Don’t Do a Blind Google Search

GoogleYesterday I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar to members of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Business Valuators. I shared some tips about developing effective search strategies, as well as some techniques and tools for finding better and more relevant information more quickly. You can find the presentation slides here.

My main message was that research is more than just plugging a word or two into Google; thinking through your search strategy and knowing how to use search engines and other tools to their fullest are important factors in your success. In this, I have one of the foremost experts in the field of valuation on my side: Professor Damodaran. Listen to what he had to say about effective research — to an audience of Google employees, no less!

Quick Tip Tuesday: Twingly for Blog Searches

blogEver since Google dismantled its separate blog search engine, searching blogs has been cumbersome. Blog results are sprinkled throughout the main web results, and while Google still offers a separate blog screening mechanism via the News tab (click on “Search tools,” then “All news” and limit to blogs), the results seem limited to sources in its news database.

google blogs

IceRocket is still around, but I prefer not to rely on a single search engine.

Thankfully, Twingly provides a terrific alternative, with a robust advanced search screen offering excellent sorting and limiting tools. You can also set up email or RSS updates on your search terms. This is a great tool to add to your research toolbox.

Photo source: NOGRAN s.r.o., Flickr

Country Risk Reports and Their Limits

globeFor a recent project I took an in-depth look at risk factors in a number of emerging economies, including political, economic, financial, environmental, and regional risks.

A number of firms – such as A.M Best, The Economist Intelligence Unit, BMI Research/Fitch, IHS, and others – offer free or fee-based reports. Some even provide risk scores or ratings that can be compared across countries or over time.

It is important to source a variety of reports to compare and contrast the analysis and methodologies in order to get a complete picture, but as Professor Aswath Damodaran noted in a recent blog post, these reports offer non-market, point-in-time measures that may miss crucial, dynamic information and developments:

There are two problems with non-market measures like risk scores or sovereign ratings. The first is that they are neither intuitive nor standardized. Thus, a PRS [Political Risk Services] score of 80 does not make a country twice as safe as one with a PRS score of 40. In fact, there are other services that measure country risk scores, where high numbers indicate high risk, reversing the PRS scoring. The second is that these non-market measures are static. Much as risk measurement services and ratings agencies try, they cannot keep up with the pace of real world developments. Thus, while markets reacted almost instantaneously to Brexit by knocking down the value of the British Pound and scaling down stock prices around the globe, changes in risk scores and ratings happened (if at all) more slowly.

For my report, I included some recent market measures as well as news items in order to round out the picture, but it is critical to always be explicit about what elements remain outside the scope of research reports.

Don’t Be Melania Trump

trumpobamaBy now most of us have heard about Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and most of us – I hope! – have been shaking our heads wondering how it could happen.

The New York Times had a good piece called “How Melania Trump’s Speech Veered Off Course and Caused an Uproar” that delves into the background of this embarrassing episode. This passage, in particular, caught my attention:

It [the speech] reinforces dominant themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign that still linger from the primary, which his team has struggled to change: a deliberately bare-bones campaign structure, a slapdash style and a reliance on the instincts of the candidate over the judgments of experienced political experts, like Mr. Scully and Mr. McConnell.

There is an important lesson in this: Use and trust the experts! In politics or in business, using a bare-bones, slap-dash style and relying on instincts over data and experience will always lead to trouble.

That is not to say one should blindly follow the experts’ advice or not question their track record, but experts dedicate their working lives to their subject areas and build their reputation on their ability to deliver. Their advice and deliverables can be the difference between success and failure.

At FSO Research and Information, we pride ourselves on our well-honed business and due diligence research knowledge and experience, gained through years of practical experience and numerous client projects. It is our job to keep up with information resources and methodologies, and to apply that knowledge and experience to answer our clients’ business-critical questions. We know that Google is not the be all and end all of research, even though we use Google and other search engines expertly. We know the limits of each resource and how to leverage and combine them to build a robust picture.

It is clear that Mr. Trump doesn’t give a hoot about his own reputation or that of the United States, but if you care about yours, trust your research to the experts.

Competitive Intelligence Certificate

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

The first of the three courses in the new competitive intelligence certificate, offered through the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, is now open for registration. This is a fantastic opportunity for information professionals to learn about and hone their CI research and analytical skills. I say this not just because I co-developed the course.

In today’s hyperconnected and competitive environment, organizations need to stay ahead of their competition. CI is one sure way to avoid surprises, monitor trends, identify insights, connect the dots between data sets and grow market share.

The Foundations of Competitive Intelligence course will be offered in Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 at the St. George campus. Register here.

Searching for Form D Documents

FormDs.com is an interesting and useful new site that helps identify equity or debt investments in startups, growing businesses, hedge funds, and private equity firms in the U.S. on a real-time basis.

As noted by the SEC:

The SEC does not require companies that are raising less than $1 million under Rule 504 of Regulation D to be “registered” with the SEC, but these companies are required to file a “Form D” with the SEC. The Form D serves as a brief notice that provides information about the company and the offering.

A lot of good information can be gleaned from Form Ds, including the amount of money raised, the names of executives and directors, and even the broker commission paid. The site allows searching by company or individual name, making it useful for Canadian searchers looking for competitive cross-border information.

[Via Best of the Business Web]

 

A Vote for Business Success

voteThis post is a bit of a departure from what I normally post about, in that it doesn’t deal directly with research resources and strategies, but with the larger context in which some of those resources exist and what data gets produced.

If you read this blog, it’s because you’re interested in research and care about timely, accurate information and how to find it. And if you’re a Canadian, you know that a federal election is being held on October 19th.

As I consider which party gets my vote, information policy has been weighing heavily on my mind. During the Conservative party’s rule for the past 9 years, there has been a steady erosion in the quality of the information produced and made available by the federal government.

In their efforts to curb government spending, and for certain ideological reasons, the government:

Cut funding to Statistics Canada, hampering its ability to gather, analyze, and release quality data in a timely fashion;
Scrapped the mandatory long-form census and replaced it with a (more expensive) voluntary National Household Survey that has a lower response rate and is therefore distorted and less reliable;
Closed a number of federal libraries and threw away their content;
Muzzled government scientists so they weren’t able to share their research with the media or even international colleagues; and
Undermined the Access to Information regime with funding cuts, delays, and refusals, making it largely useless. Canada’s access law now lags behind that of India, Mexico, and Pakistan, despite the Conservatives’ promise to bring more transparency to government when they were first elected.

These actions have certainly hurt policy making and academic research, but a less discussed issue is how much they’re hurting the business community, especially small and medium sized businesses. Businesses depend on good quality information to make the right strategic and competitive decisions. Large businesses sometimes have the means to undertake needed research or purchase reports from consultants and market researchers, but small and medium sized businesses simply cannot afford those fees, which can run thousands and tens of thousands of dollars per report. And all businesses depend on certain information that can only come from the government, such as census data and jobs data.

In February, some notable business organizations, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Economics Association, Martin Prosperity Institute, and the Canadian Association of Business Economics expressed their concern about the voluntary household survey, and called on the government to reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

As one economist noted:

We need good data. It’s a multibillion-dollar mistake to go from the good quality long-form census data to a NHS because of the uncertainties and distortions involved … I think of these data as a public good … that provides a benefit to all Canadians, either directly or indirectly.”

On October 19th, I will be thinking about information quality, availability, and access when casting my vote. My business’s success, and that of my clients, depends on it.

[I wrote this post before I saw the detailed article published yesterday in Maclean’s magazine called “Vanishing Canada: Why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data.” Do take a look.]

Photo source: Landrachuk, Pixabay

The 4 Stages of Business Research: Are You Prepared?

StairwayKnowledge is power — we’ve all heard this mantra, but how many of us truly empower ourselves with knowledge when tackling a new business opportunity or project?

In the lifecycle of a project, there are four stages where good, thorough research is critical to business success: when pitching a potential client, before signing the client agreement, during project completion, and after project delivery.

Each stage has unique research needs and specific resources that should be consulted. Googling for information is a good start — but your competitors have Google too. Staying ahead of your competitors and shining in the eyes of your clients requires going beyond Google.

Stage 1: Pitching a Potential Client

You’ve identified a potential client and project to pitch on, you’re confident that you offer what the client is looking for, and you’ve secured an hour of their time to prove your chops.

How well do you know this client and their market, industry position, plans for the future, and projects in development? How do you show them that you understand their needs, their challenges, and the fears and concerns that keep them up at night? How do you establish a personal connection — by, say, casually mentioning an article the firm’s CEO wrote for an obscure industry magazine?

The thoroughness of your research and the depth of your understanding of their situation can be the difference in winning or losing the contract. Industry and market indicators, major players and competitors, the regulatory environment, statistics, trends, forecasts, and the backgrounds of everyone in the room are some key pieces of information to research and understand before stepping into that boardroom or office.

Some information sources to consider are industry associations, statistics agencies, government agencies, financial filings, public records, market research reports, journals and trade publications, news reports and social media, investor presentations, analyst reports, and conference proceedings. Some of these resources are available on the open web and can be accessed efficiently if you use advanced techniques, but many must be purchased through information vendors or retrieved from specialized databases. Consult an information professional about how best to find, access, and leverage these resources.

Even if most of the research doesn’t end up in the pitch deck, you will feel confident and connected to the client’s needs. Here, you can never be too prepared.

Stage 2: Signing the Agreement

Congratulations! You won the project! Before you sign on the dotted line, think about the minefield you may potentially be entering, especially if your client is not a large corporation already under constant scrutiny.

A client’s history with vendors and customers could provide a good indication of what you might expect in their dealings with you. Have they ever declared bankruptcy? Are they currently embroiled in a major lawsuit? Do they pay their vendors on time and treat their customers well? Will they somehow jeopardize your reputation by association?

The same goes for your own vendors and suppliers: Can they do what they say they’ll do? Might they take your deposit and run? Have you validated and verified the information they’ve provided you?

Public records, media reports, and social media can uncover important clues to the above questions. This checklist (PDF) provides some key resources.

Taking the time to perform due diligence on a potential client or new vendor may save you considerable time, money, and headaches down the road.

Stage 3: Completing the Project

The due diligence process went well, you’ve signed the agreement, and now you’re ready to undertake the project. What do you need to know to get started?

It all starts with a well-defined problem. What is at stake? What question or questions do you need to answer? What information do you currently have? What information gaps exist? How will the information be used? The answers to these questions may change as the project evolves, but the relevance and quality of the research will depend on how clearly defined the questions are.

Other questions to ask at this stage are: What are some best practices that you can leverage and apply to your project? Are there experts you can consult and interview to provide information and guidance?

Many of the same resources used in Stage 1 can be used here as well, this time in a different way and with a different goal in mind. Whereas in Stage 1 you were likely looking for high-level information, now you may need to dig deeper, use a wider range of resources, and be cognizant of the nuances of the information. If you’re not finding exactly what you need, you may need to conduct primary research such as interviewing experts or undertaking market research.

Stage 4: After Project Delivery

Phew! The project is complete! You did a fabulous job, delivered the project to the client’s satisfaction, and received glowing reviews. Now what?

How can you leverage this project into other projects for this client and even their competitors? Will you wait for the client to call again or will you be proactive in monitoring their needs?

You probably already have some Google alerts set up for your business. Be sure to add the new client and/or their industry and all the major players to your alerts. These days Bing’s news alerts are even better than Google’s. You can receive customized alerts via RSS, and if you wish to see them in your inbox rather than an RSS reader, you could use a service like FeedMyInbox.

Website monitoring tools (such as ChangeDetection), RSS feeds, and social media monitoring tools (such as WhosTalkin) should also be part of your arsenal. Use them to keep up-to-date on changes that are taking place in the client’s industry, what relevant new products or services are coming to market, and what competitors are trying to do to stay one step ahead.

But, as mentioned above, not everything is available and accessible on the open web. Here subscription databases are again critical for monitoring news and specialty and trade magazines, where the information wheat has already been separated from the chaff.

At each of these four stages, accurate and strategic information can help you reduce risk and maximize your opportunities. Good information is the basis of knowledge — knowledge that can empower you and help your business succeed.

Photo source: Unsplash, Pixabay

Legislative Update

A couple of recent legislative changes and initiatives will be of interest to due diligence and investigative researchers.

Amendments to PIPEDA

The Digital Privacy Act, recently passed by Parliament and soon to come into force, amends the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which applies to private sector organizations that collect, use, or disclose personal information in the course of commercial activities. As the Data Protection Report notes:

The revised PIPEDA will specifically permit the sharing of personal information without individuals’ consent in the context of due diligence for business transactions, such as M&A, a partial sale of assets or transfer upon insolvency, provided certain conditions are met by the parties to the transaction. Organizations engaging in these types of business transactions will need to ensure compliance with the statutory requirements that resemble those found in Alberta’s privacy legislation. For example, under the PIPEDA amendments, only information necessary to the transaction may be communicated pursuant to an undertaking to protect the information with appropriate security measures and to use it solely for purposes related to the transaction. If the transaction does not proceed, the information must be returned. Otherwise, it may only be used after completion of the transaction for the purposes for which it was originally collected and if certain conditions are met, including notice to the individuals concerned.

The updated legislation also gives organizations the ability to disclose personal information to other organizations for the purposes of investigating a breach of an agreement, or a contravention of a Canadian law, or in connection with detecting, preventing or suppressing fraud.

Limits to Ontario Police Record Checks

A proposed bill in Ontario will standardize and limit the kinds of information released in police record checks. Police would no longer be able to disclose mental health information and would only release non-conviction records, such as acquittals, in limited circumstances to potential employers and others in background checks.

Business Backgrounding and Due Diligence Resources

I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting a session last night on business backgrounding and due diligence resources and strategies to the special libraries community in Toronto. I really enjoyed the session, and there was a lively Q&A afterwards where I picked up some tips as well.

Here’s a checklist of resources I created to help guide researchers when conducting this kind of research. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it provides an overview of the resources typically used. Please let me know in the comments if you find it useful.

Business Background and Due Diligence Research Checklist (PDF)