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Monday, June 21, 1999 Published at 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK

Business: The Company File

Why the Web means business

Contacting industry colleagues online is a growing business

Imagine celebrating your company clinching a big order. You've agreed payment terms and delivery dates. It means a boost for your firm's income and helps secure workers' jobs.

All that remains is to actually produce the goods.

But where to get the best deal on those obscure parts? And how do you know someone else far away hasn't already tried your idea?

The answer, of course, is at your fingertips - the Internet.

In its infancy, as far as companies were concerned, the Net was merely a forum for Websites which were little more than advertisements for their products and services.

[ image: A website can open up the world to a company]
A website can open up the world to a company
But now, more and more businesses are using the Web as an integral tool in conducting business. So much so that business-to-business dealings - be it supplying parts or exchanging information - add up to a greater use of the Internet than sales of goods to the public.

In the past year, small companies particularly have become Net converts, no longer seeing the Internet as a threat, realising instead the potential for competing in the global marketplace at minimal cost.

Today, some companies' sites, instead of being a shop window, are just as often creations in their own right - newspaper websites are a good example.

In the world of goods industries, suppliers have learned that a website can be a showcase to the world's manufacturers and traders for their products. Even time differences around the world are no barrier to interaction. Once companies are in touch, new contacts can be followed up because accurate details are available at the click of a mouse.

One-stop sites

The latest trend is for companies trying to establish themselves as the font of all knowledge within their marketplace, by launching one-stop sites dedicated to a particular field, be it accountancy, equities, paper manufacture or horticulture.

The sites are not glamorous but include chat forums, bulletin boards and industry news, giving both buyers and sellers the chance to register. Even auctions are beginning to take off. For instance, a company needing certain widgets may invite tenders from manufacturers by a set deadline.

One media company technology chief said: "We're at a stage of 'He who positions himself first in the websites, wins'."

Accountancy group Ernst & Young estimates that 80% of all Internet commerce is business-to-business.

[ image: iqport is a
iqport is a "stock exchange" of knowledge
The Internet is so suited to business dealings that new online services are springing up for those involved.

The NatWest Bank developed iqport, a business community site which it describes as a stock exchange of knowledge.

There are eight "guilds", specialising in different kinds of advice, hosted by organisations such as the World Trade Center or management consultants.

They brand the knowledge with a star system, to recommend it or not. Anyone who officially endorses you gets a share of what your knowledge earns.

The British Chambers of Commerce is also poised to launch a scheme for webwise traders worried about security.

Spokesman Andrew Parkinson said: "If you buy something by telephone by credit card, there are a couple of checks on who you are. In business-to-business transactions, people are dealing with millions or billions of pounds so you can't rely on those checks.

"Under our scheme each side will be confirmed by a trusted third party. The reason we are doing this is that the market is going to be huge."

Vast finances online

Already some organisations - including some of the UK's biggest financial operations - are using the Internet to trace missing holders of bank accounts and insurance policies. National Savings has launched an Internet site to find holders of unclaimed Premium Bond prizes.

[ image: Working from home is beginning to replace office life thanks to the Web]
Working from home is beginning to replace office life thanks to the Web
Firms such as WR Hambrecht, a financial services company which specialises in taking companies public on the internet, are poised to reap large benefits from the explosive growth in online share dealing.

And many City dealers who used to work trading millions in the frenetic Futures Exchange are now operating from their homes in the country.

"The Internet has revolutionised everything anybody does as far as shares are concerned," says investor Terry Bond.

The Internet has been widely hailed as the new medium for shopping. Indeed, in the US, new research shows that ordering goods online from home is rising 300% a year and may top $200bn in the year 2000.

But the same study showed nearly half the total web revenue comes from the sale of hardware and software necessary to conduct e-commerce and to build the infrastructure of the Net.

However much we learn about the soaring popularity of the Net among surfers, its often-forgotten potential is as more of a business-to-business tool than a home entertainment product.

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