Seek And You Shall Find

When I was in junior high school, we were given that year’s debate topic — you remember, one of those official proclamations that begins: “Be it resolved that.” We were then sent to the local library to spend hours researching it.

After a basic primer on the proper use of the green-covered Guide to Periodical Literature, it was off to the races, seeking out little nuggets, factoids, and quotes to be typed up and pasted to index cards. Confession: I enjoyed the heck out of these hunts and gathers. And, to this day, I consider myself, by nature, a first-class “finder.”

Now, fast-forward some three decades to my average weekday night on the web. You see, the web is a playpen for finders like me — search engines, investor threads, e-zines, employment listings and so on.

When researching a current or possible investment, doing what investor folks call “due diligence” (or DD for short), I usually start at the company’s web site. After getting familiar with the official self-description, I collect important words or “keywords” for search engine searches. (By and large, you know it’s a keyword when it’s something you’ve never seen before like “micropayments” or “operations research” or “bidirectional change propagation.”)

For another slant on a public company, I’ll delve into their online employment page, looking for hints of upcoming products and new initiatives. (Using a keyword that I found in Infoseek’s corporate job postings, I uncovered a detailed description of an as-yet-unannounced product that software guru Steve Kirsch and team were in the midst of developing. The document was just sitting there on his unprotected server, ripe for the picking!)

My next stop is at search engines like Infoseek, AltaVista, Metacrawler, Northern Lights, Electric Library, or HotBot. Effective keyword searching is, I am now convinced, a voodoo craft. I use keyword searches to unearth important resources like journals and e-zines, as well as names of relevant industry organizations.

Depending upon how serious I am, I’ll refine my searches by adding other keywords through the use of ampersands and commas. (Each search engine has special rules that guide advanced searches. Practice makes perfect.)

I often use the search results to uncover even more keywords. Think of keywords as the net you go trawling for fish with. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s a dolphin-friendly net.) By adding more keywords, you increase the size of your net and the chances of your success. As a matter of course and professional pride, I don’t pay much attention to the first few pages of search engine results. Usually, while highly relevant (search engines display relevancy percentages next to each result, e.g., 85 percent), these results are very bland — like references to the company’s home page.

I’m looking for the stuff that the crowd overlooks — the virtual equivalent of a Limoges china set sitting in a dusty “$5 Dollars for Everything” box at the neighbor’s garage sale. When it comes to search engines, I like the stuff that’s buried 30 or 40 pages deep.

Next, because I often invest my meager savings in high-technology and e-commerce companies, I do searches at my usual haunts like Allec (which is an excellent e-commerce resource site), Wired, Red Herring , Upside, CMP, C|Net, IDG, ComputerWorld, InformationWeek, Fortune, and Internet News. This list is by no means exhaustive.

To get even more information and context about public companies, I regularly visit the investor message boards — called “threads”– at Yahoo, TechStocks, and Raging Bull. You enter the stock symbol(s), e.g., WAVX, the symbol for Wave Systems, and then dive into the “posts” from folks who seem knowledgeable about the company and its prospects, traders who just want to turn a quick buck on the up or downswing of the stock, narcissists who crave attention, weirdos, drifters, spammers, and so on.

The quality of the information varies terrifically. But you quickly get a reading of how the company is perceived, its competitive threats, products, and management.

On to the metaphysical aspects of good finding. Didn’t think I was heading there, did you? The overall experience, especially after two hours fly by, can be both giddying and disorienting. (In this regard, I am reminded of a medieval medical condition called “bibliomania.”)

My own home-brewed finding process, which has more happy accidents and weird connections than the above would indicate, feel yes, FEELS creative. It’s totally absorbing. Sort of like playing with the words or images on a page. Or inventing a melody on guitar.

The subject of my finding doesn’t matter: Whether its aim is to make my first million in the market, prepare for a client presentation, or study up on the migratory heroics of the swallows of Capistrano. If things are right, there’s a flow. I wish you the same experience.

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