The nonprofit James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul is an online gold mine for business data. Entrepreneurs can access information and research assistance typically available only to corporate chiefs.
If you think today is the Golden Age of Information, you should have been around 100 years ago.
Back then, entrepreneurs had access to the same information as the country's industrial giants.
Armed with such data, an enterprising and competitive individual -- someone such as railroad tycoon James J. Hill -- could build the Great Northern Railway, which brought settlers and commerce to the northwestern United States.
Now, however, entrepreneurs and small-business owners who would follow in Hill's tracks have less access to information than Hill enjoyed more than a century ago, and far less than today's corporate behemoths, said Sam Richter, president of the private, nonprofit James J. Hill Reference Library (jjhill.org) that Hill built in downtown St. Paul.
Working to counter that gap, the 86-year-old library has been behaving much like a dot-com start-up in recent years.
The research library, known for providing practical business information and expert assistance to walk-in patrons, has taken those core services online, creating a variety of specialized search engines and Web-based resources.
The library's flagship offering, HillSearch, is available only to individuals and small companies, making available resources and research help that typically only big businesses can afford. The subscription-based Hillsearch (hillsearch.org) costs $59.95 a month or $650 a year.
Hillsearch users can do their own searches, ask questions via e-mail and receive live online help from Hill librarians.
The library has 42 employees.
The strategy has boosted revenue as the library moved to create customized virtual Hill libraries that partners such as businesses and organizations for small and minority businesses make available to clients under their own brands.
HillSearch, for example, powers the business search engine on the websites of the nation's Small Business Development Centers.
"When James J. Hill was starting his railroad, his competitors were [J.P.] Morgan and [John D.] Rockefeller, the wealthiest, most politically connected people in the world," Richter said, noting that Hill began with almost no money, little formal education and blindness in one eye.
"If Hill needed information on how to build really fast trains he had to go to a library. ... If Rockefeller or Morgan needed information on how to build really fast trains, they had to go to the same place. So, in an odd way, in 1850 it was a level information playing field. In the Internet age in which we live, we are actually at an information disparity.
"The information playing field is actually less equal than it was in Hill's day."
Another Hill library online resource that can help level the playing field for small firms is BizToolkit (biztoolkit.org). It provides downloadable business plans and forms in free and professional ($8 a month) versions.
A number of businesses and universities offer customized versions of Biztoolkit, looking exactly like the organization's website but running on the Hill library's system.
If the approach sounds familiar, that's because Richter once worked for Digital River, the e-commerce marketeer that sets up and runs online stores for retailers.
Entrepreneurs and business owners developed business plans and gathered data to help their companies grow with HillSearch, Richter said.
Carie Mathison said she and Snap Pea co-owner Michelle Gobrecht found HillSearch to be a valuable source of information for their Lakeville business, where a chef assembles fresh ingredients for cook-at-home entrees. They had difficulty finding up-to-date data, even when they paid to access reports through an industry organization.
They have used HillSearch to update their business plan and research delivery systems, Mathison said.
Kim Pearson, CEO of New Boundary Technologies in Minneapolis, said he has used HillSearch many times over the past few years. New Boundary provides software that enables medium-size and large companies to remotely manage employee personal computers.
"When there are companies who are either potential partners or competitors or could be competitors, you can find out a wealth of information that you can't find out just doing Google," Pearson said.
A proprietary HillSearch feature, OneSearch, is particularly valuable, because it searches across a number of databases, sparing users a dozen or so individual searches, Pearson said.
HillSearch and other library tools give users access to what Richter calls the "invisible Web." While a Google search turns up seemingly countless Web pages, the results represent only 20 percent of what is available.
Most trade journals, industry reports and demographic data do not appear in Google searches, because they are accessible only with paid subscriptions or memberships. HillSearch makes many of those sources available online.
While walk-in patrons make about 15,000 visits a year, Richter said, the library's online services had 987,000 unique visitors last year. He expected that to reach 2.5 million this year.
Revenue last year approached $1.4 million, up from $157,000 in 2001, Richter said. Revenue is expected to reach $2 million this year.
To finance the online expansion, he said, the library's board of directors has authorized spending a larger share of its endowment, as much as 9 percent a year, in recent years.
Richter expects spending to fall to 5 percent annually in a year or two, a point at which the programs would be self-funding. The library, which began with a $1 million endowment from Hill and his family, has $24 million in reserve.
Richter marvels at what Hill, an unflagging researcher, accomplished. Pointing out a map showing railway routes spreading across the continent, Richter said: "This was the Internet of James J. Hill's days. Before this, commerce stopped right about here, in Chicago.
"James J. Hill was like the Bill Gates of his time, expanding industry and business throughout the country and then throughout the world. ... We're just kind of following that a little bit."