From the February 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Keeping up with the competition.

Forget about your own business strategies for a moment. How well do you keep tabs on your competitors' moves? If you're like most entrepreneurs, you probably have a thing or two to learn: According to a recent study, most executives performed poorly when asked to assess their competition's motives and objectives.

The survey, conducted by Bruce Clark of the Anderson School of Management at University of California, Los Angeles, and David B. Montgomery, Sebastian S. Kresge professor of marketing strategy at Stanford Business School, placed participants on teams and asked them to discuss their tactics for various business scenarios and whether they were attacking or reacting to competitors.

Frequently, participants misread their opponents' strategies. About 65 percent saw reactions that didn't occur. Worse, about 79 percent didn't even notice a competitor had taken action--a blind spot experts say can cause considerable damage to your business. "If a competitor makes a move and you don't notice, it can sneak up on you, take your market, even steal your customers," says Montgomery.

How to improve your forecasting skills? Try role-playing to put yourself in your competitors' shoes, analyzing successful strategies rivals are likely to repeat, or using the Internet to investigate other companies' strategies, goals and organizational structure. Feeling a little neurotic? Don't worry. Says Montgomery, "Being suspicious and paranoid about [competition] gets your company focused and keeps you sharp."

Kidding Around

Marketers turn to kids for the answers.

Microsoft corp. is doing it. So are Levi Strauss & Co., General Mills Inc., Nickelodeon and MTV. No, these corporations aren't jumping on the latest Internet fad. Rather, they're capitalizing on a somewhat quieter trend: using children as marketing consultants.

Considering the ample children's market--and the growing number of businesses vying for a piece of it--cutting-edge companies, particularly those in the early stages of development, see real value in turning to youngsters for their thoughts on children's products and services. "In general, kids tend to think out of the box, and for marketers that can be really advantageous," says Lynn Kaladjian, director of marketing and sales with Doyle Research Associates Inc., a Chicago-based qualitative research firm specializing in children's and teen research.

The process isn't child's play, however. In most cases, kids are screened for factors like high creativity, receive regular "homework" assignments, and participate in carefully crafted brainstorming sessions. Doyle Research Associates, for example, uses a specialized recruiting process, moderated activity sessions and follow-up sessions in which clients further brainstorm based on the children's ideas.

Critics of the process say many of the ideas young thinkers generate simply aren't viable. Kaladjian, however, believes that, ultimately, it's a company's ability to read between the lines and see the true meaning behind an idea that determines its success. Says Kaladjian, "It won't work unless a company is
forward-thinking, innovative and completely open to the process."

Read All About It

What are business owners reading these days? The top 10 business books at press time (based on net sales) were:

1. Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook, by Scott Adams, $16 (HarperBusiness)

2. The Dilbert Principle, by Scott Adams, $20 (HarperBusiness)

3. Wall Street Money Machine, by Wade Cook, $24.95 (United Support Association)

4. What Color Is Your Parachute--1996, by Richard Nelson Bolles, $14.95 (Ingram)

5. The Road Ahead, by Bill Gates, $15.95 (Penguin Books)

6. J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 1997, by The J.K. Lasser Institute, $14.95 (Macmillan)

7. Wave Three to Building Your Downline: Your Guide to Building a Successful Network Marketing Empire, by Richard Poe, $14.95 (Prima Publishing Co.)

8. Nuts: Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, by Kevin Freiberg, $24.95 (National Book Network)

9. Only the Paranoid Survive, by Andrew S. Grove, $27.50 (Doubleday & Co.)

10. Investing for Dummies, by Eric Tyson, $19.99 (IDG Books Worldwide)

Contact Sources

Doyle Research Associates Inc., 919 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-1601, (312) 944-4848;

House Small Business Committee, 2361 Rayburn House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515, (202) 225-5821;

Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum, 109 E. Main St., P.O. Box 468, Mt. Horeb, WI 53572, (800) 438-6878, (608) 437-3986;

One Step Ahead, 75 Albrecht Dr., Lake Bluff, IL 60044, (800) 274-8440;

Senate Committee on Small Business, 428 Russell Senate Office Bldg., Capitol
Hill, Washington, DC 20510, http://www.senate.gov/~sbc

Small Business Administration, 409 Third St. S.W., Washington, DC 20516, (800) 8-ASK-SBA, http://www.sba.gov

The Territory Ahead, 419 State St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, (800) 882-4323.