Monday, January 16, 2012

Scuttlebutt in the 21st Century

In Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, Philip Fisher devoted a chapter to write about scuttlebutt and how it can reveal precious information about the company. Scuttlebutt involved talking to the customers, competitors, suppliers, employees and key management of the company. Through the technique, it can tell us about the competition, popularity and quality of the products and how strong is its brand name.

However, for some of these people, it might be really inaccessible to us, the retail investor. Some companies might have also expanded overseas of which it will be rather expensive and time-consuming to have a look at them. Or a company might just have more than 50 branches all over Singapore. Supplier of which you have no business interest in might not be bother about you as certain information revealed might sensitive or simply confidential.

These applies more to the Fisher era where the internet is not as developed yet. In this era today, the potential of internet in the scuttlebutt research process is tremendous. This development has narrowed the knowledge gap between the retail investor and the professional fund managers. Now I shall elaborate on how can we make use of this tool to access information that Fisher might have to spend weeks to gather in the past.

Forum and Review site
Nowadays, whenever we wish to find out about which brand of laptop has the highest quality, which mobile phone has the longest battery life or utility, we can just Google it or find the answer on the forum. These site allows customer to badmouth about their bad experiences or to compliment a company for its excellent product. Without the need to fly overseas, we can easily find out about how popular a product is elsewhere. More than often, there will be two sides of argument like though product A's design is not as nice, it is still the most reliable and durable.

IR, PR and customer service
While not all IRs are willing to answer your questions faithfully, there are some that will be ready to help out with most of your enquiries and try their best to provide you with the necessary information. For PR, it is more of how well they can handle the media and how well they are being received by the general public. The reputation and brand name of a company can be maimed when you notice how people started scolding or even threatening to boycott it. Or try sending an email as a customer that has just met with some problem after a purchase to check the quality of service.

What's a better avenue for a disgruntled employee to scold its boss or lament about the organisational inefficiency other than the web where one can comment anonymously. Or simply to share the benefits and perks they enjoyed with potential future colleague.

Industry Data
Other than having your annual report online, industry statistics can also be found through government website, university research or some other research project. News archive may also be available online for free and provides a history of problems the company has faced before.

While this has nothing got to do with your internet, it is much easier nowadays to find a book commenting on maybe how Google becomes the search engine giant or how GSK manipulated the pharmaceutical scene. Of course, this mostly applies to big corporations with extensive operations.

While the above that I have listed are all that I can think of, the potential of it depends on how creative you are in sourcing for your information. One word of caution though, because of the anonymity you need to exercise your discretion in processing the information. And no matter how positive your Scuttlebutt is, never forget to analyse the financial statements of the company for you might never know what you will come to know about the company.

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