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Articles of Interest to PC Entrepreneurs

Any of these articles may be republished by other newsletter, magazine or ezine publishers as long as they are posted intact with all credits. If you are an author and would like an article added to this list, email the article in HTML format to mtims(at)matcopublishing.com
Michael A. Tims

Are you still using a shoebox full of 3x5 cards (or worse, envelopes with return addresses) to keep track of your customers or clients? Are you wasting time and losing hundreds of dollars in possible income per year?

Those of us that have been in mail order for 15 or more years will probably admit to having used the shoebox method. But, since the introduction of the PC in the early 80's, quite a few of us have switched to the more efficient and easier computer database.

In the "old days", I would receive an order from a customer, open it to determine what was being ordered and write out an invoice with the customer's name, write down all the items being ordered, subtotal the order, write in the S&H, figure the sales tax if the order was from Michigan and finally total the order using an adding machine. Next I would look in my shoebox customer file to determine if the customer had ordered before. If not, I would write the customers name and address on a 3x5 card along with the order date and what was ordered, just for future reference. Finally, I would write out a shipping label or envelope, place the ordered items in the envelope (or a box) and place it in the outgoing mail pile. All in all, a time consuming procedure.

After several years, I had thousands of 3x5 cards in several boxes (shoeboxes DO really work best) that I kept trying to find places to store, in an orderly fashion. I really didn't do anything more with those 3x5 cards. In fact, I probably still have them in a pole barn in Northern Michigan.

Today, running a mail order business is so much easier. When I receive an order I start by typing, into my computer database, a customer code consisting of his/her zipcode, the first three letters of his/her first name and the first three letters of his/her last name.

When I hit the enter key, I am told if the customer is one of the records in my database. If not, it is a new customer, so the screen changes to one containing blanks (called fields in a database) where I then fill the blanks with the customer's information. In my database I have fields for customer code, salutation (Mr./Ms.), first name, middle initial, last name, street address, second address line, apt. #, city, state, country, zip code, +4 zip code, USA (yes or no) todays date, and an advertisers code (so I can track my advertising). It only takes a couple of seconds to peck the information on the keyboard (they all don't need filling) and have it become a permanent record in my modern "Electronic Shoebox".

Next comes the neat part. The screen changes again and I start typing in the part number of the first item being ordered. When I type the last digit of the number, the computer "looks up" the description of the item and it's price and fills those blanks of the screen and the cursor drops down to the next line where I enter the next item's part number, continuing on until I have listed all the items for this order.

When I next hit enter, on a blank line, the computer knows I have finished the order, so it totals the items that are listed, adds the S&H automatically, determines (from the zip code) if it is a Michigan order (adds the sales tax if it is) and puts the grand total on the screen. I don't even have to touch a calculator, but it does ask me if I want to change any of the figures (just in case I have a special offer or other changes from the normal prices).

If the order is ok, another tap on the enter key sends the information to my laser printer where an invoice is printed; complete with customer name, all the items listed that were ordered and all figures totaled. At the same time, my second printer (a cheap dot matrix loaded with a 5000 count box of 4" x 1 7/16" labels) starts tapping out a shipping label.

All I need to do is place the items ordered into an envelope or box, affix the label and place it into the outgoing mail. The entire procedure, from opening the customer's envelope to taping the envelope or box closed, takes less time than it took you to read the description of the steps.

After only a couple of years of using my database application, I have over 8000 customer names on file. They are now a valuable asset, being worth $50 per thousand names when I print them out on peel and stick labels. The names are rented, on a one use basis, to other mail order dealers who wish to send their offers to the same type customers that I have.

On the other hand, my shoeboxes were valueless. Unless I could have sold my shoeboxes full of customer names or had used them to hand address any flyers or offers to the thousands of customers in my files, the shoeboxes were a waste of time and energy. But now, with the touch of a few keys, I can print the names on labels and "rent" them over and over. They are now an important and valuable part of my mail order operation.

Your probably asking yourself, "OK, so where did you buy the computer software to do all that?" Well, I didn't buy it, I programmed it myself using a "dBase III" compatible language called, "Clipper". But, the point I would like to make is that I knew what features I wanted in a "database application" because I had worked with several software packages that did similar jobs. I just combined many of the features that these software packages could do seperately. Besides I couldn't afford the steep price that was being charged for commercial mail order software programs, many are over $1000 in price. This is the main reason I investigated shareware programs as a reasonably priced alternative, until I decided to program my own database application.

For example, the shareware package, "APT Mailing Assistant" does a fine job of printing labels and envelopes with Postnet bar codes. It also supports multiple address files (lists) and is capable of importing and exporting files to and from other databases. It also sorts for bulk mailing discounts.

Then there is the shareware program, "Label Master", which is a very powerful, yet easy to use, mailing list database which does searches, prints labels, has its own word processor to create and mail-merge letters, and even auto dials phone numbers.

There is even a shareware program designed especially for mail order businesses called, "Mail Order System". It is an order-entry program that combines invoicing, inventory control and commission tracking. Orders can be recalled by invoice number, name, phone, or zip code. The program prints labels and reports for inventory, identifys inventory that is below order minimum. prints item price lists and customer lists. In fact, it does quite a few of the jobs that my own program does.

For invoicing, there are shareware programs such as "KISS Billing" or "Mister Bill", both are excellent at printing out receipts and billing invoices. Either can be set up to look up inventory items and place the correct prices on the invoices along with company name, customer name, etc.

For storing information, building a database, printing labels and printing reports, you cannot beat the shareware program,"PC File". I have been using "PC File" for years and still store thousands of company names for my laser printed directories in a "PC File" database. "PC File" uses a "dBase" compatible format, so the files are easily imported or exported from "dBase" to "PC File" and back. It is extremely easy to set up a database in "PC File", yet it is a very powerful database program. In fact, the latest version, v7.0, comes on four floppy disks, requires a hard drive and 450K available RAM. "PC File" is a prime example of well written shareware, having been authored by Jim Button one of the pioneers of the shareware concept.

Another great database program is, "Wampum", one of the granddaddys of the shareware movement. A funny name for one of the premier clones of the commercial database program, "dBase". (Wampum stands for Wards Automatic Menu Program Using Microcomputers) This shareware program provides almost all of the DBMS (DataBase Management System) capabilities of the commercial "dBase" program at a much more reasonable cost. Being shareware, you even get to use the program before having to pay for it.

Features of"Wampum" include the ability to load as a 20 Kbyte TSR (Terminate but Stay Resident program), "dBase" compatible reports and labels, "the best form letters in the business", an automated phone dialer, plus support for .PCX graphics fields using standard "dBase III" files.

With "Wampum", you can set up your own database program to automate many of the chores you now have to do by hand.

SHAREWARE Shareware is not a type of software, but a marketing method. It is sometimes called, try-before-you-buy software. You try out the software for a reasonable period and if you want to continue to use the software you register it with the author. Registering is the way the author gets paid for his programming efforts. When you register, you may get an upgraded software package for registering, or a printed manual, or some othe incentive. It depends on the author. If you do not register the software, because you and no longer find the software useful, you are legally obligated to discontinue using the software.

There are, literally, thousands of shareware programs to choose from, with hundreds designed for the small business entrepreneur. Mailing list managers, databases, invoice printers, inventory control and many other areas are well represented by shareware software. Whatever job you are trying to accomplish, there is a shareware program designed to do the job.

Keep in mind that neither BBS's nor shareware distributors OWN the software they distribute and you are not purchasing the software outright from them. You are paying a disk copying fee only. The individual authors retain ownership of the software and if you continue to find the software useful, after a reasonable evaluation period, you are required to send the registration fee directly to the respective authors or else discontinue using the software.

Whether you get your evaluation copies of shareware programs from on line services, shareware distributors or straight from the authors, I know you will find the experience worthwhile. Any shareware you end up registering will be the best investment you could make -- to help computerize that old shoebox.

An evaluation copy of any shareware program mentioned in this article is available from Matco Software for a special price of only $2.00 each plus $3.00 S&H (per order) on either size floppy disk you prefer. A special offer of 21 business shareware programs, as a package deal, is also available at a special price. For more information, send SASE mentioning this article and where you read it. ===================================================


Michael A. Tims is a retired high school math teacher but has run a mail order business as a sideline for over 20 years. Being a self taught computer NUT, one of his passions has been to find unique ways to use a PC to enhance or enable a small business venture.

Mr. Tims has written numerous magazine articles on PC basics or using a PC in business and is the author of the published book, "101 Computer Related Businesses", as well as a syndicated column called, "PC Biz of the Month".

Visit his new web site at www.matcopublishing.com and let him know what you think of it. Many other articles may be read at www.matcopublishing.com/articles.htm


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