FOOL ON THE HILL
Peeping-Tom Investing

Learning about companies via financial statements, press releases, and news stories is fine and good. But there are some more things that you could learn by engaging in a little peeping -- into what a company's employees are reading, what trade names the company is registering, what jobs the company is looking to fill, and so on.

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By Selena Maranjian (TMF Selena)
April 29, 2002

I'll confess upfront that this article won't be as scandalous as you might have suspected (or hoped). If you clicked in expecting to learn how you can improve your investment performance by hanging out near the fitting rooms at your local department store, sorry. Still, if you enjoy the thrill of a little detective work and get satisfaction from discovering useful nuggets of information, read on.

Most of us investors are used to being on the receiving end of information about companies. Companies issue quarterly reports and occasional press releases. The financial media feed us what they think are important or interesting stories about companies. (Here in the Fool News department, we use a simpler "Random Story Generator (tm)" tool that saves us a lot of time.)

To get more information on a company, we typically dig through financial statements and annual reports. But these are limited in what they tell us. To find answers to the following kinds of questions, you'll often need to do some special sleuthing -- "peeping" into the firm:

-- What initiatives is the company working on?

-- Is the company doing much hiring, and if so, what kinds of people is it hiring?

-- What is the mood in the office? Are employees fired up and focused or in the doldrums?

Trademarks and domain names
One way to get some inside scoop is to see what trademarks and domain names the company has registered. Our friends at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) offer the Trademark Electronic Search System ("TESS"). There I clicked on "Browse Dictionary (View Indexes)" and searched for "coca-cola." I was rewarded with a few hits, one of which appeared to be the Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO), with exponentially more filings than the others. When I clicked on "Coca-Cola," I was shown the first 16 of 923 documents. They included the following trade names:

That Certain Something
Stretch Your Tongue
Rocket Cash
Coca-Cola Fan Lot
Boppin' Strawberry
Powerade Psych
Cherry Vanilla Groove
Orange Undercurrent
Back to School Blues
Andean Chill
Peach Out
Coca-Cola Shrink Tank

Presumably, these represent some plans or projects that Coke is working on, some that many people may not be aware of.

Another handy site is Allwhois, where you can type in a domain and find out a few details about its owner. (A domain is the root of a web address. For example, my employer's domain name is Fool.com.) It would be handier if you could type in a company name and see what domains it has registered, but so far I haven't been able to do that. One site that used to permit that no longer does. (If you know of a way to do this, let us know! -- on the Fool on the Hill discussion board.)

Still, a little digging might turn up some information. For example, I learned that the "Ford.com" domain record was created in 1988, while that for "GM.com" was created in 1992. This is far from sufficient information on which to base any conclusions, but it looks like Ford was a few years ahead of the curve here. Microsoft.com's record was created in 1991 -- which, if I'm interpreting the information correctly, would support the widely held view that Bill Gates was a little slow in appreciating the potential of the Internet.

Employment opportunities
Another nifty way to peep into a company is to see what jobs it has available, if any. This can often be done right on the company's own website -- and also at job-search sites such as Monster.com. As an example, glance at Wrigley's (NYSE: WWY) career opportunities page. I'd heard about their interesting plans to develop medicinal gum -- designed to deliver drugs through chewing vs. injections or pills. But I saw no openings for any Research & Development people. (Of course, the company may have just finished hiring scores of such people -- which is why it can be good to regularly check a company's job listings.) One interesting opening I saw was for a "Human Capital Senior Analyst, tasked with: "Research, analyze and evaluate various elements of the Company's human capital to provide insight and direction to management in the effective utilization of these resources."

Purchase circles
I've written about these fascinating things before. An Amazon.com innovation, Purchase Circles are "highly specialized bestseller lists" of books, music, DVDs, toys, and electronics purchased through Amazon by discrete groups of people. Represented are various countries, cities, government organizations, nonprofit and professional organizations, schools... and companies.

As much as I'd like to ponder why so many Israelis are reading about handwriting identification, or why a study guide for fire fighting is a top book for Rhode Islanders, I'll try to restrict myself to companies here. (Although I did note that a top-10 book in India was the Call Center Handbook, which is telling, since some American companies have begun outsourcing their call-center work to India, where many people speak English and labor costs less.)

It was interesting to note that 7 of the top 10 books on Cisco's (Nasdaq: CSCO) list had the word "Cisco" in their titles. Among Enron's (OTCBB: ENRNQ) top books were Trading Natural Gas: Cash Futures Options and Swaps; Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives; Option Volatility & Pricing: Advanced Trading Strategies and Techniques; and Petroleum Refining in Nontechnical Language. Hmm... that's perhaps not so encouraging. It almost looks like business as usual.

Consider companies that are scrambling to turn themselves around and improve their performance. Look at some top books for Sears (NYSE: S) employees: The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing Their Performance; Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently; and The Mark: The Beast Rules the World. That's pretty encouraging. People are focusing on change and improvement and are seeking their mozzarella. (Although The Mark is a book about the end of the world, which I suppose isn't that auspicious.)

General Electric's (NYSE: GE) lists are also insightful, especially with a new post-Welch leader, Jeffrey Immelt, in place. Among the top books I saw were Digital Transformation: The Essentials of e-Business Leadership; Competing on Value: Bridging the Gap Between Brand and Customer Value; and Winning Without Intimidation: How to Master the Art of Positive Persuasion in Today's Real World in Order to Get What You Want, When You Want It. There continues to be great interest in Jack Welch at GE, too, via The GE Way Fieldbook: Jack Welch's Battle Plan for Corporate Revolution, Welch: An American Icon, and Business the Jack Welch Way: 10 Secrets of the World's Greatest Turnaround King.

Asking around
It's obvious that the kind of peeping I've described here isn't going to yield the most reliably useful information -- or at least not a whole lot of it. So consider adding a little eavesdropping to your peeping. The best way to hear about what a company is up to is from the horse's mouth. By asking around a bit, you can probably connect with a few horses who work at a given company. If so, ask them some questions: What are the pros and cons of working there? What are the people like? What's the corporate culture like? How's business? What new developments are you most excited about? Who are your main competitors? What are the biggest worries of employees at your company?

I invite you to share any additional methods for snooping around a company. Post any thoughts or ideas you have on our Fool on the Hill discussion board! Alternatively, share any interesting results you find regarding what employees at various companies are reading or playing with or listening to or watching.

Oh, one last thing: Mostly for fun, check out Google's terrific "Zeitgeist" page, which shows you what people have been searching for -- besides love and happiness, that is. It's a way of peeping into society -- at least the chunk of society that engages in online searches.

Selena Maranjian is Senior Chairwarmer at The Motley Fool. She owns shares of Cisco Systems. To see Selena's complete stock holdings, view her profile. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools