How to Start an Internet Research Business


If you want to start an online business and keep your day job, then an internet research can be a good option.  You might be wondering how to start an internet research business.

First, decide on your ideal customer.  Next, build the knowledge and skills you will need.  Then, market your services to your target audience.  Finally, do great work and get referrals to grow your business.

There are benefits and drawbacks to starting an internet research business, so you should consider these before you jump into it.  Before we do that, let’s start off with the basics.

What is an Internet Research Business?

When you run an internet research business, you act as a consultant for your customers.  Your customer provides you with a topic and you perform research on that topic.

You can either perform the research yourself, or you can hire assistants to help you with your work.  You can use libraries, but many people use the internet for at least part of their research.

A customer might use an internet research business to outsource research tasks if he can spend his time doing other more profitable work.

A customer might also hire a specialized or “boutique” internet research business that has a reputation for finding the best information on a specific topic.

Some examples of sites you might use to access professionals for your research business include:

In addition to using the experts on these sites as “subcontractors” for your research service, you can also become an authority and create your own website to provide answers and expertise!

Who are my Customers?

To build your internet research business, you will need to choose a customer base and cater to their specific needs.  If you try to appeal to everyone, you will appeal to no one – and you will be competing with larger, more established companies.

Individuals

You can focus on doing research for individuals concerning aspects of their private lives.  There are many possibilities here, including:

  • medical and legal research
  • product advice and reviews
  • education, such as courses, schools, tutoring
  • services, such as laundry, landscaping, housekeeping, babysitting

For instance, a busy professional with little free time might wish to hire a research company.

Example

A person recently diagnosed with Celiac disease has a very demanding job with a high income.  He has no time to do his own research on the subject.

It makes sense for him to hire a researcher to find information about food, recipes, and even personal chefs to help with a gluten-free diet.

A researcher might also be able to help by finding books, local support groups, medical specialists, and other resources to help this person.

Instead of  helping individuals with personal research, you can assist with business research.

Solo Entrepreneurs

Here, you can focus on assisting freelancers and other solo entrepreneurs with any research they need to do.  Some ideas include:

  • research and comparisons on costs for insurance, rent, supplies, and other business expenses
  • referrals to appropriate professionals, including lawyers, accountants, and bankers
  • details on next steps, including business automation, expansion, outsourcing, and hiring

For instance, a freelancer might not be certain about how to structure his company and finances.

Example

A freelance software engineer is extremely skilled at both computer system design and marketing his expertise.  As a result, he is extremely busy, constantly working on projects and staying in touch with customers.

With more money coming in from the business every day, it makes sense for him to spend a little to hire a researcher.  This researcher can refer the software engineer to the right lawyer and accountant for his situation.

The right accountant can help the software engineer to structure his business so that he minimizes his taxes.  The right lawyer can help the software engineer to create a legal entity for his business to avoid being wiped out in the event of a lawsuit.

All of these services (research, legal, accounting) might easily pay for themselves with tax savings.

You can also offer your services to startups and other more established businesses.

Startups

A startup or small business might need the following services from a research company:

  • market research to decide which city to expand into next
  • headhunting to hire the right key personnel early on
  • information on market levels for salary and benefits as they hire more employees

For instance, a startup wants to find out if it is a good idea to expand into another city in the same state.

Example

A startup has a fairly successful business going, and the CEO wants to know if he should expand into another location.

Instead of spending his time doing research, he can hire a company to do the work for him.

The researcher would do market research to gauge demand for the product or service (willingness to pay) and income levels of the audience (ability to pay).  He could also compare the demographics of the startup’s current location and the proposed 2nd location.

The researcher would also perform competitive analysis, to find out which (if any) companies are already established in the area, and whether the startup can differentiate itself and succeed.

Startups might need information that no one has ever requested or examined before, so be prepared for anything if you work with new companies!

Large Businesses

A larger company with an established business may still need some of the following services:

  • research on SEO (search engine optimization) for each of their local markets
  • general SEO research for long-tail keywords in their industry
  • headhunting (finding exceptional people to hire from colleges or from other companies)
  • research on other consultants for hire, such as attorneys, accountants, and subject matter experts

For instance, a large company wants to hire a subject matter expert on artificial intelligence.

Example

A large company wants to branch out into artificial intelligence software.  For this, they will need to hire a team of subject matter experts.

The company could hire a researcher to find prospects at universities (professors and graduate students) and in industry (employees at other companies).

The research would compile a list of names, along with pertinent information, such as:

  • contact information (phone, email, academic or personal website, and social media such as LinkedIn)
  • education level
  • college attended
  • current workplace
  • job title
  • areas of specialization within AI.

The researcher can go above and beyond by finding salary ranges for each candidate’s current job title.  This will give the company a leg up in providing competitive compensation without overpaying.

A large company with a big budget for new projects like this one will be able to pay for extensive research.  Often, they will do so, since losing $10,000 to $50,000 in research costs for an abandoned project is better than wasting millions on something because of a lack of information.

What Type of Research Should I Do?

There are many different categories of research, but you should start off with one specialty and branch out later.  Here are some ideas of the types of research you can do.

Market Research

This means that you try to find out information about a company’s target market.  This includes information such as:

  • demographics (should they target younger or older, male or female, less or more educated)
  • income (ability to pay)
  • desire or demand for product (willingness to pay)
  • size of market (for example, how many college-age women are there who want this product?)
  • competitive analysis (who else is targeting this market with a similar product?)

Without this information, a company could potentially waste a lot of time, money, and energy in producing something that won’t sell well enough to become profitable.

If you become an expert at finding this information, you can provide it more cheaply than the company could obtain it themselves, saving them money in the long run.

Information Technology

When a company grows (more customers or employees) or expands into other markets, they need to master systems to manage their new size.  The same holds true for information technology systems.

For instance, a small company might be fine with Excel spreadsheets.  However, when they start dealing with larger amounts of data, they will need to adopt a solution like Microsoft SQL to sort through the information.

A company might also need to know how to secure customer information – or their own information – against hackers or employees.

If you come from a technical background, you might have contacts who can point you in the right direction when it comes to big data, information security, and other IT needs.

Human Resources

Most companies will need employees, whether full-time or part-time, permanent or freelance.  This means they will want information on workers and their availability and suitability for work:

  • number of qualified workers in a given geographical area, based on education and experience
  • suitability of remote workers for a job or task
  • competition with other companies over workers

In addition, companies will need information about potential employees and their needs, including:

  • availability of housing in a given area
  • background check information, including verification of education, experience, and a check of criminal records and social media
  • market rates for salary and benefits

If you have experience in HR or know someone who does, you might be able to help small or large companies who need to find this information.

Due Diligence

If an individual or group of people want to start a business, they will perform due diligence before investing too much of their time and money.  This includes market research, as mentioned above.

When a company is acquiring or merging with another company, they will want to make sure that the company is operating within the law.  This includes a thorough review of their books by an accountant.  It also includes a check for trademark and patent infringement by a lawyer.

Also, before purchasing a website, a buyer should verify the seller’s claims about traffic, income, expenses, and work required to run the site.  For more information, check out my article on website brokers.

Taxes

One possibility is to do research for businesses that want to apply for abatements or exemptions on local property tax bills.  This would involve conducting research on comparable properties in the area (business location and surrounding towns).

Another possibility is doing research to find state or federal tax incentives for businesses.

One example is tax credits for solar panel installation.  You can also do the research and calculations on a solar panel project to determine the return on investment or payback period for a business or homeowner.

Legal

This is one area where you might need to contract with multiple lawyers or paralegals who have extra capacity (a few hours a week) to help you with legal questions.

However, you can still do some research at the courthouse or local registry of deeds to find the information you need.  Many registries have moved their records online in recent years.

Some examples include research on court cases and decisions.  These decisions may impact a business owner, since legal precedent (another judge’s past decision) can influence how another judge will rule on a similar case in the future.

Housing

Many individuals or property management companies will need someone to do investigations on potential tenants.  This includes a background check, employer and income verification, and record check (prior evictions, etc.)

Note that some of this research will overlap with legal research (for example, pending or closed eviction cases).

What Skills do I Need?

There are several skills that will be helpful for your career as a researcher.  These include communication, critical thinking, creativity, data analysis, problem solving, and a mastery of search.

Communication

It might sound like a no-brainer, but it is incredibly important to communicate well with your customers.  Before you go running off to start your research, make sure you are looking for the right thing!

Once you get a request, ask any clarifying questions as necessary, so that you can refine your search and weed out the bad results and false starts along the way.

Example

Your customer, a local Italian restaurant owner, asks you to find all of the nearby restaurants.

Some of your clarifying questions should be:

  • do you want all of the restaurants, or only the Italian restaurants?
  • how nearby should the restaurants be? (within a 5 mile radius? 10 miles?)
  • what information would you like on these restaurants? (address, contact info, website addresses, etc.)

Knowing this information up front will allow you to conduct your research more efficiently.  Instead of wasting time going back and forth with the customer, you can get the info you need, which means that he gets the info he needs.

An added benefit of asking these questions is that it might remind the customer of additional information that he wants to find.

There is one more thing to remember about good communication.  Always be straightforward with your customers about scope of work, deadlines, and payments.  Make sure you agree in writing on what the research entails, when the research should be completed, and the amount and due date of payment for services rendered.

Critical Thinking

Another critical skill (no pun intended) for a good researcher is critical thinking.  This means that you should be able to look at a data set, graph, chart, or essay, and decide if the information makes sense.

If part of the information source is clearly false, then the entire source is in question.  If you have some doubts, you need to decide whether to trust the source, dig deeper to see if it is trustworthy, or ignore it and keep looking.

Critical thinking can also help you to go “above and beyond” for your customers.  In the example above, asking the right questions makes it easier for you and your customer to work together.

Let’s say you decided to acquire menu information from each of the Italian restaurants and include it in your research report.  Your customer will see that you are in sync with his way of thinking, and he will have information he would eventually want anyway.

This might also lead to more work for you, such as finding out how each of the restaurants does their sourcing for specialty foods.

Creativity

Creativity (or resourcefulness) is also important for a good researcher.  I am not talking about making up numbers randomly.  However, there are situations where there is truly a gap in the available data.  In these cases, it might make sense to use an estimate to interpolate or extrapolate information.

Example

Your customer wants to know the total current size of his market (as of 9/30/2018).

You are unable to find a current number, but you can find numbers for a few prior years:

2014 Market Size = $110,000,000

2015 Market Size = $112,000,000

2016 Market Size = $116,000,000

2017 Market Size = $120,000,000

It looks like the market size increased by $2 million in 2015, and by $4 million in both 2016 and 2017.

If this trend continues, you can expect an increase of $4 million in 2018.

Since we are 3/4 of the way through 2018 on 9/30/2018, then the increase would be 3/4 of $4 million, or $3 million.

Since the market was $120 million in 2017, then the market would be 120 + 3 = $123 million on 9/30/2018.

Of course, when making these estimates, indicate to your customer that you have made an estimate based on available data, and include a methodology, similar to what I outlined in the example above.

Data Analysis

Data analysis can be another useful skill, depending on the area of research that you decide to specialize in.  Sometimes, a customer will know exactly what information he wants, and you may well be able to find it.

However, the customer may not have the expertise to analyze the data and interpret the results.  If you can also do this for the customer, then the value of your services will increase drastically.

Example

An entrepreneur requests information on the size of the markets in various towns, hoping to establish his business in the best possible place.

However, having this information alone may not tell him everything he needs to know.

It might be more helpful to get information of the size of the market for at least a few years back.

Then, you can analyze the trends, such as whether each market is increasing or decreasing, and how quickly each one is growing in percentage terms and absolute terms.

There are other factors to consider as well: perhaps one town has the largest market, but it also has the most competitors, making it difficult to establish a foothold and start a successful business.

Another town may have a fairly large market, but the market has been decreasing recently, in part due to people moving out of town in large numbers.

Upon further investigation, a good researcher would find that the town has a budget crisis, and has been increasing taxes to keep pace.

It doesn’t look like the situation will improve any time soon, so you expect the market to decline even further.

Another market may have a small market, but no competition, meaning people have to drive to the next town over to find what they want.

Also, the town’s population is increasing, due to a major company building its new headquarters nearby.

Thus, this under-served market is growing at a time when there is no competition to speak of in the town.

Analyzing data and asking further questions about information you find will allow you to help your customers to get more out of your services.  This will keep them coming back and referring more business to you.

Problem Solving

This is mostly related to solving the problem of where to find your information.  An internet search can be a good start, but anyone can do a Google search.  That should only be your jumping off point.

You will also want use public libraries, legal libraries, industry or trade journals, and even information brokers or other researchers as information sources.

Search

Speaking of search, it might be a good idea to master Google searches to make sure that you are filtering correctly and finding the information you want.

This means learning about how to use search operators such as:

  • and
  • or
  • not
  • allintext
  • allintitle
  • exact match (quotation marks)

To put it bluntly, you need to be able to sift through trash quickly, in order to find the hidden gems of information.  Your time is limited, as is your customer’s time and patience.  Make the upfront investment of a few hours to hone your search skills, and you will save yourself much more time in the long run.

How do I Market My Services?

Now, you have decided what type of services you want to offer.  You also have the skills you need and the willingness to do the work to make your business a success.

The question is: how do you persuade customers to pay for your services?  The answer is: you need to communicate the value in what  you provide.  Show that your service pays for itself over time, and that you can provide something that nobody else can.

Provide Savings

If you can show people that they will end up ahead by hiring you, then they are much more likely to do so.  This means that you need to save your customer time, money, or both.

Example

Your customer, a novice in your field of research, thinks it will take him 16 hours to gather and analyze the information he wants.

He calls you, and finds out that you can do the research in 4 hours, for a cost of $120 ($30 per hour).

It is true that the customer will be out $120, but he will also save himself 12 hours.  Thus, he is paying $10 per hour to recover his time.  ($120 / 12 hours = $10 per hour).

If he can earn more than $10 per hour by spending those 12 hours on other aspects of his business (prospecting, consulting, etc.), then he will end up way ahead by hiring you.

It doesn’t hurt to mention that in some cases, your customer will be earning less than minimum wage by doing the work himself.

In the previous example, the customer would be ahead if he could earn more than $10 per hour worked.  In Massachusetts, where I live, minimum wage is currently $11 per hour.  A business owner can probably do much better than that!

Prove Your Credibility

It is always a good idea to have a portfolio, even if you haven’t done hundreds of research reports.  Even a few good ones can sway a client who has reservations about hiring you.

The trick is, many customers will not want the research they paid for to be shared with other people for free!  You can ask some of your customers, but they might not like the idea, and you could alienate them by asking.

My suggestion is to find a research topic of your own – perhaps something similar to a project you have done, or want to do.  Then, do the work, gather your results, and add it to your portfolio of work!

Gain Special Access

If you can gain special access to information or professional advice that others simply don’t have, then you will be at an advantage in marketing your services.

Perhaps you are friends with the best patent lawyer in town, and can ask him questions that only he could confidently answer.  In exchange for a nice meal or a share of the profit, he might be able to help you with answers on a lucrative patent research project.

Then again, you might have a connection from your high school or college who can help you to track down data that is difficult to find.

Whatever special resources you have, make sure to communicate it to a potential customer!

Offer a Unique Presentation

A unique take on presenting the results of your research can go a long way in winning customers.  People say not to judge a book by its cover, but well-presented samples of your work are much more likely to sway a customer who is on the fence about hiring you.

Your unique presentation might include some or all of the following:

  • great data visualization (charts, graphs, tables)
  • high-quality pictures that are relevant to the project
  • interesting and engaging writing style
  • excellent explanations of technical topics

Most importantly, no matter what your unique take, make sure that you always present a polished report.  This means no typos, missing numbers, or words like “INCOMPLETE – ADD LATER!!!”  A clean research report will instill confidence in the results, and in your abilities.

How do I Find My First Big Client?

You might want to find a big client right away, but it doesn’t always make sense to swing for the fences on the first pitch.  Here are some ideas for building up your skills – and your portfolio – until you can land some bigger jobs.

Work for Free

You can always start off by offering to work for free for a local or online business.  One idea is to ask them if there are any research projects they have on the back burner that have been ignored.

Make some suggestions yourself: perhaps a restaurant owner needs to find a cheaper source of fish, or a more reliable provider of specialty cheese.  Maybe an online business owner or blogger is very creative with his ideas and writing, but not great at data analysis.  You can do that for him to analyze his traffic!

You can approach business owners by phone, email, or in person.  You can also ask for a referral or testimonial, as long as the work is good and the customer is pleased with the result.

Build Your Portfolio

As you build up your portfolio and skills, you might be able to find even more work at a lower rate by working in academia.  This includes work for a college professor or a Ph.D student who might need help.  Again, the creative person who is lacking in the data analysis department comes to mind!

You can also find lower-paid work on sites like Upwork and Fiverr to build your portfolio.  You won’t be able to charge premium rates right away, but eventually you can raise your prices if you do good work and prove your value.

Conclusion

Starting an internet research business can be a good way to become a telecommuter, while working on interesting projects and going above and beyond for customers.

You can also expand your business and provide more value for your customers by hiring extra researchers or virtual assistants.  For more information, check out my articles on these topics:

I hope this article gave you some ideas on how to get started with your internet research business.  Please leave any questions in the comments below.

If you do decide to start an internet research business, please let me know how it goes!

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