Your small business may not be a multimillion dollar operation, but it can look like one if you have a laser printer and you're willing to invest a little time and a few bucks in some nifty tools and materials designed to level the playing field in the all-important game of first impressions.
Some of the best of these tools come from an outfit called Paper Direct in Lyndhurst, N.J., which has carved a niche for itself by supplying exotic, high-quality papers -- many preprinted with brilliant, four-color designs, insignia, washes and borders -- in quantities small enough for small business and professional budgets.
The company's catalog includes letterheads, mailers, brochure papers (some with die-cut Rolodex punch-outs), business card blanks, gift and award certificates, note cards, envelopes, forms with peel-off labels and a variety of other presentation materials that would cost a fortune to have custom printed. The end result is surprisingly professional and inexpensive because your laser printer supplies the message.
The problem is that setting up your word processor or desktop publishing program to provide the right borders, margins, overlaps and type orientations these documents require can be difficult and time consuming, even for experienced users.
But now the company is making that chore easier with Paper Templates software, which takes care of most of the fuss. The $39.95 software actually consists of 130 pre-designed forms created specifically for popular word processors and desktop publishing programs that run on IBM-compatible and Apple Macintosh computers.
Each template, or form, is designed to work with one of the products in the Paper Direct catalog, although many of the more generic templates produce excellent results on ordinary paper, too.
I tried out the templates for Lotus Ami Professional, the word processor I use, and the results were impressive.
The full complement of 130 templates requires 1.7 megabytes of disk space. But you only have to store the templates you intend to use, and they're easy to choose thanks to an efficient installation program. If you want to use another template later, you can add it without much trouble.
I started with a brochure template for the company's Marble brochure, which has a blue-and-green design and includes a white "window" on a dark cover.
Brochures and mailers are difficult to lay out because they're printed lengthwise on the paper and folded in thirds, which requires a lot of tinkering with multiple columns and margins if you're doing it from scratch.
When I called up the brochure template, I found well-defined frames with sample text that I could easily replace with my own message. The template included specific "styles" (typefaces, point sizes, spacing, etc.) for body text, headlines, subheads, titles, and bulleted and numbered lists that I could access with function keys.
The AmiPro template styles use typefaces supplied by Adobe Type Manager, which comes with the program, but it was easy enough to change them to any typeface available under Microsoft Windows. Once you've changed a specific template to your liking, you can save it as a separate style sheet and use it again.
Templates designed for other programs will handle typography differently.
If you have a highly graphical program, such as AmiPro, you'll work directly on the page. If you're using Microsoft Publisher, Aldus PageMaker, QuarkXpress or Corel DRAW, you'll see frames for your text and also a full-color representation of the brochure on the paper you've chosen.
If you're using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, you'll create your text using a series of supplied WordPerfect macros, and you'll need a font manager such as Adobe Type Manager or Bitstream Facelift.
You'll probably find yourself doing a bit of tweaking. Working with rotated text used in mailers and brochures with Rolodex or business card punch-outs can be particularly tricky, depending on the word processor or desktop publishing program you're using. But it's still orders of magnitude faster than doing everything from scratch.
The templates software includes two typefaces appropriate for your software and hardware. One is Cloister Black, an ornate font suitable for certificates and other documents that demand a flowery, 16th-century look and feel. The other is Embassy, an elegant script face that looks good on invitations.
You'll also get 20 pieces of clip art to liven up your presentations. It's pretty bland stuff, but since you're actually working in your word processor, you can add any graphic image your software can import.
While the template software isn't expensive, the materials themselves seem a bit pricey at first.
Relatively simple brochures and mailers are $19.95 per box of 100, while heavier papers that include perforations and scores for business or Rolodex cards are $27.95 for a box of 75.
The company also sells presentation kits that include a variety of brochures, letterhead, envelopes, business cards, presentation folders and envelopes -- all with matching designs and backgrounds -- for $99.95.
But the cost is a fraction of what a printing house would charge for a custom job, particularly in small quantities.
And there are some products that you won't find elsewhere, such as letterheads with envelopes attached that print your message and address the mail in one pass.
If you want to look good in print, the catalog is definitely worth a look.
For information, contact Paper Direct, 205 Chubb Ave., Lyndhurst, N.J. 07071 (1-800-272-7377).
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)