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10 things you should know about researching a company

Whether you're looking into potential new clients or hoping to become an employee of a particular company, you'll be on more solid footing if you've done some homework.

In the course of your work, you likely will need to do research on a company or organization. Here are a few reasons to undertake such research, along with some tips and sources that can make the process easier.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

Why do the research?

The better informed you are, the more effective your business relationships will be, whether you're selling your company's services or hoping to land a new job. Let's consider three ways your research can pay off.

1: Identifying problems your company can solve

Everyone knows about your problems if you're BP. The problems of many other companies, however, are less well publicized. Nonetheless, on their Web page, in their annual reports, or in media interviews, companies often will discuss challenges they're currently facing or expect to face in the future. Learning about these problems can give you insight into how your business can help a company resolve its problems.

2: Identifying ways you can add value if a company hires you

If you're interviewing for a job at a company and you've researched the challenges it's facing, you can make a good impression. If you have the skills that can address those problems, so much the better. Even if you don't, you still show initiative and resourcefulness, thereby improving your chances in the interview.

3: Determining financial stability

Regardless of whether you are a prospective supplier or a prospective employee, you'll want to get paid by a company if you eventually associate with it. If the company pays its obligations on time, it may pay you on time as well. If it is consistently late, you may want to think twice before becoming a supplier or employee.

How to go about it

Having discussed reasons for wanting to know about a company, let's look at various ways to do the research.

4: SEC (publicly traded companies) & EDGAR

Companies that issue publicly traded stock are governed by the Securities Act of 1933. In general, this act requires that such companies disclose financial and company information so that investors can make informed decisions. Enforcement of this act is handled by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Companies must file disclosures with the SEC, and these disclosures are available at the SEC Web site through the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system (EDGAR).

Examples of such filings include the annual report form 10-K and quarterly report form 10-Q. The SEC offers a comprehensive list.

5: Online brokerage services

If you have a brokerage account, such as with Fidelity or Vanguard, you most likely have access to research analyst reports about publicly traded companies. These reports may be free to you or may involve a fee. However, they can provide valuable additional information to that of the SEC.

6: Finance pages

Financial Web pages such as finance.yahoo.com are another good source of information. In fact, I have found that Yahoo often provides better information about a company than that company's own Web site. For example, some company pages make it difficult to find a physical headquarters address or an actual main telephone number. However, when viewing a Yahoo Finance page for a given company, the link for Profile displays such information readily.

7: Dun & Bradstreet

Dun & Bradstreet offers information about non-publicly traded companies in addition to publicly traded ones. A valuable type of information it provides is the payment history for a company.

8: Current and former employees

Current and former employees can be a good source of information. If you are a prospective employee, the closer those employees are to your intended job, the better the information will be. Be careful about getting information from only one employee, because that person could be the "outlier." On the other hand, if you hear the same thing from two or more people, the chances are greater that the information is accurate.

9: Newspapers and press releases

When reading newspaper articles and press releases, don't confine yourself to such material alone. Consider contacting the writer of the story or the media relations contact whose name appears in the release. These people can give you invaluable additional insights.

10: Blogs, discussion groups, and forums

If you visit blogs, discussion groups, or online forums, you probably will find a good deal of information about a company. Keep in mind, though, that you might be getting a biased view. If you see information that looks like it could be important, try to validate it by determining whether other sources say the same thing.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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