Whether you’re an owner of a business or a developer supporting others, it’s critical that you become an expert in your field – you need to understand the details of the industry and your local market. If there’s a trade publication for your industry (and there almost always is) you should subscribe. If there are national or regional conferences about your industry, you should attend. If you have the opportunity to work in the field before you start your own business, you should – become an expert. Part of becoming an expert is ensuring you have a grasp of the ‘gut’ level or more informal knowledge that comes with experience and the data to back that up. It’s not a good idea to follow data blindly, but when there is information out there to be had and you ignore it, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Some of the most useful places for information for business owners comes from the following locations:
US Economic Census
An extremely detailed and comprehensive survey conducted by the census bureau every five years. It takes a little time to learn how to navigate this resource, but once you do, you’ll be able to answer all sorts of questions about your market.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Do you want to know what the starting wage for a particular occupation is, what the median wage for an occupation by industry, how inflation has eroded your buying power? How about the unemployment rate in your community, how much a particular occupation is expected to grow, or even what people spend their money on? If you’re thinking about an industry or an occupation, you want to get familiar with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Compensation Data: http://www.bls.gov/ncs/ocs/#data
Employment Projections: http://www.bls.gov/emp/#data
Consumer Spending: http://www.bls.gov/cex/#data
American Fact Finder
American Fact Finder is the first place you want to go for census data. This site combines data from numerous census surveys. It can take some time to get used to it, but through combining various databases, you’d be surprised at how much information you can find.
US County Business Patterns
This database track data on firms by industry, employment size, county and ZIP code. What this means is that you can find out how many businesses in your industry are operating in the counties you currently or plan on operating in. You can also find out whether those firms are large or small. An important thing to remember with this data is that it track establishments, not firms. So if your competition is a large chain, the County Business Patterns data may show that as an establishment of fewer than 10 people, even though the firm itself could employ hundreds.
Two very important groups of people like maps – worker owners and bankers. Maps can make very complex and detailed information clear and simple. Maps can help you think through a business problem in new ways. Fortunately, we live in a time when there’s lots of technological ways to show data using maps.
The Census Bureau offers tools to map census data – it’s a good resource, but can be frustrating to use. That being said, if you operate a business in a specific geographic area, it’s worth the time to zoom in on your market and play around with the various filters to see what you find, you might be surprised what you learn.
To create more detailed or specific maps, you’ll likely need to employ a different software package. There are lots of ways to use Google Maps to display data, one of the easiest (and free) ways is a site called Batch Geo which allows you to plot data (like customers or competitors) on a web based map you can share with your colleagues.
If you’re serious about mapping, you’ll want to explore getting some GIS software. While ArcGIS is the ‘standard bearer’ but, it’s quite expensive. At ICA we use Quantum GIS, an open source, free software for solving complex mapping solutions. While the active and large community of users offers free advice, the software has a relatively steep learning curve.