Before the Internet, small companies didn’t stand a chance against the Goliaths. That’s because no war can be won without intelligence and, before the digital era, collecting actionable data and information about one’s competitors, market and customers cost a lot more than most small businesses — the Davids — could afford.
But today, the Davids are taking down the Goliaths. Thanks to the Internet, the boutiques and start-ups have access to all kinds of free tools for gathering intelligence. They’re also much more agile than the big corporations; they can make a decision and act immediately. That’s essential in a marketplace where conditions change quickly.
The following are a few tips for acquiring and using intelligence:
Make use of free or inexpensive intelligence-gathering tools. Even businesses that lack resources can visit competitors’ websites and collect data about them. Many businesses put a great deal of revealing information on their sites, which can be used to one’s benefit. It is also helpful to make note of any changes on their sites — through Google Alerts, one can tell when they’re releasing new products or expanding. Google analytics tools such as Google Hot Trends can also be used to learn what’s in the collective consciousness — potential consumer demand — at any given time. Google’s key word tool will give one ideas for powerful key words in search terms, and one can use the traffic tool to measure global volume on those key words.
Make intelligence-gathering part of one’s company culture. From the manager who overhears a conversation in the grocery checkout line to the clerk obsessed with Twitter, every employee in one’s business is a potential intelligence resource. Business owners can encourage employees to pay attention as they interact with others outside the company. They may discover a nagging issue that no other company is addressing, allowing one to create uncontested market space. Or, one may learn critical information about a competitor that allows one’s business to seize an advantage.
Appoint a Chief Intelligence Officer (CIO) to coordinate and analyze information from a variety of sources. In smaller companies, leaders tend to rely on pipelines of internal information provided by employees who don’t understand how to use intelligence to make empowering decisions. That can render important data inactionable (unusable or simply not used). A CIO can oversee and coordinate the collection and analysis of intelligence, and brief the business leader daily so that all data is actionable.
What enables a business owner to make smart, timely decisions is access to precise intelligence. The advantage that smaller businesses have is they don’t have the corporate processes and protocols that inhibit fast action.
As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War — the 2,000-year-old military treatise penned by one of the greatest commanders in history — “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win 100 battles without a single loss.” He held that the goal in any war is to win without ever entering into physical battle. I have found these principles can be applied to the modern business economy. By gathering actionable data and acting on it immediately, by using it to predict next moves and spot opportunities, small businesses can and are taking down the big ones without a drop of blood being shed.
Corrine Sandler is the founder and CEO of Fresh Intelligence Research Corp., a global market research agency. A recognized leader with more than 20 years’ experience in business intelligence and market research, she is the author of Wake Up or Die (www.wakeupordie.us), a new book that applies lessons from Sun Tzu’s ancient classic The Art of War to contemporary businesses.