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Intuit opens center for small firms

Personal finance software giant Intuit is expanding its online offerings with a one-stop center for small businesses to shop for cash.

Personal finance software giant Intuit is expanding its online offerings with a one-stop center for small businesses to shop for cash.

Ten major financial institutions, including American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank, Citibank, KeyBank, and Union Bank of California, have signed up to offer businesses credit cards, credit lines, equipment leases, and loans via Quicken Business CashFinder. The site is designed to help small companies find capital quickly and easily.

Separately, Net community GeoCities and consumer lender LendingTree said they have a one-year deal to run a cobranded GeoCities Loan Center, to be promoted throughout GeoCities Picketfences and Heartland areas. The center, to launch his week, will offer mortgages as well as personal, auto, and home equity loans.

Intuit's new small-business site, in the works for about a year, aims to do for small companies what its Quicken.com site does for individuals interested in online financial services.

"On the consumer side, we find a lot of consumers are a little more venturesome, and they seem to be more eager to go online," said Intuit spokesman Jeff Larsen. "Small businesses are more reserved."

That's one reason the new site isn't offering online applications for small-business loans, product manager Kirby Freeman said.

"We made the initial version of CashFinder so that small businesses concerned about security and control of their data wouldn't have to put their personal information on the Internet," Freeman said, indicating that the site is likely to offer online applications in the future.

Instead, users download free software that asks them a series of interview questions about their business finances. The software then transfers that data onto a loan application for any of the ten participating banks so the applicant can print out the application and send it to the lender.

"In doing customer research, we found that for small businesses today, finding finance is hard, time consuming, and also a process in which they don't have a lot of confidence," Freeman said. "Our service should help make finding financing easy and fast and smart."

Some 300 small-business owners surveyed for Intuit said they spend an average of six days shopping for a business loan and shop at least three financial institutions before settling on the best deal. More than 3.4 million small-business owners apply for credit each year.

In addition to adding new lenders--Freeman said discussions are now under way with about ten more financial institutions--CashFinder expects to add new financial offerings including insurance, tax preparation, and managing business finances online.

Intuit's blue-chip list of lenders for the new site--which includes Centura, Colonial Pacific Leasing, Compass Bank, Crestar, and SouthTrust Bank--also indicates that Intuit is breaking down the suspicions of bankers that the software firm would steal their customers.

CashFinder can save lenders money as well, Freeman contended.

"Today a small-business lender can spend anywhere from $50 to $1,500 to acquire and process a small-business customer," she said, adding that CashFinder will attract interested borrowers, and the application interview process means applications will have fewer mistakes.

"It means less cycle time for the small business and the financial institutions," she added.

Intuit will cross-promote the small-business site with links in its QuickBooks small-business accounting software, Quicken Home and Business, designed for simple home-based businesses; and through the small-business channel on Quicken.com.