Business Research: No Power Suit Needed*

*Feel free to wear a power suit if you want! I'm not here to judge your attire or personal expression.

Even though now I am often considered a "business librarian," I understand better than anyone that the phrase "business research" can be intimidating, even downright frightening. For me, it used to conjure up mental images of people in suits, in boardrooms, using corporate jargon, usually projecting something with a graph on it. Not my scene. In fact, working in places with dress codes that required wearing things like collared shirts and slacks made me run screaming onto the public library career track.

I like my place in Library Land for a lot of reasons besides wardrobe, including the fact that developing and using research skills is a good outlet for my natural curiosity. This penchant for research was also one of many reasons why I accepted my current job in our Reference Department. However, if I'm being honest, the hiring condition that I would have to join our small business team was not one of those reasons. 

Obviously, I work here, so I learned how to suck it up, but I was intimidated. My high school memories of math and economics made me run screaming onto the Arts & Humanities academic track. (Yes, I run screaming a lot. How does anyone else run?) The business world seemed specialized and impenetrable to outsiders. Besides, people starting small businesses are investing huge parts of their lives in the process. What if I did it wrong? 

Several years later, I've met with hundreds of entrepreneurs through our BizBoost appointment service and by giving presentations about DPL's small business resources to small business support groups. And now, I impart to you, fair readers, a few secrets of business research. 

Business Research: Just Like Regular Research, But More Business-y

In addition to learning a lot about business research during my time as a librarian, I've learned a lot about information literacy and misinformation in particular and the research process overall. Believe it or not, all of these dimensions of research employ the same skills.

I'm not the only person who's gotten hung up on the word "business." I see it not just among our customers but our colleagues as well. I've had to learn that I have to weigh the word "research" more heavily in that phrase.

All that said: business research can still be frustrating! Even for business librarians! Based on my experience, I believe there are three main components to this frustration:

  1. The information doesn't exist. In this "information age" of ours we're used to being able to answer virtually any question that exists. Even though it seems like Big Data or the government or someone is tracking everything, that's just not the case. Whenever I can't find something, I try to think through what it would take to gather that data. Sometimes the question is just too hard to measure or too broad, like what future trends in an industry will be, or how many people own art (what is art? what is a piece of art?) Or maybe the question is just too niche that the results wouldn't be impactful, such as how dentists spend their leisure time. (I invented this example, but when double-checking myself I learned that there is at least one study on this....from over 40 years ago.) 
  2. The information does exist, but we can't have it. The business world is predicated on competition, and just as in games, sports, etc., you don't want to reveal enough to give your opponent an edge. Businesses tend to keep revenue, expenses, and pricing, consultants and contract labor, etc., private and they're under no obligation to reveal that information most of the time. (Publicly traded companies do have to file some information with the US Securities & Exchanges Commission, but private companies do not.)
  3. We could have the information, but we can't afford it. Information about markets is also worth a lot of money. If you've ever Googled business trends, you may have seen prohibitively expensive reports from outlets like Grandview Research or MarketWatch. These are just not available to any non-paying customers (in their entirety; see Tip #3 below) and I've never found a copy of one of these through a database or through ILL. Sometimes professional associations conduct or pay for market research to be done and those prices can be astronomical (sometimes even for paying members). My perennial example is the American Pet Products Association. A non-member wanting full access to their National Pet Owners' Survey data portal would be charged north of eleven thousand dollars.  

These are tough pills to swallow. As a librarian, my whole livelihood revolves around free access to information, and paywalls make me furious. An entrepreneur may be staking their livelihood on starting a business, so of course they would want access to this really important information. Unfortunately, there's just no guarantee that a business will be successful. I wish there were; our customers are such amazing people. But that's why we do whatever we can to help people find valuable and credible data. 

Tip #1: Use Library Resources

Obviously, I am a little biased about this one, but the #1 thing I've heard in my time supporting small business research is that our resources have an incredible (sometimes overwhelming) amount of information available that is all available for the low, low price of free with your library card.

Our greatest resource (obviously, I am extremely biased) is our staff. Entrepreneurs in the process of planning or growing their business are able to use our booking system to request a 30-60 minute online appointment with a member of the BizBoost team. Based on what we gather about your needs, we do some prep work to look at both our resources and on the wider internet. The meeting time is designed to give you a surface-level demonstration via video call to empower you to explore these resources on your own. In other words, this is more of a a teach-a-person-to-fish type service than a give-someone-a-fish type service.

But an appointment is not necessary! Among our Research page's Popular Topics pages sits our Business page, where our most popular database resources (and more!) are in one convenient location. Here is a rundown of the questions we address, along with our database collection highlights:

  • For questions regarding with your industry:
    • Statista: the newest addition to our Business Resource family, Statista vets or provides a staggering number of statistics on a huge number of topics that pertain to matters both national and international.
    • ABI/Inform, Business Source Premier, and Business Insights Global are three resources that each offer an array of information from the business world, including information like scholarly journals, specialty trade publications, industry reports, company reports, or even well known resources that are otherwise behind paywalls (lookin' at you, The Economist).
    • First Research Industry Profiles: is one publication we pay special attention to that's found within the greater ABI/Inform database (above). These digestible, comprehensive reports update every quarter, giving you an idea of what's currently happening in many different facets of a particular industry.
  • For questions regarding other companies (competition, vendors, partners, whatever!):
    • The top two bullet points above are not limited to industry information; many of them also include information on specific companies and brands.
    • Data Axle Reference Solutions is a new name for an old resource (Reference USA), and its U.S. Businesses contains profiles for nearly 17 million businesses, which you can search for, view, or download into a spreadsheet.
  • For questions on finding your target market:
    • Statista (for the third, time!) provides information on consumer markets, either from external sources or their original resources, and either pre-packaged or something you can design yourself using their Consumer Insights tool.
    • Demographics Now lets you research any geographic area in the US to learn about its consumers, including using customer avatars from Experian's Mosaic market segmentation. Over the years, our staff have worked on this walkthrough guide.
  • For questions on writing a business plan:
    • Business Plans Handbook is an eBook collection of sample business plans to help you with elements of writing a business plan like structure, tone, etc., with coverage from 1993 to 2023. (For ongoing support while writing your business plan, you may want to look for the next tip.)

If you do decide to request a BizBoost appointment, these are the questions we would address and we would go over most of these resources during our appointment time. If you have anymore questions about the BizBoost service that aren't addressed in this brief post, you can also email our team.

Tip #2: Make Community Connections

All the above resources are great and we pride ourselves on offering them. That being said, our BizBoost appointments have two big limitations:

  1. They're not a long-term resource. Depending on our staffing and our customer traffic, our team of between 3-5 librarians conducts anywhere between 200-400 BizBoost appointments in any given year. We do this in addition to our other work (such writing enormously entertaining and life-changing public blog posts), so we don't have the capacity to provide a large number of follow-up visits.
  2. They're not a one-stop-shop. Even if we had unlimited time to devote to small business services, as research librarians the questions we are equipped to address represent a narrow set among the many, many more considerations that go into starting a business: licensing, taxes, legal structure, finances, website construction, payment platforms, pricing, and more. None of these can our staff help with beyond making referrals. (Although if you have a full privileges library card you may want to take a spin through Udemy for some of these skills.)

Thankfully, both the Denver Area and the state of Colorado are very supportive of small businesses and provide a lot of resources. Some of those resources are self-guided, such as the free-to-download Colorado Business Resource Book or MyBizColorado's filing tool. Some of these resources pair you with experts in workshop and/or class and/or counseling settings, such as Colorado's statewide Small Business Development Center Network.

Our staff have compiled a list of both types of resources that we've found or worked with over the years. View it here.

Tip #3: SIFT Like a Detective

Last year, I wrote a series of blog posts on misinformation sleuthing that examines two information literacy frameworks in-depth. To keep it simple, I will use one of these to talk more about important research skills: Professor Mike Caulfield's SIFT method, which stands for Stop, Investigate the source, Find trusted coverage, and Trace claims to their origin. This applies to all manner of research, including business research.

Many of the resources we access in our BizBoost appointments are the original source of the information because they are published by organizations do business research, or they take information by accessing a larger source of data, such as information published by the Census Bureau. Database resources like those in Tip #1 come from resources that are authoritative or at least vetted, fact-checked, or peer-reviewed. Database company employ subject experts to help them select resources.

But here's where the adage "trust, but verify" comes into play: no information is perfect and sometimes it's hard to tell if a source is legitimate no matter where it comes from. To investigate the author or outlet publishing the information, try opening a new tab and Googling to see what comes up. Something well known may bring up an easily scannable resource like Wikipedia that can let you see if a resource has been around for a long time, is affiliated with a professional association, or has other markers of legitimacy. (You can read the "About" page on a website but remember that organizations aren't going to make themselves look bad.) This is called lateral reading.

Additionally, our databases don't have exhaustive information about all industries and professions. A lot of industries do have professional associations or organizations that conduct research, connect members, advocate for laws, etc., But sometimes gaps still persist, such as with niche or fragmented industries (industries where there aren't dominant companies). Sometimes all I can find are blog posts called things like "[Number of] Stats Every [Insert Industry Professional Here] Should Know for 2023!" I would not call these reliable sources; they are usually trying to sell something. However, they may contain useful information, particularly if they cite their sources and link to a resource that backs up the statistical claim. If they do, you can try to follow the link to the original source and see if it's available for free.

If the original source isn't free (or if it's mentioned but not linked), you can still copy and paste the name of the report or study into Google to see who else is citing that source to corroborate either the source's claim or its credibility as a source. Are many other resources quoting the same report? Who are they? What is their credibility in the business world? Are they pointing to anything that is free to view in its full context? For example, if a newspaper speaks to a representative or cites a statistic from a resource, you can then look up that organization and see if they publish any free research or if more robust information has been published in another outlet. If you know that this news source practices responsible journalism, or if enough sources keep pointing towards the claim's original source it can help establish credibility for future research. 

A few years ago I took an online course called Biz Ref 101, taught by Celia Ross, a business librarian at the University of Michigan. Her advice to tackling difficult business research questions is to "think like a detective," which involves a lot of the SIFT skills, such as cross-checking claims, and tracing information back to its original source. But it also includes keeping an eye out for more clues, keeping an open mind, and digging for information hidden in things like professional publications or other news sources to gain insights not always available right away.

I have an example of this that has come up a lot for me. When assisting food entrepreneurs, I keep coming across the name "Technomic." I see it has no Wikipedia entry, so to investigate legitimacy, I plug the name Technomic into a few DPL business databases. I get results from food-related trade journals and publications, Bloomberg, First Research Industry Profiles, and Statista. This seems like a respected source, so I can probably trust their output.

I go to their website and look through it to see if they publish any research. I do find a white paper forecast I can download for free. But then I see that a lot of their publications are not free and their Top 500 Chain Report is a spicy $9,500. If I can't afford that, I may plug the name of the report back into Google to see if any information from this report specifically is quoted anywhere to give me an idea of the report's findings. Here's an area where press releases can be your friend as well: they are free will often give some big industry numbers or tidbits to tempt possible purchasers. Here's the one for that ten thousand dollar report. So even without the complete resource, we still found some information that was useful and that we didn't have to pay for.

If you're thinking that this slow-going process feels antithetical in a world of unlimited information: you're absolutely right! But it really does take time experiment with resources, to accumulate a list of go-to sources, and to check credibility.

If you're interested in learning more about small business resources at Denver Public Library and beyond, please join us on May 18 at 11am for our virtual program "Never Too Late to Startup! Small Business Help for Folks 50+." Register at this link.

If you have questions about business help or anything else, please contact us via phone, email or chat, or schedule an appointment with our staff. You can learn about all these options on our Ask Us page.

This image was created by Flickr user , and is free to use with attribution under Creative Commons License 2.0. You can view the original source here.  

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