Want to Buy a Firm? Get PC Literate And Look On-Line

NOT long ago, Maben Smith went looking for a business. He had already sold two small, successful companies and was interested in buying a manufacturing firm in New Jersey. He contacted a business broker and told him what he was looking for. Sometime later, the broker called to say he had found the perfect fit: a firm that makes Swiss herbal remedies.

``I was so frustrated,'' Mr. Smith says. ``This was not the company I was looking for. It wasn't even a manufacturing firm.''

When he was unable to find a magazine or journal listing small and medium-sized businesses for sale, Smith decided to do something about the problem himself. He says he first thought of publishing a magazine but concluded that by the time the listings were printed, they would already be out-of-date.

``So I decided to skip a step and go electronic,'' Smith says.

The result is Business Opportunities Online, an electronic multiple-listing service that started this month. The service links small-business owners in search of buyers, buyers in search of businesses, franchises for sale, financiers looking for good business investments, and businesspeople seeking financing.

Business Opportunities Online is accessible with a personal computer, modem, and credit card; there is a $10 hourly on-line charge, as well as some additional charges. For those without access to a PC with communications capabilities, customer-service representatives provide access over the phone.

``The thing that bothered me was that there was key information I wanted to get my hands on, but it was controlled by a third party,'' Smith says. ``We say: `Here's the information, help yourself to it, sort it, and read it however you want.' ''

He adds, ``I want to see the information myself when I'm looking for a business. I don't want someone to show me a couple of files out of a file drawer. But I'm not trying to do away with business brokers. I'm trying to enhance their service.''

Whether or not entrepreneurs looking to buy or sell a business will have the time and skills necessary to learn an on-line system remains to be seen, says Tom West, editor and publisher of a newsletter from the International Business Brokers Association in Concord, Mass.

``Conceptually and operationally, I think it's very interesting,'' Mr. West says. ``If [Business Opportunities Online] can get an entrepreneur, who may be computer illiterate, to sit down and learn the program, then it will be a great service.''

The concept of the business broker who tries to keep information close to the chest is outdated, West says. Putting a business on-line does not mean bypassing the business broker, he adds. ``This is one more way to get a business exposed,'' West says. ``We have people calling us all the time asking: `How do I get information about this business published across the country?' ''

Smith says the service respects the fact that business information is often sensitive. Users interested in selling a firm are presented with 27 different questions when they log into the system, but they are only required to answer four: What does the business do? (The answer could be ``manufacturer of widgets'' or simply ``manufacturer,'' for example); Where is it located? (Cambridge, Mass., or Northeast); What is the size of the business? ($4.2 million or less than $5 million); And what is the best way to contact the company? (Post office box, phone, or fax number).

Business Opportunities Online hopes to have 1,000 businesses listed by December. ``Within 12 to 24 months, we expect 10,000 to 15,000 businesses for sale on the system, and we would like to see several thousand capital providers,'' Smith says.

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