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Building and Running a Successful Research Business
A Guide for the Independent Information Professional
By Mary Ellen Bates
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Mary Ellen Bates
All rights reserved.
What's an Independent Info Pro?
What's This Business All About?
I assume that you have some notion of what the independent information profession covers — finding, organizing, and managing information — or you wouldn't have picked up this book. But different people define this profession differently, and it is a common misconception that most research can be done on the web. While the internet has radically changed how independent info pros operate, much of our work involves research outside the portion of the web that most people are familiar with — that is, beyond what you can find by typing a few words into your favorite search engine.
In the most general terms, independent information professionals work for themselves or as partners in a two- or three-person business; they provide information services, such as research, analysis, information management, or consulting services, and they charge their clients for their services, either per project or on an hourly or daily basis. Many independent info pros worked as librarians or researchers before launching their own businesses; they may have spent years honing their research skills within large corporations or research centers. Others started out as professionals in other fields — lawyers, engineers, or marketing consultants, for example — then shifted their focus to providing research support to others within their profession. What all successful independent info pros have in common are strong entrepreneurial skills. They enjoy the challenge of building a business, they excel at managing their clients, and they are self-motivated. They didn't all start out as natural entrepreneurs, but they were willing to hone their business skills in order to succeed.
The independent information profession is a wide-open field; there are far more potential clients out there than people providing research and analysis services to them. No one has accurate numbers on the total number of independent info pros in the marketplace. The Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP; www.aiip.org), the trade association of the profession, has about 700 members. But this total does not accurately reflect the total number of independent info pros in business at any point in time; probably 10 times as many exist who aren't AIIP members. A fairly high turnover rate prevails among independent info businesses, reflecting the entrepreneurial world as a whole, in which, according to many studies, more than half of all small businesses fail within the first year and 80 or 90 percent of all businesses close within five years.
People who leave the independent info pro field usually cite one of the following reasons:
They miss the daily stimulation of a more traditional office environment.
They have difficulty dealing with the dramatically fluctuating cash flow.
They don't enjoy the amount of administrative and marketing work required.
They no longer have the passion and energy for the business that they had initially.
I have been an independent info pro for nearly 30 years, and I have watched a number of colleagues' businesses start up and then shut down. Often the closing of the business results in unexpected successes — formerly independent info pros reenter the more traditional work force with newly acquired business skills and often find that they are much more valuable to employers because of their experience running a small business.
So What Do You Do, Anyway?
The independent information profession encompasses a wide variety of services. This section includes brief descriptions of many of the most common types of services offered by info-entrepreneurs. Most independent info pros specialize in a particular kind of research and focus on a specific industry or vertical market. Many of us have a wide range of clients — mine include consultants, engineers, ad agencies, executives from Fortune 100 firms, lawyers, and web entrepreneurs, among others — but most of us focus on a specific market or niche. What all my clients have in common is that they call me for strategic business information. Other independent info pros may target the healthcare industry, architectural firms, the pharmaceutical market, or the IT industry. While many of us also have clients outside our primary market, we tend to target our marketing efforts on a specific subject area or industry. Note that some of the information services described here, particularly document delivery, are more likely than others to serve clients across vertical markets.
With the prevalence of databases on the web, most independent info pros who provide research services of any sort include at least some web-based research in their portfolios. That may include locating government statistics on international trade, analyzing company filings at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or scanning blogs for discussion of a consumer product. Info-entrepreneurs use social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook to identify experts to interview as well as to build their network. They mine email discussion groups and online forums to identify key opinion leaders.
The key element is that info-entrepreneurs don't just throw a few words into a search engine and retrieve exactly what their clients want. While being a good web searcher is essential to just about any research business, that alone will not provide the skills needed to provide high- end, high-value research to clients. But even projects that do not appear to focus on web research usually require some web aspect:
A client wanted a strategic overview on the iced tea market in the U.K. As I expected, most of this work required identifying in-depth market research reports and searching the fee-based online services. However, as I was creating a table with the key features of each of the beverage companies, I realized that I had to analyze the messages of each brand. That required drilling deep into each company's website to see how each positioned its brand.
I was asked to gather information on the vacuum-insulated panel (VIP) industry; VIPs are what keep refrigerated trucks cold, medical coolers cool, and your house warm. Part of my research involved identifying the major players in this field, and one of my approaches included searching in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office's database of patents, on the assumption that companies with multiple patents in this field are probably big players in the VIP industry.
An entrepreneur who wanted to create a network of highly influential executives asked me to identify the 10 most influential chiropractors in 15 cities. While much of the work for this project was telephone research, I used an add-on for Google Maps to show where each of the chiropractors was located and the relative population density and household income of each location — something that added substantial value to the results of the telephone work.
While the depth of information on the web can sometimes feel overwhelming, the professional online services described in Chapter 34 are even richer sources of information than the free or public web. These databases include material that never appears on the web, and they provide sophisticated search tools and valueadded features that enable users to conduct in-depth research in ways not possible on the web.
Using the professional online services can be an expensive proposition. These services charge by the search, by the document, by the amount of time you spend connected to them, or by various other pricing algorithms. As an independent info pro, you pass along the online expenses to your clients, and these costs can sometimes add up to a third or more of the total project cost. Note that there is very little demand in the marketplace for independent info pros who only provide web research without in-depth analysis and other added value. The public perception, whether or not it's correct, is that it takes no great skill to search the web. We set ourselves apart by offering access to online research sources not generally available to our clients and by using uncommon, lesser-known, and complex web-based sources.
Public Records Research
Although much consternation has arisen recently about supposedly easy access to personal information on the web, a great deal of information about individuals has always been available in court clerks' and county recorders' offices and other government agencies. Some of these records are now available on the web, but many still reside only in print files. Public records research includes:
Reviewing bankruptcy filings to determine what assets are held by a corporation
Conducting a pre-employment check of a school bus driver to make sure he has no criminal record or driving offenses
Looking through articles of incorporation to identify the executives of a privately held company
Finding prior court testimony given by an expert witness to determine how she is likely to testify for an upcoming case
Public records research is not for the faint of heart. It often requires a private investigator's license, it requires a good understanding of the ins and outs of various government agencies, and it takes a gut sense to know when you have found all the pieces of the puzzle. See Chapter 36, Public Records Research, for more information.
Despite the much-talked-about "information explosion," a lot of information never appears in print or in any electronic format. Sometimes, the fastest way to obtain such information is simply to call an expert in the field and ask. Telephone research is an art form, and many independent info pros — myself included — don't have the necessary combination of charm, patience, persistence, and chutzpah, and the ability to talk to anyone about anything. This type of work tends to involve more hours per project and a longer turnaround time than other types of research because of its very nature. Merely identifying the person who can answer your question might involve 10 or 15 calls. When you factor in the inevitable delays brought on by voicemail tag and varying business schedules and time zones, it means that very few telephone research projects can be completed in less than a week, even if the total amount of time spent on the phone is only a fraction of that time.
The kind of telephone research I am talking about here requires more sophisticated research techniques than just running through a list of survey questions with a preselected list of contacts. Usually, you will get an assignment to find out about a specific topic, and you will have to develop your own leads. That means some preliminary web, online, or library research to identify likely sources for the information, as well as deciding on the best way to approach the project and exactly what questions to ask.
Telephone researchers get much of their work from researchers within organizations and in the form of referrals from other independent info pros. From a marketing point of view, networking is particularly important in order to develop a large client base of subcontracting sources. Chapter 35 goes into more detail about what is involved in telephone research.
When the independent information profession began, much of our research involved going to libraries on behalf of clients. Some projects still call for library research or, similarly, contacting information centers or other brick-and-mortar collections of material. An info pro might travel to a government agency's information center to search a database not available on the web, email a university library in Sweden to find a copy of a doctoral thesis, arrange to visit a trade association's library to use its specialized collection, or review records in the U.S. National Archives to determine how a particular site was used by the U.S. Army 50 years ago, in order to determine what hazardous materials may still be lurking in the soil and groundwater.
As more government agencies, embassies, associations, and other resources make their information available on the web, demand for hands-on library research has diminished. On the other hand, library research can sometimes unearth information not available anywhere in electronic format. I recently browsed through the membership directory of AIIP, looking at the listings for "unique collections" that members could access. Entries ranged from the Cornell University library of veterinary medicine to the Public Relations Society of America library, the Italian Patent and Trademark Office, the Georgia state archives, and the World Bank.
One of the difficulties in offering library research is that it requires a fair amount of overhead time going to and from the library away from your office. Chapter 15, Setting Rates and Fees, discusses how to set a price for your time; keep in mind that it can be difficult to find clients willing to pay your professional hourly rate.
Tracking down obscure citations and obtaining copies or originals of articles, reports, and books is the job of document delivery (doc del) firms. Unlike most other types of independent information businesses, doc del firms may employ a number of people, due to the amount of clerical and paraprofessional work involved. A doc del company acts, in a sense, as a librarian's — or researcher's — librarian. Once an info pro has identified the white paper, academic treatise, industrial standard, conference paper, 20-year-old annual report, or obscure article from a Polish medical journal that the client needs, the doc del firm's job is to get a copy of the item. Sometimes that means searching online library catalogs to find an institution that subscribes to the journal or maintains an archive of old corporate annual reports, and arranging to send someone to that library to photocopy or scan the material. Sometimes it involves contacting the publisher and negotiating an appropriate royalty payment for a copy. Sometimes it means tracking down the original author or conference speaker to see if he is willing to supply a copy of his paper or presentation.
Many doc del clients are librarians looking for material they don't have in their own collections and may not have been able to find through their own network of sources. That means that doc del firms often get difficult, incomplete, or incorrect citations. So part of the job of a good doc del researcher is to think like a detective. To an extent, doc del firms are threatened by the perception that "it's all available on the web." People are sometimes not willing to wait a week for an article when they are accustomed to getting material at the click of a mouse. And customers often balk at the price for document delivery; an article can easily cost $25 or $50, once the publisher's royalty fee is included in the invoice. Document delivery is a specialized niche for people who are detail- oriented, able to generate and manage large volumes of orders, and can identify clients willing to pay the often substantial fees.
Excerpted from Building and Running a Successful Research Business by Mary Ellen Bates. Copyright © 2010 Mary Ellen Bates. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
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