Privately held companies include large corporations, small corporations, partnerships and sole proprietorships. People research them as potential employers, acquisitions, investments, vendors, customers or rivals. Private-company information isn't as accessible as publicly traded firms, but you can often find a lot with a little digging.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Check the company's website to see what information you can learn. Then look for any coverage of the company in newspaper, magazine or trade journal articles. You may be able to gain added information by looking up patents they've filed or reading their articles of incorporation.
Public companies are those whose shares are traded on stock exchanges. They have to file their financial statements and other information with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. All of this information is freely available online.
Private companies don't have to file with the SEC. Sole proprietorships and partnerships that don't need licenses may not have to file anything with anyone. Therefore, doing private-company research takes a little more effort.
The first place to hunt for private-company information is the company itself. If it has a website, visit it. There may be nothing there but a list of products and services, but in other cases, you'll find private-company profiles, including who it is and how it wants to be seen.
- What services or products does it offer and at what prices?
- How many locations does it have in your area? If you're researching a competitor, knowing where there are stores can help you decide where to locate your own.
- How does the website present the company — quiet, professional and dignified? Young, hip and edgy? Traditional or forward-thinking? Does it advertise low prices or great customer service?
- Many companies use their website to identify their important team members or to tell the story of how the business came to be. They may boast about particular accomplishments or their field of expertise.
- Some companies have recent press releases and announcements posted on their website.
Just because a company is small and privately held doesn't mean it exists in the shadows. Lots of companies get into the newspapers when they do something noteworthy, even if it's only at the local level.
- A search engine is an obvious place to start looking for private-company news.
- If the industry has a trade journal, searching the magazine's website for information may turn up news or in-depth articles.
- If you're looking at a small, local company, there may be information in the local newspaper.
- If information doesn't turn up online, you might hunt through back issues of the local paper at the library or contact a trade magazine directly.
- Use specialized sources such as Forbes's list of America's largest private companies or Inc.'s list of the most successful private companies.
Evaluate your sources carefully. Some "news" sources online are unreliable or biased, and even articles from reputable sources may be out of date now. An article about the new CEO from five years ago doesn't mean that's the person in charge today; a new project or initiative may have failed and been forgotten.
Ask the Government
Even if the business in which you're interested hasn't filed any private-company information with the SEC, it may have filed some at the state level. A privately held corporation is still a corporation, so it has to file with its state government. In Virginia, for example, a non-stock corporation's initial filing includes the registered agent who represents it in legal matters, the company address and the names and addresses of the incorporators and initial directors.
If the private company you're researching is a tech business, check the U.S. Patent Office, which will have records if the company has patented any inventions. You can also check for copyrights and trademarks at the appropriate government websites.
You might gain some information even at the local level. If a business uses an assumed name rather than the owner's name, it will have to file a "doing business as" statement with county or city government. If nothing else, looking up the DBA will tell you the company's real owner. Some state databases let you search through multiple counties at once.
- Library of Congress: U.S. Private Companies
- Bentley University Library: Private Company Research
- Virginia State Corporation Commission: Articles of Incorporation of a Virginia Nonstock Corporation
- Duke University Libraries: Company and Industry Research: Private Companies
- North Carolina Secretary of State: Assumed Business Name
Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com