as you can at Staples.com, Costco Online, OfficeMax.com and the Web sites of other office supply companies.
Staples on Monday launched its own Business Solutions Center, which, depending on what you're looking for, is both less and more ambitious than what Office Depot is offering. The information resources aren't nearly as exhaustive, but Staples' site (http://www.staples.com/solutionscenter) includes a Resource Center with bylined articles from Inc. magazine (http://www.inc.com).
More interesting is Staples' Online Office Manager, which helps users better manage their online shopping needs. You can develop personalized lists for repeat orders, get e-mail reminders so you don't forget to reorder certain supplies and access a history of your past purchases.
Staples is also working with HotOffice (http://www.hotoffice.com) to offer a version of HotOffice's free private intranet services, which offer small businesses collaborative tools such as document management and sharing, a group calendar and contact manager, online conferences, e-mail, bulletin boards and virtual access to their offices. The free service is advertising-supported, but there is also a subscription version that for $12.95 a month for up to 20 users includes additional storage, no advertising and a free pager.
There are plenty of other places on the Internet where you can download forms, spreadsheets and even software to try out. You can find trial versions of commercial software and some "shareware" that you can use for free and pay for, on the honor system, when you're sure it's right for your business. You'll also find useful business templates to use with Excel, Word and other programs.
If you're in need of anything that can be used on a computer, check out ZDNet's free-downloads page at http://www.hotfiles.com and CNet's Download.com. In both cases, you can search by keyword or browse a menu of available files. You'll find business-related legal forms at http://www.itslegal.com and http://www.legaldocs.com.
If your business is lucky enough to have a full-time administrator, look at OfficeClick.com, a new site aimed specifically at "administrative professionals" such as office managers, administrative assistants and what used to be called "secretaries." The site, according to spokesman Frank O'Mahony, is designed to keep "admins on the site all day" with such features as a calendar, a bulletin board, a to-do list and professional networking along with the ubiquitous shopping opportunities for office supplies, shipping, catering, travel, business gifts and other items that will appeal to administrators. The site is up now, but the services don't become available until the second week of November.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX (1070). He can be reached at email@example.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.