Strategies for Finding Information on Private Companies

March 17, 2014 | By | Reply More

research private information
It’s Monday afternoon and you have just returned from an enjoyable lunch, thinking that you will continue working on the task you started in the morning. As you sit down to your keyboard, you notice a photocopied article from a well-known industry magazine taped to your screen with a post-it note tagged onto it. The note reads:

“Who are they and where did they did come from?” – The President

As you peel off the note, highlighted pieces of text jump off the page and grab your attention. After examining the “must read text,” you realize what the president wants… information on the companies discussed in the article. It may seem like a relatively easy mandate; however, there is one snag. The majority of the companies that have been highlighted are privately owned and your first instinct is that there might be a limited amount of published information available.

To help you carry out this challenging mandate, here is a five-step game plan that should assist you in finding information on private companies in your industry.

  • Step 1: Don’t panic
  • Step 2: Search the free and private Web
  • Step 3: Go to the library
  • Step 4: Check government sources
  • Step 5: Ask the people in the know

Step 1: Don’t panic

Panicking over a challenging mandate will not help. The emotion of fear will cloud your ability to think clearly and will inhibit you from finding the information that is wanted. Take a moment and put the mandate in perspective. It is nearly impossible to gather every piece of data on a private company. The best thing to do to alleviate the fear is to talk to the internal client and ask what data is needed, not wanted, for strategic planning purposes. (Remember, needing and wanting are two different things when it comes to providing information. Needing implies that you must find the data that will be used to make decisions. Wanting implies that the client would be happy with whatever you find above the basics asked of you.) Once you have a clear idea of your task, you should have a better idea of the sources of information which you may consult.

Step 2: Search the free and private Web

With a clear mind, you are ready to take on the challenge. Depending on your budget, you may have several different tools to utilize to gather information. The two main online sources that you should turn to for your task are the free Web and private Web. The free Web allows individuals to access and obtain information for free. Here are a few tools and sources on the Web that will help you start your mandate:

Search engines – Search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo will provide you with Webpages and articles dealing with the company which you are investigating. The Webpage may contain anything from a profile of the company to a hyperlink to the company’s Website. It is important to note that if a keyword search is unsuccessful, do not be discouraged. In addition, search tools such as Kartoo and the LinkPopularity can be used to track alliances by discovering where the company’s URL is posted on another company Website.

Invisible Web – As mentioned in the article, “The Invisible Web: Where Search Engines Fear to Go,” there are billions of online pages that are not indexed by search engines and they can be found on the invisible Web. Tools that are used to search the invisible Web may have the ability to provide you with data on the company. One piece of the invisible Web is messages from discussion groups. Individuals who use discussion groups often to voice opinions are open to talk about local companies which have done something to irk or please them.

Web Traffic Information Sites – you can get ideas of the reach of specific websites through services such as,, or Note that most of these services only provide approximate traffic levels, unless the site actually installed the codes of the service (this is true for the “quantified sites” of Quantcast).

Website registry – If locating the company’s Website is a challenge, consider visiting the Website registry in the country of the company. This source will inform you on the company’s location on the Web if the company’s URL is not indexed by search engines. In addition, the registry will provide full contact information for the company. For companies in North America, visit

The private Web is a restricted part of the Internet, where individuals must pay to access content. The majority of the private Web is comprised of online databases of publications that are published in hard copy around the globe. If the company’s name has appeared in the press, there is a good chance that you can find articles or press releases courtesy of:

  • Factiva
  • Dialog
  • ProFound
  • Infomart

For financial data, individuals may consult the following sources:

  • Dun & Bradstreet
  • Skyminder
  • for French companies

To save time, consider using e-mail alerts provided by services named above to screen the company’s name in the press.

Step 3: Go to the library

At this stage of the game plan, it is time to go on a field trip to the nearest library with resources dedicated to business students and professionals. Libraries offer the lone competitive intelligence professional who does not have the in-house resources the luxury of consulting offline sources and asking questions to librarians. Here is a list of reasons why you should visit the library for your researching needs when gathering information on private firms:

Access to publications in hard copy or on microfiche – Although there are private Web services which offer access to full-text articles, some of the services restrict users from accessing the accompanying photos and graphs. Obtaining the articles at local libraries will give you the opportunity to read them on paper or on film without any omissions in terms of content.

Access to full-version industry reports and newsletters – Depending on the library’s budget, they may be able to provide access to specific industry reports and newsletters which are not online. The library may select to subscribe to specific publications in order to address the information needs of industries on a state or provincial and national levels. The majority of the information is in hard copy and will have to be photocopied to allow you to place it in your files.

Access to a full compliment of sources – Where else can a competitive intelligence professional on a tight budget search the free Web, the private Web, and access offline literature under one roof? For a small fee, you could pull data on private companies within a matter of hours.

Step 4: Check government sources

Government at all three levels are great sources of information on private companies. For any business to operate, the company must register with governments and information collected on each company is stored electronically and on paper. Gaining access to the data may take a bit of effort depending on the governments’ ability to place the information online. If the information can not be found online, a visit to the government regional office will allow you to gather data such as:

  • A profile of the company
  • Organizational structure – a list of individuals in top management
  • Annual reports
  • Articles of incorporation

Before going out to collect the information that is located offline, you should be familiar with the laws of your country regarding accessing information that is not readily available such as annual reports of private companies.

Step 5: Ask people in the know

One of the sources that is often overlooked when investigating private companies are individuals that have been in contact with them in the past. The majority of individuals who may hold information which may interest you are:

  • Customers
  • Suppliers
  • Reporters
  • Competitors
  • Industry experts / analysts

Gaining information from these individuals will take time. Cold calls will be met with silence so it is important that you attempt to network and interview with individuals in the know. Over time, the individuals will feel at ease and will be able to assist you if you are trustworthy and honest. At this point of the game plan, you may want to become familiar with the basic interviewing techniques to gather information ethically.


Finding information on private companies is a challenging mandate; however, it is not an impossible task. With the vast amount of sources that can be found online and offline, competitive intelligence must have a structured game plan to follow to gather pieces of information that can help them in their mandate. The game plan proposed in this article will lead the lone competitive intelligence professional outside their office to search for material that is not available online or on paper. In order to become efficient in researching private companies, professionals must willing be to:

  • Be patient
  • Explore new sources offline
  • Be persistence – do not give up on the first attempt

Want to know more? The following books are available at

Article was originally published on March 4, 2003.

Ian Smith

Ian Smith holds a marketing degree from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. While working at Industry Canada, Ian contributed to a new marketing plan for the information products of the Service Industries Capital Projects branch. Interested in electronic commerce, Ian is always seeking out new and innovative ways to do business on the Web. Ian is the Marketing Manager of

Strategies for Finding Information on Private Companies
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Strategies for Finding Information on Private Companies
Need to get information about a private company? Here's a five-step game plan that should assist you in finding information on private companies in your industry.
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Category: Market Research

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