The Free Tool To Boost Your Small Business Strategy

Written by Ben Lathrop, Information & Reference Manager, Downtown Main Library  

Reference Solutions (formerly known as “Reference USA”) is one of the most powerful tools available for small business research, and it’s yours with a Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library card. It’s deep, complex, and multifaceted, but easy to use once you get the hang of it. There are too many things it can do to cover all of them at once. But to give you an idea, let’s say you’ve always thought about opening your own comic book store.

Search the Database on the Library's Website

You'd go to, open the "Services" navigation tab directly under the logo. Then, you would click on "Research Databases" to find Reference Solutions in the Business section.  

Then, you’d search "Consumer Lifestyle Data" for identified* "Comic Book Readers" in the Cincinnati metro areaThis gives you a big list of individuals, along with varying degrees of demographic information about them. You could look at these all individually if you really wanted to, but it might be easier to just display all of the results as a heatmap to show clusters of potential customers.  

*Numbers for consumer lifestyle data are estimates.  

Next, you’d search "comic books" in U.S. Businesses, limited to the Cincinnati metro area, and would find a list of businesses with that specialty. Just like the Consumer Lifestyle information, you can get basic details like names, addresses, and phone numbers.  

Dig Deeper by Refining Your Search

Or you can look at each one to get a lot more detail, including: sales volume, number of employees, square footage, hours, etc.  

In this case, we’re looking at these businesses as potential competition. So, you display those results on a map, and now you’re able to compare the current business locations to where the customers are around the city 

Looks like there’s a lot of comic book fans who live in the center of the city, but not a lot of comic shops nearby. Maybe there’s an opportunity there 

Get Creative with Your Research

Reference Solutions is a very detailed and robust research tool that can pull a lot of interesting information. Its up to you to figure out creative ways of using it.  

  • Maybe your business sells supplies or services to other types of businesses. You can use the same tools and techniques to find potential clients and use the business data to make targeted marketing lists.  
  • Maybe you’re a restaurant looking for a location with a high concentration of workers and limited lunch options. Do a search by business size and compare locations to searches for restaurants.  
  • Maybe you’re just curious what expected sales for certain businesses might be, or how many employees are at businesses similar to yours. There’s a lot of detail in most of the business entries, and its all verified and updated regularly.

For more small business resources visit our Small Business webpage. To schedule an appointment with our Information and Reference Librarians, please visit our Ask a Librarian page.