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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

7.8.99  
Scooping out Nuggets of Data about Your Niche
Here's how to find the market info you need. But beware: Broad averages can be dangerously misleading

Q: I'm helping a client gather information for a small business and want to know where to find average expenditures for small businesses, by industry category. Do you have any leads on where I can find this data? --M.S., Calabasas, Calif.

A: An accountant who specializes in small businesses should be able to dig up some market comparison figures for you relatively easily. There are also a couple of places you can go to purchase this kind of information directly. Several firms gather financial information on privately held companies and publish composite numbers by standard industry classification (SIC) code that they sell primarily to lending institutions, CPA firms, and business brokers.

One firm, Financial Research Associates Inc. in Winter Haven, Fla., publishes industry-specific breakdowns of financial statements culled from 1,500 participating CPA firms nationwide. Their 700-page annual volume, Financial Studies of the Small Business, concentrates on companies capitalized under $1 million with annual revenues up to $10 million. The book, which does not include a regional breakdown, costs $97, says Grant Lacerte, vice- president of Financial Research. The company also sells a computer disk with the same information on it as well as software that allows you to enter your own company's data and do an immediate comparison with other small businesses in your industry, Lacerte says. The disk costs $128, or you can purchase both products for $163 at the company's Web site: www.frafssb.com.

"In about six months, we hope to have available on our Web site an interactive component where an individual small business can enter their data and make online comparisons directly to other companies in their category," Lacerte says. He expects the online comparison to cost about $35.

Robert Morris Associates of Philadelphia, an association of lending and credit-risk professionals, publishes composite information drawn from commercial credit applications submitted by their members. In Morris' "Annual Statement Studies," you can find spending patterns and annual revenue broken down in 500 industry classifications, but not by company size. Individual regional reports are available in the CD-ROM version of the data, says Pam Martin, the company's director of regulations and communications. The full report, on CD or in book form, costs $129, and it's $60 for just the data of a specific SIC code. You can order from the company's Web site, www.rmahq.org.

Industry giant Dun & Bradstreet publishes reference and research products that may also be of help to you. Information on purchasing their reports is listed on their Web site at: www.dnb.com.

One caveat about using industry averages and canned data: Broad national statistics do not always apply directly to small companies in particular markets, says Robert G. Wall, director of the Small Business Development Center, based in Naples, Tex. "We tell small-business owners to base their projections and their spending on their own markets, financial situations, and geographic regions. Relying too heavily on published data can be misleading and even dangerous, especially when people latch onto these numbers because they are naive or uncertain about their own financial picture," Wall says. He advises entrepreneurs who need nitty-gritty financial help to visit a local SBDC and seek the advice of a counselor who is familiar with the regional market and basic small-business needs. More information about SBDCs is available at the Web site of the Association of Small Business Development Centers: www.asbdc-us.org.


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