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Search Topic 23:

Checking Out a Business

Web Search Guides

by Judy Bates, Associate Editor

I. Overview of Topic

There are many reasons you might have for checking out a business. For example --

  • You're hiring a local contractor to build a swimming pool (or deck or garage, etc.) in your backyard. Are they reputable?
  • You're thinking of buying a small furniture-manufacturing company in another state. You need all the information you can get in order to make a good investment decision.
  • You own an optical company in Illinois and are thinking of expanding into Ohio and you want to know all you can find out about the optical companies already doing business there. In other words, how tough is the competition you'll face? This is called competitive intelligence.

First, let's talk about the simplest example, checking out a business that's small and local.

What springs to mind in a case like this for most people is "call the Better Business Bureau." There's nothing wrong with that but that will usually provide only very limited insight. Another possibility is, an online complaint-reporting service, but, again, this probably won't tell you too much if you're checking out a business that's strictly local.

What you really want to know is whether the company does good work at a reasonable price and stands behind their work if something goes wrong. For these kinds of questions, your best source of info is often other people - the company's customers, suppliers and competitors - which means the plain old telephone is probably your best tool.

Ask the company for references from customers, then simply call them and ask a few questions. Of course, even this may not tell you much, since the company provided the references. So you may want to try some additional avenues of research, such as --

Local businesses have local reputations and, as said, the best approach is to try to find out what that reputation is - call some of its past customers, even call a couple of its competitors or suppliers - talk to as many people about it as you can. If you do that, plus check for complaints, lawsuits, and news coverage, and make sure the business has the proper licenses, as suggested above, you've done about all you can do.


Now let's tackle the much harder problem of gathering information for business decision-making and competitive intelligence. How can you go about getting this type of information on a company?

First, you should recognize that information is much more easily obtainable on a public company than on a private company, simply because public companies (unlike private ones) are required to file with the SEC.

Publicly-traded companies file a wide variety of documents with the SEC, many of which are accessible through EDGAR, the SEC's Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval System. You can search EDGAR by company name (or other identifying information) and then view a list of that company's filings, then you can view selected filings in full text.

At you'll find a quick tutorial on how to use EDGAR, but essentially you'll just enter the company's name, then choose the specific reports you wish to view. The possibilities include annual reports (pay special attention to the Management Discussion section), proxy statements, and many types of extremely detailed financial reports. One of particular interest to competitors and investors is the 10-K filing, which contains financial information not inlcuded in a company's annual financial report - it may discuss pending litigation, related party transactions (also known as side deals) and audit footnotes.

Other useful searchable online federal government agency databases include:

Previously, I suggested you run a D&B credit report on your target company. Other fee-based sources of business background info are:

These services are mainly useful for public company research. They are relatively inexpensive and can provide financial data, credit scores, litigation information, UCCs, liens, bankruptcies, and executive profiles. This is frankly much easier than trying to dig up all this info yourself from scattered public records sources.

However, don't overlook Internet news sources, especially if you're researching a large company - you'll be particularly interested in business news periodicals. A good comprehensive source is Topix but you may also wish to check out article archives on Business Week, Forbes, and Fortune, as well as any local business journals. Check for news about both the company and its top executives.

Finally, if your local library offers public access to Lexis-Nexis, choose the Corporate & Legal service, and run your target company/exectuves on this powerful, though expensive, commercial database to access news, investment analysis, competitive intelligence reports, marketing research studies, etc..


Private company research is, as said, more difficult than public company research since private companies don't file SEC reports. What's more, library and news sources of information are less likely to be helpful, especially in the case of small private businesses.

There are, however, a variety of state and local government sources that may be helpful. (Needless to say, these sources can also be helpful in researching publicly-traded companies, if you choose to handle the work yourself rather than using one of the aforementioned fee-based business background services.)

State Government Information Sources

  • Secretary of State's Office in state where company is incorporated. These offices can provide articles of incorporation, names of directors, operating locations, and possibly some type of annual report or other detailed financial information. Note that your target company may be a public company even if it doesn't file with the federal SEC if it only sells stock within one state - this is worth checking out with the state's securities office.
  • The state's economic development office, usually bearing such titles as "Bureau of Industry Development" or "Department of Commerce." These offices have current info about private companies in their state, including construction/expansion plans, employment changes, production operations and processes, principals and managers.
  • Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Division. Information on loans for which plant or equipment is posted as collateral - thus a good source to determine your target's business lines or production process.
  • Attorney General's Office - can tell you if your target has been the subject of any state investigations.

Local Government Information Sources

  • County Clerk - enables you to find out who owns the building or buildings your target company occupies, as well as the size of the lot and the building and the type of property. You may also be able to view the mortgage agreement.
  • Tax Assessor. A phone call to the tax assessor will reveal the age and value of the company's facilities.
  • Zoning and Planning Departments. Does your target company have permits to do business in the city or county?
  • Health Department. The county health department may be able to provide information on the number of people working for the company, any problems with working conditions, medical benefits of employees, and in some cases, general employee attitudes toward the company.

Private Information Sources

Briefly, I'll mention a few private (nongovernmental) sources of information you may also be able to tap in checking out a business.

Try contacting the trade or professional association for your target company's industry. Nearly every industry has an association - call its librarian or head of research, or if it's a small association, try contacting its chief executive. These people may know your target company, or its executives, well.

Other possible information sources are special interest groups (e.g., "industry watchdogs"); the editor or relevant beat reporter of the local newspaper; the labor union, if your target company is unionized; industry consultants (trade/professional associations or business news reporters can refer you to consultants for a given industry). Finally, you might consider contacting competitors and suppliers of your target company - try their market research or public relations departments. Be straightforward as to the reason for your call.

Finally, note that one of the best sources of inside info on any company - public or private - is its customers. You can usually identify customers by asking the company directly, asking its competitors, looking in its sales brochures, or asking trade/professional associations. Customers are considered reliable sources of information because they have direct experience with the company's product quality, they know how the products are marketed and sold, and they are familiar with the company's terms of sale. In addition, they are frequently privy to upcoming new product or service introductions, long before new ventures are generally announced to the public.

That's it – our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on checking out a business.

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources

Washington Researchers

Washington Researchers is a Washington, D.C.-based competitive intelligence research firm you can call for just about any size project, large or small. They're the best there is at unearthing information buried in the D.C. government bureaucracy. But even if you don't plan on hiring them to do your competitive intelligence project for you, you should peruse their site for valuable insights on the CI research process - especially, check out their page "Defining Intelligence Objectives" and "Intelligent Internet Searching." Note that they publish a large number of popular guides to intelligence-gathering and are always ready to provide in-house training in the field.

Fuld & Co., Inc.

Fuld is to competitive intelligence approximately what Kleenex is to tissues. On its website it lists its CI services as: targeted research, analysis, and strategic consulting, intelligence process and systems design, and intelligence education and training. In short, no matter what the scope or complexity of your project is, Fuld can handle it - but it's expensive. For some interesting background on the CI industry, take a look at a few of its white papers at:

Related Web Search Guides

Other Web Search Guides you might find useful:
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Recommended Reading

III.Discussion Group


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