Research Strategies - Where to Start?

So you have a new piece of research to do.  It could be a competitive analysis of your industry.  Maybe it’s due diligence for an acquisition.  Or maybe it’s background research for a sales meeting your boss has coming up.  Where do you start?  If you’re like most people (myself included, sometimes), your natural inclination is to fire up Google (or maybe Bing or Yahoo).  Contrary to popular opinion, that’s probably not the ideal place to start.

Why?  First, it’s too easy to end up with irrelevant or only marginally helpful results, especially if you don’t have a set of well-targeted search terms in mind.  Second, it can be very time-consuming to go through search results, and that may impede your progress.  Finally, you never really know when you’re done.  There’s always the temptation to keep searching for that last little nugget of information, and once you do stop, there’s always the nagging worry that you missed something.

So what should you do instead?  Go to more general, comprehensive sources first:

  • Wikipedia: Provides good overviews on a lot of topics.  The site is especially useful for getting oriented in a new field you’re not familiar with (when the partner said you should research competitors in the PCB space, did he mean printed circuit boards or polychlorinated biphenyl?) and figuring out the right search terms to drill down further.  Commercial sites like Wikinvest.com that use a similar approach can also be useful.
  • The company site: If you’re researching a company, the company site is a good place to understand product lines and business units.  Many companies also have useful documents like case studies on their sites.
  • Financial filings: The granddaddy of Securities and Exchange Commission filings, which all public companies in the US are required to file, is the 10-K annual report.  Companies include high-level descriptions of their businesses, competition, customers, and performance, although some go into more detail that others.  Another great resource for getting your bearings and understanding the industry.
  • Investor presentations: These conference calls used to be limited to stock analysts, but in recent years regulation has forced companies to make them available to everyone.  These presentations can be great complements to financial filings, providing more in-depth information on current strategic initiatives and plans for the future.  Many companies now post presentations and audio files from the conference calls on the investor relations pages of their sites.
  • Google Finance: This site provides a great, quick overview of the company, competitors, and financials for anyone strapped for time.  Similar sites like Tracked.com are also trying to take this aggregated information to a new level.
  • Trade magazines: Finding the right trade magazine can be hit and miss since it can be difficult to tell which ones are authoritative versus just another website, and the authoritative ones sometimes charge exorbitant subscriptions if you want to access their articles.  Those issues aside, trade magazines are a great way to understand an industry, whether looking for recent competitive moves, company profiles, or industry-wide data.

Once you’ve perused these sources, you should have a better idea of how to organize your research when you do hit the search engines.  With more specific search terms, you can often avoid much of the irrelevant content that very general queries seem to attract.  In my next post, I’ll discuss organizing your research in a bit more detail.

What do you find to be the best place to start in your research projects?


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