Brainstorming Solutions to our Competitive Intelligence Pain Points

By Delia Montesinos, Senior Competitive Intelligence Analyst at Ropes & Gray

The content of this post was originally published in the Northern California Association of Law Libraries newsletter.  Content is republished with permission.

Competitive Intelligence (“CI”) is my daily bread and as much as I love it, it can drive me to the most bitter of tears. There are so many pain points! Putting together a report requires too many tools; turnaround times are sometimes unreasonable; the amount of information can drive one to distraction or, worse, be too little to be viable. To top it off, I have to deal with my uber-obsession about delivering the most kickass, ‘trust-me-there’s-no-more-info-to-be-found’ work product—an obsession largely driven by the fact I generate these reports with little or no context: I have no clue how my work fits into the bigger picture. Therefore, when they asked me to present at the Northern California Association of Law Libraries (NOCALL) Spring Institute, I immediately chose CI pain points.

What I (selfishly) hoped to accomplish was learning new tips and tricks from my peers. What I discovered is that, despite CI work being more prevalent, few law firms have dedicated CI teams like mine. Additionally, many librarians work CI on an irregular basis: when I posed the question at the roundtable, nearly 90% of participants said they work CI less than 5% of the time. For them, each CI request has the added challenge of remembering which tool has what info or, worse, how to find info when you have no tools at all. As a result, I have begun to pen a newsletter column to demystify CI work for my NOCALL peers. What follows is an abbreviated version of two of my columns, updated with the resources we brainstormed at the Spring Institute.

I began the roundtable by asking everyone to write their top three pain points on sticky notes and place them into one of two categories: ‘Painful but Doable’ or  ‘My Head Just Exploded.’ We ended up with 54 post-its with 27 distinct pain points, five of which got multiple votes. While we could not address them all in our short session, one pain point was the clear winner: getting private company info.

Rather than talking about the good and the bad and the ugly for each CI tool, I want to put them in context: I will show you how I work on a company profile. First, some disclaimers:

  • Previously, I worked exclusively within the labor and employment realm; at present, my work focuses mostly on corporate, securities, and patents. My knowledge is also limited to those databases to which my employer(s) subscribes. I mention this because some great tools will not be listed here; I’m simply not familiar with them.
  • There is no right, wrong, or magical way to put together a CI report. This is simply what works for me, and my process evolves as I add new skills or tools to my CI repertoire.

IMHO, the most important part of a CI report is the template, because it directs your research. A template also happens to address our second biggest pain point: shaping the deliverable, aka “making it look nice” or “compiling all the data into a report.” Alas, CI is 10% research and 90% curation; there is no avoiding the “organizing and cleaning the data” part. However, using a template will not only help guide your research, its defined style set will allow you to format everything quickly and painlessly.

If your firm doesn’t have a CI template, you need to create one. To get started identify topics that are specific to your firm’s practice areas (Union facts? FDA approvals? Patents? Investment funds?). In addition:

  • Company profiles should include a business overview, financials, key executives, news, and info on legal/regulatory matters. Additional sections could be business segments/products, R&D/pipeline, business strategy, top competitors, family tree, company history, and in-house counsel staff/legal strategy, to name a few.
  • Person profiles should include a summary, employment history, education, memberships, and some personal info (family, political donations, volunteer, social media, etc.). If the person is a VIP, you could add a news section and awards/recognition, among others.
  • Attorney profiles are the Person profile plus representative matters and/or litigation profile. Additional sections could be publications/presentations, awards/recognition, and news.
  • Judicial profiles are the Attorney profile plus motion analytics and attorney reviews.
  • ALL of them should include a section detailing how they have interacted with your firm in the past.

Once you have compiled the section list, you need to think about how these fit into the third CI pain point: turnaround, aka “RUSH!,” “short deadline,” “knowing when to stop.” Fellow law librarian Juli Stahl addressed timing in a recent CI webinar for the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), and I agree 100% with her approach: scale your deliverable based on the deadline or the business need, not the other way around. More importantly, when you guesstimate turnaround time, don’t forget to take into account how long it takes to “clear the deck” before you can start on the report, nor how many fires you may need to put out while you work on it.

To preempt this problem, you could offer/market three levels of CI:

  • Same/Next day: data dump, aka canned reports from the various vendors. If there’s time, high-level news from legal sources.
  • Three business days: basic profile that includes business overview, financials, key executives, 2-3 years of news from top sources, a recent (pretty much canned) litigation/transactional history, and your firm-specific sections.
  • Seven business days: in-depth profile that exhausts you and all your resources. It is not everything but the kitchen sink, however! One of my first CI reports was so over-the-top it linked to videos of the company’s famous ads. Fortunately, Big Boss read it before anyone else and he kindly steered me in the path of “delivering more with less.”

To design the template(s), try to team up with someone in your firm’s marketing department. This is truly the best option because not only will you end up with a super-sleek template but it will also provide a starting point for your library branding (yes, your library needs branding). Think of how many other ways you can use this design! Intranet pages, handouts for fall/summers, research guides, PPT presentations, newsletters, etc. If you fly solo, be sure to integrate your firm’s design scheme. This info is typically found in the marketing team’s page; if it isn’t, use your firm’s logo and letterhead as a guide. Either way, as an aide-mémoire, add footnotes to each section and list all potential sources. Alternatively, create a ‘Sources Consulted’ section at the end and list all potential resources there.

To create a company profile I first browse through the company’s web site, to acquaint myself with the business and mine data: I get contact info, grab interesting tidbits and paste them into the report, bookmark pages that might be useful later, etc. Next, I tackle the last two or three annual reports (or the 10-K if there’s no pretty investor version) and the latest investor and conference presentations. There’s tons of info in these docs: business descriptions, product/pipeline lists, patents, regulatory investigations, litigation, strategy, etc. Plus you can find some really sweet images to liven up your report. FYI, at this point I’m just grabbing info versus working it into a narrative.

The first section in my profile, Company Overview, is truly the final section because I don’t write it until I’m done with everything else. Instead, I ‘dump’ interesting or VIP info I find while working on the other sections. Obviously, this means the Overview is a huge mess by the time I get to it. But it also means I now have a complete picture of the company in my head and I can assemble all those tidbits into a killer executive summary. That said, if you prefer to use an already-written business overview you can grab one from SEC filings (10-K and ADV), MarketLine, Pitchbook, S&P (CapitalIQ, Bloomberg, and a few others get their info from S&P), D&B/Hoover’s, or even Wikipedia (use only vetted info). Either way, don’t rely solely on a company’s About Us page; it’s full of PR spin. Lastly, if the Overview could benefit by the inclusion of a company history, e.g. when the business strongly identifies with the owning family, check Gale’s Business Insights: Global, which is free through most public library databases.

Next, I work though the various report sections descending by perceived pain level. First, I jump to Company Deals, which includes M&A, VC, PE, and all other types of investments. Putting together a deal list is mind-numbing work so am not sure why I enjoy it so much. My biggest pain point is finding legal counsel for deals, which is why I usually start with Pitchbook: you can include counsel, aka Service Providers, as part of the excel download. Once that data has been cleaned, I check CapitalIQ (“CapIQ”), Preqin, and Mergermarket to fill in the gaps, for both deals and counsel. In addition, when working on the News I keep this section in mind, in case I come across any additional info.

After deals are wrapped up, I head over to the Patents section. I use subscription databases because they are user-friendly and counsel info is clearly listed. Moreover, most allow you to export the data into a spreadsheet, which is rather handy if you have to include a busy-bee’s entire patent history, or if you need to manipulate the data and create pivot tables/etc. For patent lists, I rely on TotalPatentOne while for litigation I turn to Docket Navigator or DartsIP, but if you don’t have access to a subscription database you can use the USPTO web site or Google Patents. To finish up, I usually head over to Lex Machina or Bloomberg Law to grab screencaps of their patent analytics’ charts and graphs.

Company Financials/Key Figures is next. It’s super-easy to compile if the company is public or has to submit regulatory filings, for private companies, not so much.

Public companies: The most important thing to remember is this: with few exceptions, the end-user will know beans about financials so include as many graphs/charts as possible. Beyond the investor/conference reports I mentioned earlier, Pitchbook is my go-to because its charts are clean and easy to read, and I like the fact that I can download detailed info (income statements, balance sheets, cash flows) as excel spreadsheets. No Pitchbook? Try Bloomberg, CapIQ, or Mergent (the last one available via most public library databases). To recap financials in narrative form, I rely on the latest earnings call or, better yet, an analyst report. If the earnings call transcript is not on the Company’s investor page, you can find it in Bloomberg, CapIQ, Motley Fool, and Seeking Alpha, to name a few. Analyst reports can be found in Bloomberg, CapIQ, Mergent, Morningstar, and Value Line (check public library databases for the last three). Need a SWOT? You could write one, or you could fish for one on the web, but why waste valuable time? Instead, check MarketLine or head over to your public library’s databases and find one in Morningstar or Gale’s Business Insights: Global. Looking for credit ratings? Turn to Bloomberg, CapIQ, or Mergent. Seeking stock info? Although the info is readily available on the web, I turn to Pitchbook because with a single screenshot I can grab price/trading volume/etc., as well as the analysts’ forecast and the Morningstar rating. I supplement this image by pulling a list of top institutional holders from Yahoo Finance or CapIQ, as well some info about the IPO.

Money manager/investment firm/etc.: Form ADV (free from IAPD web site) is your best friend. Start by reading the business description in Part 2 to identify any parents or subsidiaries, as you might need their ADVs to get a more complete picture. In Part 1 you will find assets under management (AUM), as well as AUM by type of client. You should also scan the form and see if there’s any other info you can grab, like the number of advisors/brokers they have, the percentage of foreign clients, or the exposure of their separately managed accounts [we’ll discuss funds later]. You can also check Pitchbook and Preqin for other fun tidbits, like dry powder, median round amounts, etc. If the company is a broker instead of a registered adviser (and thus no ADV), follow the link to the FINRA web site and download their full report. Beyond ownership, it will provide info on investigations/fines/etc. and, if any, those are super VIP and should be included in your report.

Private companies: Some databases will have an estimated revenue range but, to be honest, it’s all about following breadcrumbs—not just for financials but for the entire report. Beyond public records (secretary of state/municipal filings, UCCs, government contracts, etc.), check:

  • SEC filings: run a keyword search to see if someone else’s filings mention the company or one of its execs.
  • Local news: don’t ignore fluff pieces. That story about the company’s 50th anniversary picnic might have some revenue figures and other interesting tidbits buried in the narrative. Also, be sure to check hyperlocal sources, e.g. neighborhood newspapers.
  • Court dockets: You can find a lot of company/financial info in court filings. Check out the parties and facts in the complaint, browse through subpoena filings to find DOBs and partial SSNs, and look at relevant exhibits. Yes, it’s super time-consuming but well worth the effort if you’re striking out everywhere else.
  • For startups, check Crunchbase and AngelList.
  • Web site domain name: look it up in ICANN’s WhoIs to find ownership/location info you can then use to expand your search.
  • Google Maps: Street View once showed me that a company’s mailing address (as listed on its web site) was a White Castle parking lot! Which made me question everything else the company claimed and oh, boy! I found all kinds of discrepancies.
  • Google Images/Social media: you can find all kinds of goodies here, like the names of execs, info on their products, etc. Be sure to follow reviews/comments by other parties as they might provide additional keywords and/or sources for your search.
  • Wayback Machine: Browse older versions of the company’s web site to find info that’s been updated/deleted, and to get a sense of how the company evolved over time.

Not a big fan of the next report section, Funds.

  • Pain Point 1: CapIQ, Pitchbook, Preqin, and the Form ADVs have info, but it’s limited to private funds. Morningstar has info on mutual funds, EFTs, and hedge funds. Typically, public fund information is listed on the company’s web site. Thus, to get a complete fund list you must check all sources.
  • Pain Point 2: If you thought getting deal counsel info was hard, wait until you have to find counsel for funds. Check Pitchbook and Preqin; if you don’t have either, check SEC disclosure filings (prospectus, prospectuses, proxy statements, and shareholder reports). In addition, keep this section in mind when you’re doing the News and check all stories that discuss funds.
  • Pain Point 3: Next, I get to organize the fund info I found, aka give myself a massive headache. Do I list the funds as open versus closed, as private versus public, as VC vs PE vs hedge vs REIT? I obviously can’t clump them all together. Namely because even if I wanted to, it’s simply not an option: each resource lists data differently so you can’t simply slap a fund from one source into the spreadsheet you downloaded from another.

The Litigation section is up next. The first question you need to ask yourself is this: how in-depth do I need to go? Meaning, how much time do I have for this? If you don’t have a lot of time, pull canned litigation reports from Monitor Suite, Lexis Courtlink, or Bloomberg Law (“BLaw”). I prefer Monitor Suite because I can download the case list as an Excel spreadsheet and it includes some counsel info. However, Courtlink goes back much farther so when I need more than five years of litigation history, off to Courtlink I go.

If you have time, or must provide an in-depth history, you’re going to have to touch every single database to get a complete list of cases and counsel. Information professionals are pros at this; litigation history is a common reference question, so no need to list all the databases you should consult. Instead, I will share a couple of tips. First, stats are everything right now: use Lex Machina or BLaw to add some images and put the ligation in context, especially for class actions. Second, don’t forget about the smaller databases: I always start with Courthouse News and then add info from other places. Why? Well, complaints are what CNS does best and their case summaries are awesome. It’s a great starting point for any litigation history.

It’s here: the News section, my nemesis. I can’t even with this section. First, I don’t care what anyone says, there is no good resource out there: they are either too targeted or include everything but the kitchen sink. Second, there are tons of super-VIP sources that are not indexed anywhere. Third, let’s pretend there’s a magical aggregator that includes every source and allows you to Boolean and taxonomy and filter down to the news you want: BAM! You hit a pesky paywall and, even though you subscribe to the source, you can’t access it through the aggregating platform, which means more work because now you have to search those stories in the original source. Nope nopety nope nope no.

So until the mythical unicorn of news aggregators comes along—and for the record, I’m not holding my breath because I fully realize it’s pretty unfeasible right now—the only recourse is to either plow through all the miss-hits you get from aggregators or check each source individually. I opt for the later, so this is how I tackle news:

  • Law360 and are a must. Anything reported by these two sources, provided it’s relevant to your practice areas, should go in the news section. If you have access, include articles from the BNA newsletters.
  • Subscription sources: Meaning, whatever subject-specific newsletters you access via your firm’s direct subscriptions. For me, it includes The Deal, MLex, Mergermarket, Creditflux/Debtwire/etc., a huge list of investment newsletters, and WSJPro, to name a few.
  • The big five: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, and Reuters. When researching a foreign company I also check the top newspapers for that country, using Google Translate as needed [btw, for the research, I also switch to the search page/domain for that country instead of using the US/default one].
  • Local papers: I use Regional Business News|(EBSCO) via my local library databases. This is where I often find financial info for private companies, as well as tidbits about key execs.
  • Additionally, I check the top industry web sites; e.g., FierceBiotech for a biotech company, Becker’s for a health system, etc. And I always end with a quick scan of the company’s news page: I know what I said about PR-spin earlier but it’s worth checking to make sure you didn’t miss anything super important.

For the articles themselves, include the title, the date, the source, a hyperlink if possible, and summarize the gist of the article in a few sentences. If you have a VIP article that must be read in its entirety, print it to PDF and embed the PDF into the report (but still provide a brief summary).

Obviously, this post doesn’t include all the sections you will cover in a CI report. For instance, I’ve left out Key Execs (company web site, LinkedIn, SEC filings), Licensing Agreements (Strategic Transactions, Form 10-K), Product List (company web site, CapIQ, 10-K), Product Pipeline (company web site, 10-K), and Competitors (Hoovers, CapIQ), to name a few. However, this has gone on long enough, so I will just give you some final tips:

  • If your CI report is going to be turned into a PDF, do not embed any files (excel spreadsheets, PDFs, etc.) because they will turn into images. Instead, add them as appendices at the end of the report.
  • When you can’t figure out which database has what info, head to your favorite biz school library web site and check out its research guides. Awesome academic librarians have done all that work so you don’t have to spend hours figuring it out.
  • Using the style set to format your report does not absolve you from a) running spellcheck when finished, nor from b) taking one last good read/look at the report before you submit it. You’ve spent an awful lot of time finding, organizing, and summarizing the info, why would you ruin such beautiful work with sloppy spacing, distorted images, or typos?


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