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Super Searchers Make it on Their Own
Top Independent Information Professionals Share Their Secrets for Starting and Running a Research Business
By Suzanne Sabroski, Reva Basch
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Sabroski
All rights reserved.
Mary Ellen Bates
Business Research for Business Professionals
Mary Ellen Bates is the owner of Bates Information Services, providing business research to business professionals and consulting services to the online industry. An internationally known speaker and writer based in Washington, DC, she is the author of five books, including two Super Searchers titles, Super Searchers Do Business and Super Searchers Cover the World.
Let's begin with your background. Tell me how you came to be an independent information business owner.
I started out as a special librarian and worked for a number of years in law libraries, in both private law firms and for the federal court system, and then went on to manage the library at MCI. After a while, I realized my career path as a corporate or special librarian would require that I manage more people and get more into administration, which I really didn't want to do. I have an independent streak a mile wide in my makeup, and somewhere around the mid-1980s I heard of information brokering. I remember thinking that it sounded like an interesting thing to do. I thought about it for several years, started saving business cards and — more importantly — my money, and imagined what it would be like to be working from home and running my own business. And then I just did it. I quit my job and my first client was my last employer, MCI.
Thinking about your work as a special librarian, what experience did you gain that was important or valuable to your work as an independent?
Mainly it was my experience at MCI. At the time that I worked there, it was a small, entrepreneurial kind of wild-and-crazy place where you could make any mistake as long as you didn't make the same mistake twice. And you could try anything as long as it didn't cost anything, which was a great experience. It encouraged creativity and risk taking, and I learned a lot about how to market myself and the information service within the organization. People didn't know about the library when I started it, so a lot of my efforts involved marketing within the company. I learned how to manage a budget and did all kinds of research. A firm background in information from my M.L.S. at Berkeley helped too, because it gave me a foundation to think about how information is organized and managed.
You prompted my next question about your formal education. Which pieces of your undergraduate and graduate degrees were relevant to your business?
Well, not much in my B.A., which is in mathematical philosophy — although, as it turns out, that was Boolean logic back in the early days before many people thought that way. When I got my bachelor's degree, I swore I would never work with computers, but then I stumbled into my first library job and took to it like a fish to water. That's what prompted me to go back and get my M.L.S. I was managing a database within a library at a law firm, having had no idea what I was getting into when I started, but finding that I loved it.
Can you think of any courses in your library training that stand out?
I took one course in special librarianship, which was the only one they had twenty years ago. I took a lot of programming and computer classes; one of the benefits of being a graduate student at Berkeley was that you could bump the undergraduates to get into the popular computer classes. You didn't have to take all your courses within the library school, so I took a good amount of information technology and information management courses as well as the regular M.L.S. coursework.
That sounds like a good foundation to understand the computer side of our business.
I wouldn't necessarily encourage people to do that today. That was back when people were using punch cards for programming. At the time it was very useful, because at my first job I was building databases, and it was a very low-level kind of programming that I had to do. These days, I would certainly encourage people to take more business classes, because you have to talk the lingo. I just didn't see myself being a corporate librarian when I was going to library school.
How did you handle the logistics of getting started, such as setting up your office space and equipment?
I was lucky in that my house has a full basement that I used to rent out. It was empty at the time that I started my business, so I took it over, which was nice because I had a little kitchen and the whole nine yards. The living room became my office. The first thing I did was contract with a graphic artist to design a corporate logo. It took a long time to get a logo that the artist and I were happy with. I'm really glad I did that, because it enabled me to start my business looking established. I wince when I see new businesses that have funky-looking stationery and business cards — it looks like they've just started out and aren't willing to spend any money on their business. The logo design cost a lot of money, but I'm really glad I made the investment.
Then I went out and bought a computer, the highest-end printer I could find, a fax machine; I got all my different phone lines in order, did the paperwork for the local Washington DC business licensing agency, and set up accounts with the online services.
What about professional advice from an attorney or accountant?
I did some brief consulting with an attorney. I didn't talk to an accountant in the beginning, as I'm pretty comfortable with that kind of thing. My attorney helped me think through my corporate structure; the best choice for me was to set up as a sole proprietorship. Then I just bought QuickBooks [104, see Appendix] and set up my business accounts to make it easy to report my income and expenses to the IRS.
I did all this planning and preparation on weekends and evenings, before I actually launched my business, and I took a few vacation days from my job. That was important because then, when I started, I didn't have any excuse. I couldn't say, "Oh well, I can't really start marketing myself yet because I have to noodle around with my computer a little while." I had all this stuff done, so that on day one, I had to get out there and start hustling.
What are the advantages of having your office in your home?
Actually, my office is outside my home now. After about five years we did a major renovation of the house, and I moved my office to a carriage house above the garage, so it's separate from the house itself. This is even better because I cannot go out there to just check my email and get sucked into two hours of work after dinner. It's ideal for me because I don't have to deal with a commute, but it's separate enough from the house itself that I can manage the time that I'm spending there.
So there's a physical separation there as well as the psychological separation.
Thinking back to the early days of your business, your first client was your previous employer. What about the clients that you had to go out there and find?
I had been collecting business cards for several years before I started my business, and one of the first things I did once I started working on my own was to send out letters and brochures to everyone I knew announcing that I had started my business, and to please give me a call if I could be of assistance. Then about a month later, I sent out postcards saying hello from Bates Information Services, and here are some of the projects we've worked on recently. I'm still in the habit of sending postcards out every few months because you just have to get your name in front of clients' faces all the time. Once I did that, some of the people who had known me before started calling, but it was a slow process. I gave a talk for the local Special Libraries Association (SLA)  chapter about how to select an information broker and things that potential clients should ask, and got a little bit of work that way. I also contacted an association of sales managers and had an article published in their journal.
Any hard lessons or anything you might have done differently, looking back?
It's really funny. I heard from other people and read in books such as The Information Broker's Handbook  that cold calling doesn't work, mass mailing doesn't work. And I said, "Well, maybe it doesn't for you, but maybe it will for me." And I tried it — and it doesn't work. Cold calling is so painful anyway, I quit because I couldn't stand it. Then I did small mass mailings, if that isn't an oxymoron, but got no responses at all and realized that was not something that was going to work. So I don't think it was a huge mistake or a wasted effort, but I've got an independent streak and sometimes I don't learn from advice. Since then, I have learned to take other people's advice a little more to heart. When I keep hearing over and over again that something doesn't work, I recognize that it probably doesn't work.
Let's move things up to today. Tell me about your business and the services you offer, and how you describe yourself.
I generally tell people that I provide business research to business professionals and corporate librarians, and consulting services to the online industry. The majority of my work is business research for people in companies, or for consultants, and that's pretty broad. It includes everything from "Tell me about who manufactures and who buys optical amplifiers" to "What are trends in the prefabricated housing market in Japan?"
Some research is a little less straightforward. For example, I worked with a public relations firm to build a portal site on business process re-engineering, and my part was finding and annotating Web sites that they could plug into the portal. My online consulting is with professional online services as well as start-ups — dot-com type companies — where I help them understand their market and how to establish their business.
I was looking at your Web site recently to see what you've been up to, and I noticed that you have highlighted your advanced reference interview skills training. Could you tell me about that?
I do half-day training courses in advanced reference interviewing techniques. It's interesting, because all the talk about providing good service and meeting the needs of clients and understanding the market comes back to understanding user needs, and that all comes back to doing a good reference interview. It's something that librarians take for granted, especially people who have been doing it for five or ten years. They find that it's really useful to spend half a day thinking about the whole process and developing some new techniques, and learning to actually manage the process instead of just taking a request. They realize that the whole thing is a negotiation, a two-way street with a lot of interaction.
So your market for that training course is primarily librarians?
Yes. I gave a couple of talks and then all of a sudden people started calling and asking me to come and do the workshop for their organization. It's becoming quite popular.
Now, taking a look at the actual research you do, what commercial online systems do you subscribe to?
I subscribe to Dialog , Dow Jones , LexisNexis , Profound , DataStar , Hoover's , and Stat-USA . I set up other accounts as needed, and of course there are aggregators on the Web that I use.
How do you know when to use a commercial online system? What type of information do you go there for?
It's when I need to use the power search tools, when I need authenticated information, when I need to do in-depth research, when I need to offer value-added research. Clients can do Web searches themselves. What I offer when I use a professional online service is access to information that they can't get somewhere else. I would say there are very few research projects where I don't spend at least part of the time in a professional online service. I think it's malpractice not to use them, because there is so much stuff there that you can't find just searching on the open Web.
Could you tie that into an example of a general industry research project?
One big research project that I did recently involved consumer perceptions of color ink-jet printers. Why they buy color ink-jet printers, what factors do they take into account, what don't they like about them, and what features do they look for. It was real broad. I started out going to the Web sites of the main color ink-jet printer manufacturers to look through their spec sheets to see how they describe their product, which helped me identify what they thought differentiated the products. I looked at what features they had that their competitors didn't have, to get a general sense of what to watch for. Then I went to the professional online services to search through newspapers. I needed to scan as many papers as I could find, thinking that most newspapers have an "Ask the Computer Guy" kind of column. Believe it or not, I actually looked through Dear Abby and Ann Landers, and there was a discussion in one of those two columns about that very topic. Then I went over to the industry newsletters for the digital camera/printer market and found a lot of good stuff there. I went into the general trade press and found what the photography, computer, and printing/publishing press were saying. I also purchased individual pages online from market research reports. I covered a lot of ground in maybe an hour, and never would have been able to cover those sources on the open Web, and certainly not in that amount of time. I did end the search on the Web, however, checking computer discussion forums and Usenet  newsgroups, and found one market research study about ink-jet printed pages. Once the searching was done, I spent a lot of time doing analysis of what people were saying — the hot buttons, the percentage of comments that were positive and negative, what people were saying about specific brands and specific issues, whether they consider particular features to be a drawback or not. It was a long project, but a lot of fun.
That leads into my next question about the Internet. Could you talk about the open Web versus the invisible Web, and what kinds of things you'd find on each?
My use of the phrase "open Web" means that it's stuff you can find using a search engine, keeping in mind that no search engine covers more than fifteen percent of the open Web, and that even searching a number of search engines together is only going to catch maybe forty or fifty percent of the Web. I'll search the open Web if I'm just looking for a needle in a haystack, or for any mention of a topic. Your gut kind of tells you that it's the sort of thing that's likely to be out there. Another category, which I call "gated sites" — these terms are from Researching Online For Dummies , which I co-wrote with Reva Basch — would be things like most newspaper archives, where the back issues of newspapers are often available online, but you can only get them by going from one paper's site to the next and doing a search in each paper's archives. Market research companies will sometimes put summaries of their market research up on their Web sites, but this means doing a search at each individual site to find the information you want, and often you have to register before you can even do that. Then there are the professional online services, which are another flavor of the gated Web — sources like Dialog or Dow Jones that require a subscription and a familiarity with advanced search techniques.
What about locating PDF files?
That's just part of the invisible, or perhaps I should call it the semi-opaque, Web. PDF files are somewhat searchable through Google ; in fact, there are a couple of ways to search them. Say you're looking for PDF files that discuss competitive intelligence. You would type "competitive intelligence" filetype:pdf or you could type "competitive intelligence inurl:pdf". It's not a comprehensive search of PDF files, but it beats any of the other search engines. Other types of formatted files are harder to find and generally aren't indexed by search engines. The best way to find them is to rely on portals, subject guides, and other finding tools built by experts in the field.
When you're out there on the open Web, how do you evaluate a site for reliability?
Just like librarians have always evaluated sources. You look for features such as who's maintaining it, what point of view do they have, do you recognize the brand, does the material sound right or does it sound weird? You look to see how frequently pages are updated. If you find dead links, you tend to think it's less reliable. I generally don't have time to contact the Web site owner and ask questions, although some people do that. I go by first impression. If it's something I recognize or that seems to be authoritative I'll give it more credibility than if it's Joe Blow's Web site.
Excerpted from Super Searchers Make it on Their Own by Suzanne Sabroski, Reva Basch. Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Sabroski. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
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