Hoping to capitalize on the sensational buzz around NBC's hit reality show "The Apprentice," (search) AOL is launching an online feature that will follow the travails of four small-business owners for their first 12 months.

"The Startup" (search) will be featured on America Online's customized service for small-business owners, but it will also be available for any of AOL's 24 million subscribers. The feature, which is being done in cooperation with Entrepreneur Magazine (search), goes live on Thursday. It's a lot like "The Apprentice," except nobody gets fired.

Sarah Bernard, the head of AOL for Small Business, said the feature was not modeled specifically on the hit NBC show, and had been in the works for some time. But she said its debut was adjusted to capitalize on the buzz around "The Apprentice," whose final episode airs next week.

"The Startup" will follow the ups and downs of four businesses: an adventure park in Colorado Springs, Colo.; a spa in New Orleans; a gourmet salsa company based in Vermont and a teenage clothing store in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Bernard said the business were chosen for geographical diversity, among other factors. "We wanted businesses our users could relate to — not someone who started with $50 million in seed money," Bernard said.

The site will feature weekly updates on online journals, or "blogs," from the business owners, monthly stories written by staffers from Entrepreneur, as well as weekly video vignettes from the business.

As for not firing people, Bernard said: "It's not a contest, it's not who's going to win. It's real-life experiences."