Tips for Doing Business-Planning Research Online
The Internet hosts an ever-growing number of websites offering information on business planning. Some are free; most tease you with samples of what they have to offer and then charge you for more details. Check first to see what’s free for the asking.
In particular, the federal government offers heaps of solid information on planning, starting, and operating your own company through its Small Business Administration site. Even the IRS presents helpful planning tips in its handbooks, which are also available on their website.
Hot lists of top business-related websites have a way of going out of date as quickly as today’s newspaper. Your best bet is to spend a couple of hours online looking for useful resources on your own.
Enter the keywords business plan in a search engine and get ready for millions of results, ranging from the sites of leading business-planning experts to generic planning information to — unavoidably — an awful lot of junk. You can refine your search by adding keywords specific to your business area (nonprofit, retail, travel, financial services, and so on).
You can also use the Internet to uncover information about competitors, markets, business trends, and new technologies — all the factors you need to account for to put together a complete picture of your business environment.
Going to the home pages of your competitors is a good starting point. Reading reviews posted by customers offers invaluable insights. From there, you can enter online pressrooms with current news announcements, executive bios, recent publicity, and other information.
Unlike magazine articles, which are typically checked and rechecked for accuracy, online content isn’t always validated or confirmed by anyone beyond the person who posts it, so follow three simple rules when you use the web for business research:
Check the date. Many web documents aren’t dated, so you may not know whether you’re reading the latest scoop or dated material. Look for a publishing or posting date. If you can’t find one, dig a little deeper to see whether or not the information is still relevant.
Verify the source. Be suspicious of information that a credible source doesn’t back. For example, if you read a rave review of a new software program that’s an excerpt from a respected business magazine, you can attach a different level of faith in that information than you can give to information that appears without a source.
Double-check key facts and statistics. If you use specific pieces of information — about business trends, markets, competitors, technology, or whatever — as the central building blocks of your business plan, make darn sure that the facts you gather from the Internet are correct.
If your financial projections are built on the fact that the market for online lingerie is growing at 40 percent a year, for example, verify that you’re dealing with a fact and not some online entrepreneur’s fantasy.