In 2007, Anand Sanwal was managing a $50 million innovation fund for American Express. His job: to identify and incubate new business ideas--and that meant doing gobs of market research, much of it on small, closely held companies. One problem: Public information on private companies was scarce, and the data that did exist wasn't in much of a structured, useful format.
Sanwal knew he wasn't the only one looking for that kind of information. So he and some partners launched Manhattan-based CB Information Systems to do just that. The company's Web-based software, marketed under the name ChubbyBrain (www.chubbybrain.com), trolls the Web for data on private companies--what they do, who is buying and selling them and for how much. "We are all engineers who went to business school, so we thought we had what was an elegant, logical and robust plan," says Sanwal, 35. "We were pretty happy with ourselves."
But no matter what the textbooks say, having a great idea and a solid business plan often aren't enough. To fund the software development, Sanwal was banking on income from a few consulting gigs inspired by a book he had written on corporate-resource allocation. Sanwal had gotten roughly $2 million in verbal agreements from CEOs or CFOs at three large financial-service companies. Then the stock market tanked and the deals were put on hold.
With no backup plan, Sanwal dipped into his savings and cobbled a bunch of smaller consulting engagements to keep his dream alive. Larger deals (the paying kind) followed. Now ChubbyBrain competes with Dow Jones and Thomson in tracking venture activity, and plans to roll out a line of new private-company data products in 2010. While stronger for the experience, Sanwal says the hard lesson still lingers: "A deal is not closed until the ink dries, no matter how many assurances you have from the other party."
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