Small Business

An All-Seeing Eye on the Competition


By Karen E. Klein In business, it's always important to know what the other guy is doing. What new markets is your competition heading into? What kind of news coverage are they getting? Are they introducing new products or marketing strategies? Who are they hiring and firing?

Major corporations have the luxury of in-house intelligence that keeps them abreast of the competition, but for small-business owners with limited resources, such tracking is typically a matter of hit and miss.

That intelligence void is something Srikanth Chari, 52, hopes his company will be able to fill. Chari, founder and president of Silicon Valley-based Watch360 Systems, recently introduced an automated service that keeps an eye on the competition and is aimed at small-business owners and marketing/sales executives at larger companies.

CUSTOM OPTIONS. Nosing around in competitors' backyards was possible before, but it has always been time-consuming, Chari says. "There are software programs that can track Web pages for you, but the problem is that most people don't know which pages to track," he says. "It takes forever to go through all your competitors' Web sites page by page to find the right pages to keep an eye on. And of course, once you set up the program, the pages that you mark are always changing, so it's really not worth it."

Shawn Tippett, technical marketing engineer for Peribit, a computer-networker in Santa Clara, Calif., signed up with Watch360 about four months ago and uses it to track developments, even the more subtle ones, among his competitors. "It saves me a lot of time because I used to comb through all these sites individually," he says. "You can catch new trends or new events that they may not necessarily put out in a press release, just by paying attention to how they slightly change their wording on the Web."

In his past life, Chari was one of the founders of a venture-captial-funded software startup that was eventually sold to Network Associates. His new company, founded in 2003, is self-funded. Chari started marketing the service full-bore this fall, through free trials and online advertising, hoping to build upon the 100 subscribers in the U.S. and overseas who have signed on since the program launched a test run eight months ago.

WHO'S YOUR COMPETITION? "Almost every business owner is interested in what trade shows their competitors are attending, what announcements they're making, and what kind of coverage they're getting in the trade press," Chari says. "Some companies may want to know what white papers their competition is releasing, what specific products they're offering, and what kinds of SEC filings they're making."

On the other hand, Chari has found that some business owners aren't sure exactly who all their competitors are, which is why he set up a complimentary service that will run custom marketplace searches for clueless companies to find out who else is in their niche.

For $39.95 a month, or $330 annually, Watch360 will keep an eye on up to 40 of your competitors, with a maximum of 200 Web pages, and send subscribers newsy e-mails every day (or every week, depending on their preference), informing them about what other companies are up to, including announcements, press releases, trade-show attendance, and other information.

SPLIT STAFF. "It helps them to position themselves more crisply, so they can be differentiated from the others in their niche," Chari says. "It's also intelligence-gathering: For instance, if you see that a competitor plans to attend a health-care industry event, you might be alerted that they are going after a new market that you haven't yet explored but should think about."

Chari, originally from India, has a staff of three in Saratoga, Calif., and four employees in his native Bangalore. The Stateside crew does programming, marketing, and customer support, while the overseas operation handles the labor-intensive process of searching individual Web sites every day for new information to e-mail to clients.

So far, his customers include high-tech outfits, nonprofit agencies, and law firms that want to know when and whom their competitors are hiring. He offers a 15-day trial for potential new customers who are curious about how helpful it will be to get the scoop on their industries. "The advantage," he says, "is that a company doesn't get blind-sided." Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.


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