If you have not decided whether the fanfare over conducting business online is hype or reality and you are holding off developing a Web site for your enterprise, you could be missing out on a powerful business tool.

The Internet is proving to be a significant business leveler, allowing small and medium-size companies to compete with the giants on the same global playing field.

Whether you are a consumer or a business-to-business resource, some of the most efficient marketing and selling tools are available via the Internet, and the potential of reaching a vast audience is open to you through the World Wide Web. Consider these facts: Forrester Research, Inc. estimates that 47.3 million North American households have online access and 43.9 percent have browsed online. Of the 43.9 percent, 65 percent have made purchases.

Time-starved consumers are becoming more comfortable using credit and bank cards to make purchases from security-backed virtual retailers. They comparison shop over the Internet for the best quality and cost, and purchase a range of goods from groceries to high-tech products.

As electronic-consumer trade continues to soar, business-to-business e-commerce will be even stronger. Forrester Research, Inc., projects that business-to-business will become a $1.5 trillion market by 2003.

Many larger corporations already have mandated the use of online transactions to their downstream vendors. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the introduction of electronic commerce in federal contracting is moving ahead, and small business owners must adopt this new business strategy to remain fully competitive.

Until recently, developing an e-commerce Web site meant dealing with multiple companies: one to develop the Web site, one for e-commerce integration, one to "host" the site and yet another provider for secure payment processing.

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