Say, for example, I want to see how my wife's private textile manufacturing company stacks up against her privately held competition. I simply select the industry, manufacturing, then the number of companies I want to sample, about 20. Then I enter the dates for the sample and what ratios I want, in this case margin data. And poof! Sageworks renders an operating-margin chart for the past five years. And, sure enough, it showed profits have been tightening as high input prices for yarns have squeezed the sector.

It is darn slick.

Want you don't get

Complete coverage and a very well thought-out interface or charting features.

Sageworks is way far from perfect. Though the company supports all the standard industry sectors, there were some startling gaps in the information. Housing, car sales and most forms of manufacturing that I studied seemed to have fungible databases. But data on my sector, information businesses like publishing and Web-based services, was spotty to the point of being useless.

And then there is the interface. Charting is, frankly, primitive by modern standards. Forget Google Finance -- Sageworks get smoked by Excel. And, therefore, bad data sets can creep into your report very easily. Be doubly sure you are looking at the right information before you jump to conclusions based on just a few charts.

"The more common industries, the more information we have," says Tim Keogh, principal systems architect at Sageworks. "So gaps do exist. And the system is aimed at financial professionals who tend to prefer simpler interfaces."

Bottom line

Sageworks can be clumsy and incomplete, but it is by far the best repository for private industry information I have ever seen. If you use it properly, and can finesse the exports to Excel, you can compare your company performance to others', private or public, on a quarter-by-quarter basis. Think what an edge that would be.

These days, we all need all the help we can get.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.

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