Steve Longley was having trouble with Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Longley is CEO of Integra Relationship Marketing, a direct-mail business targeting Hispanic Americans, which communicates regularly with customers and collaborators in those countries. Soon after Integra was founded in 2003, Longley realized how laborious and complicated it was to get input on documents sent back and forth by fax or simple e-mail. He set out to find an easier way, and discovered “extranets.”
Now, any number of people can easily massage or comment on a project at any time of the day or night over the company’s extranet, a computerized information system that can be accessed only by approved users within or outside the company.
“Transfer time of large documents was much more efficient using the extranet,” Longley says. Now, information-heavy communications no longer clog up Integra’s computers or have to wait until business hours in Princeton, N.J., where the company is based.
To build the extranet, Integra hired WorkZone, a four-year-old Conshohocken, Pa., startup that provides complete, private systems for businesses and facilitates their use. WorkZone was started from scratch, with no customers, and now services more than 150 companies and 15,000 individuals.
“It allowed us to very simply organize our clients’ files and grow the number of contributors we had uploading and downloading files to and from our site,” Longley says. They can also keep tabs on who checks in when. “It becomes an extension of our internal project management system, but allows people to interact with us 24/7.”
If you’re operating on a more modest budget, there are solutions such as Microsoft Office Live (a StartupNation sponsor). Office Live is a hosted service that offers a package that includes the ability to set up password-protected Web sites for collaboration amongst internal and/or external parties.
What are “intranets” and “extranets”?
Before extranets came intranets, which allowed companies to easily send documents, messages and other communications to and between employees. The content was guaranteed privacy, since only approved users could access these in-house networks. Because intranets are part of a company’s internal computing system, they don’t require Web access, says Malcolm Brown, vice president of WorkZone.
The next logical step was a way to expand such secure communication with customers and other chosen users outside the in-house network. Extranets were born.
These networks make it easier for companies and customers to access documents without the long delays that are common when sending large files by e-mail. They open in-house dialog to “selectively share information with key outsiders,” like clients, sales forces and industry partners, Brown says.
Like intranets, extranets offer a secure way to communicate and share gobs of information without freezing up internal systems.
So how do you know if you need one or both?
Easy. Whenever a company is having trouble keeping track of documents or staying in touch with customers, consider it, Brown says.
Go with the flow
It’s not hard to set up either network. You can buy and install software to handle it, or build a system from scratch if you have the know-how.
And then there are hosted services, like Microsoft Office Live, WorkZone, Near-Time and others, which make it all happen within a matter of days, or even minutes if you use provided templates. They keep all information outside your company and take care of documents and interactions for you.
Perry Smith’s company, Aims, created an extranet six months ago to manage collaborations with vendors and partners.
“We were working with a manufacturer that wanted us to be working with their dealer network, to provide information on product quality in a very rapid time frame – as soon as the product was delivered to the dealer, (to) react on the manufacturing floor to problems in the field,” says Smith. He knew about Near-Time, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based company that provides hosted collaborative systems. Aims already used a Near-Time intranet to share design information, weekly status checks and priority postings among company employees.
Aims still uses e-mail to communicate, but the extranet takes it to another level, Smith says. “We’ve found it to be an effective supplement, a better, more interactive environment.”
Thumbnail sketch of intranets and extranets
- What can they do for your business? Both are secure ways to share information in a closed environment. Intranets function inside a company while extranets involve key outsiders, all of whom must be given access to the system in order to use it.
- How do you know if you need one? Whenever communicating gets too tough – too many departments, documents, destinations – or too big (uploading and downloading large files), they can ease your pain.
- Are they hard to set up? Depends on your level of expertise. You can buy and install software, hire an IT specialist to modify software to suit your company’s needs, or build your own system. Or buy into an established hosted server and pay a monthly fee to have someone else manage it all for you.