Before you can run…
By Nilooka Dissanayake
Before you can run, you must be able to walk. This is common sense to remember when small and medium size businesses approach the Internet. There is ample evidence on the Internet of people who have spent time, effort and a lot of money to get into the Internet without learning the basics.

Let us consider the simple element of e-mail. It is fashionable to have e-mail. Your business card is not complete without an e-mail address. When we launched our free e-mail magazine, E-zine Athwela in January 2002, on average, less than one in five business cards had an e-mail address. Today, you rarely come across one without an e-mail address. How many of these e-mails are working? Not many. And I am not talking about multinational corporations and blue chips. I am talking about business e-mail addresses of small and medium businesses. They are the majority of businesses in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world. Success rates in reaching someone on personal e-mails are even less.

Is this because we just went ahead and got e-mail without thinking? because the computer broke down or kept on breaking down that you cannot be bothered? Because you got affected by a virus? Because you changed your telephone provider? Because you simply got tired of it? For not so small businesses, there may be additional reasons like "the boss does not check e-mail because he does not know," and "it is too costly."

You know the answers. But, are you sure you have learnt your basics? Are you sure you went through the help option carefully and learnt how to block spam (unsolicited email), decide on stationery, change the display as to how your e-mail message will appear in the "From" column and about including how to tailor your e-mail message with your 'signature' which can include your closing remarks, name, designation, organisation, address, telephone and other contact details?

Just for the sake of statistics, I checked out my inbox. In the last 20 e-mails I received last week, only three had properly written names in such a way that I can assume it is part of their properly tailored signature. Only one person (of the first 20) had all the details necessary. I went up to a hundred. Still the statistics were a dismal ten percent.

Whether you are a student, small business operator, professional, executive or public official, your e-mail signature is a sign that you care; that you are keen to make a good impression; that you respect the recipient; that you know e-mail basics! And for a small business especially, that impression counts. Your signature is free advertising for your company and your products. Even large companies like AOL, Yahoo and MSN use this as an effective marketing tool. So why don't you?
I ask you one question and rest my case on e-mail basics:

How long does it take for you to tailor your signature? Answer: Five minutes or less. As a small business, before you can go to e-Business or e-Commerce or e-anything, you need to master the basics. What is it like to go looking for information on the Internet? How do you use a search engine? What is a search engine, by the way? How do consumers-that is, other people just like you-behave on the Internet? What problems do they encounter? What pitfalls? What technical difficulties? What do you find helpful? What do you find annoying?

The best way to learn all this is by seeing it for yourself. Then only you will appreciate the real scenario, or something about it. Unless as the business owner, operator or CEO, you know what it means, your web efforts will not flourish. It does not take a rocket scientist-all it takes is just you. Don't let some website developer tell you otherwise. International studies show that personal involvement by the owners lead to better success on the Internet for small businesses. Here's corroborating advice from the International Trade Forum: DON'T rely on "one-shot" outside expertise to build your site. Get personally involved.

There was an article in the International Trade Forum-which I thought was so useful that I obtained permission to publish it in the Small Business International magazine (published by my employer, Athwela). Titled "Force or Farce, Do Small Businesses in Developing Countries Need the Internet?," the article discusses results of a survey among small and medium enterprises which took part in a project where they were given help to set up their own websites. The results are most enlightening. And one key learning point is that, not knowing basics is a sure way of wasting money on web efforts.

We welcome your comments about how you are using the Internet. You can reach us on or call on 075-552524. The writer is the Managing Editor of Athwela Vyaparika Sangarawa (Athwela Business Journal), the only Sinhala management monthly targeting the small and medium sized business operators and its English version, Small Business International magazine.

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