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The Internet, the story goes, sprang from the labs of government and military scientists who wanted a nuclear-bomb-proof communications network. The World Wide Web came from a software engineer at a quasi-governmental European physics lab. The first Web browser, Mosaic, was invented at the University of Illinois and distributed free. In short, nothing about the Web’s origins would seem to make its emergence as a business medium inevitable.

Boy, did that not last long. The corporatization of the Web has proceeded rapidly, as companies set out to find gold in them thar modems-or at least to portray themselves as cutting-edge organizations. At the same time, the Web has become a meeting ground for those who want to start their own companies. A few dozen clicks through this mercantile milieu can trigger thoughts of capitalism even in the crunchy granola set.

Would-be entrepreneurs will find the Web a friendly place. First stop is the Venture Capital Resource Library (www.vfinance.com), a comprehensive and easy-to-navigate site that provides well-organized lists of venture capital firms, investment banks and accountants. You can also download a massive (5,000-word) template for a business plan. The section titled “Innovation” begins: “[I/we] have a history of innovative ideas. [List your most meaningful ideas and any new ideas you have for the future.]” Fill in the blanks, send it along and you can receive a critique from the organization’s staff.

Using Alta Vista’s “subject search” and zeroing in on venture capital yields dozens of sites, some for individual firms, others that link to lists of their own. (Hitting pay dirt on the Web is getting to be a longer and longer process, with the accumulation of sites that are nothing but lists of lists.) A hopeful entrepreneur will take heart at first-the mere length of the roster seems to shout, “Money here! Come and get it!” But clicking your way inside a site might cool the ardor a bit. One site issues the following discouraging message: “We receive a large number of proposals and are looking to make only a few investments. After reviewing our investment criteria, you can contact us by e-mail with your business plan or executive summary.”

Some startups, of course, do make it to the first rung of the ladder of success: an initial public offering, or IPO. You can tour the successes at IPO Central (www.ipocentral.com). Browse IPOs alphabetically or by industry category, or search for a particular company. Selecting the “online services” category brings up capsule descriptions of some two dozen companies. Paying subscribers to Hoover’s Online (which runs the site) can get real-time status of the stock; the rest of us have to make do with 24-hour-delayed information.

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