IBM, World Bank Partner on Online Toolkit

A revamped small business toolkit put together by IBM and the World Bank was unveiled Thursday afternoon, part of an effort to aid women and minority entrepreneurs in the United States and small businesses generally in developing countries.

The free resource -- www.smetoolkit.org -- offers advice on finance, accounting, marketing, human resources and legal services. Tools include software to build a Web site, business forms, live chat and online forum capabilities, community tools like a group calendar, surveys and a multilingual business directory. It is offered in more than 12 languages in 24 countries, with plans to expand.

Entrepreneur Fletcher White is using the toolkit to help him open a Little Gym franchise in Clinton, Md. White was driving his toddler to Charles County to attend a Little Gym facility, which offers exercise programs and activities for infants and children, when he realized that he could fill a void by opening his own kids exercise franchise.

"I talked to friends who were also driving their kids pretty far to similar facilities, so I decided to open a franchise near our house in Fort Washington, Md.," he said. He hopes to open his firm by November. It's taken a little more than a year since he purchased the franchise rights to deal with issues like closing a lease, contractors, build-out and architecture.

"It's all those little details that really take up the time and that can be hard to navigate," he said.

White received business management and marketing degrees from Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., and one of his professors put him in touch with IBM where he learned about the toolkit.

At an event launching the makeover, White said he used the toolkit for templates on job offer letters and other administrative resources.

"I was working at a commercial printing plant and I really had no idea how to open a franchise so it was really helpful to find resources that I could use right away."

Local partners in each country hosting the toolkit reviewed its contents to ensure the 500-plus pieces of content, tools and resources accurately reflected the language of the specific market. These partners are responsible for maintaining the site within their local markets.

For example, IBM and the World Bank's International Finance Corp. reached out to a firm in the Ukraine that was a "Yahoo-like equivalent" to see if it would be interested in committing to maintain the toolkit there, according to Laurence Carter, IFC's director of small and medium enterprise programs. The firm signed an agreement and now is responsible for the toolkit's upkeep in Ukrainian.

The IFC originally launched the toolkit in 2002, and IBM spent $1.6 million to rework and update it on an open-source platform.

The IFC and IBM plan to expand the new toolkit to allow users to connect it to a wireless devices, in response to the increasing dependence of developing markets on cell phones as the primary way to connect to the Internet.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 27, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Tools and Tips
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