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The federal government has made it a priority to put much of its public information on the Web. This is good news, since you can often find key government publications, forms, statistics and regulatory data that can help you plan for your small business.
Many government sites tend to be much richer in information than they appear to be. The government, for the most part, is very good at keeping archives of available data. There's often much more available than is listed on the home page. Be sure to use each site's "search" function to find the information you need. It may lead you to downloadable files available on an agency's FTP server, gopher, or elsewhere on its site.
Also, you can't always be sure that the information you access from a government Web site is the most up to date. Treat any data you get from the Web -- especially information regarding specific laws and regulations -- as background, and be sure to confirm it with a representative of the appropriate agency.
Your state government may also have a great deal of helpful information available online. To find out what's there, you might want to go through a directory search site such as Yahoo! and look for the site of the appropriate agency of your state.
The following list includes some of the more useful Web sites for small business owners.
Internal Revenue Service
The IRS has put all its tax forms and tax booklets online, and you can download them directly from its Web site. You can not fill out the forms on your computer. Instead, you print the blank forms and fill them out conventionally. The tax forms are in PDF format, so you will need an Adobe Acrobat reader to print them out. If you need forms, think ahead; on the days immediately preceding a major tax due date (especially April 15), the site gets extremely busy and it's nearly impossible to download forms.
U.S. Small Business Administration
Every small business on the Web should be familiar with the SBA's site, but there are several features worth highlighting. First is its discussion of the SBA loan process, where you can get full explanations of each of the SBA's different loan programs. If you're looking for a loan, you might want to check out the SBA's annual list of small business-friendly banks, which is available in the Office of Advocacy area. Also, you can link from the site directly to ACE-Net, the SBA-sponsored angel investor matching service. Although the SBA site was recently redesigned, it is still sometimes difficult to navigate, so you might want to try the "search" function to get to the information hidden deeper in the site.
U.S. Business Advisor
This is a catch-all electronic link designed to provide businesses with easy access to federal government information, services and transactions. While it doesn't have any information of its own, it does provide direct links to many other government sites. As such, it's useful for searching for the right government site that will likely have more information on the topic you're looking for. For example, the "Common Questions" section provides links to nearly all the common FAQ pages of the various government sites - from OSHA to Defense to the IRS. Unfortunately, this site is not updated as regularly as it should be, and some of the links are outdated (links to certain "recent" Department of Commerce press releases were as much as several years old). Still, it does get you to the right site, and you can navigate from there.
Federal Trade Commission
If you're looking to evaluate a business opportunity or franchise, the FTC site is an excellent place to start. You can find detailed information on the FTC Franchise Rule, and search the agency's archives to see if it has taken any actions against a potential biz opp. It also has a wide range of business publications online covering most business areas in the agency's domain -- non- food product labeling, credit reporting, antitrust/competition issues, advertising policies, telemarketing issues, fraud, etc.
International Trade Administration
The ITA is the Department of Commerce's export assistance division, and its Web site is full of helpful data. You can access information on different regions and countries, different industries, as well as various trade statistics. You can also get the address and contact information for the Export Assistance Center nearest you. If you intend to import goods into the United States, you might also want to check out the Customs Office's Web site for information on tariffs and other import regulations.
Department of Labor
Adhering to labor laws is a thorny issue for many small business owners. The Labor Department's site tries to remedy that by providing information aimed at helping small businesses comply. Its online "Small Business Handbook" (accessible from its home page) provides details of the statutes and regulations that might apply to a small business. A new section -- called elaws (Employment Laws Assistance for Workers and Small Business) -- is an interactive tool designed to help small businesses learn their rights and responsibilities regarding nine common labor laws. These include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); compliance with federal contracting and subcontracting laws; asbestos safety; fire safety; and others.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The central feature of the OSHA site is its information on safety and health regulations and compliance. It also has a couple of other features of use to small businesses. The "ergonomics" area has a fairly strong discussion of ergonomics and their impact on preventing workplace injuries. The site also contains an interactive SIC manual, by which you can look up the SIC code for any industry.
U.S. Census Bureau
This is an excellent research resource, especially for basic demographic data. The Census Bureau's site contains a large number of highlights from both the latest population census and the latest business census. Go directly to the "Subjects A-Z" button for an alphabetical listing of subjects with links to information of interest on each topic.
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