Why and How Entrepreneurs Should Read
Public Company Filings 

 

Good entrepreneurs crave information. They meticulously analyze their industry, competition, and internal data, constantly optimizing for success. But finding reliable and accurate sources is extremely challenging.

After eight years of being an entrepreneur, I can definitively say that most people are full of it. I participated in a peer group that disclosed financials, until I discovered I was apparently the only one not wholesale fabricating the information. I’ve watched acquaintances outright lie to gain admittance to a “fasting growing companies” list. I consistently meet people who are “killing it,” only to be out of business within a short period of time. I’ve had multiple friends get splashy headlines upon their company’s sale only to find out they hardly made a dime. I’ve seen salary data reported that is a far cry from reality. I’ve learned that most are regularly attending the church of “fake it till you make it.”

So where does one turn to get a handle on reality? I’d offer up an unlikely source that has helped me tremendously: the public markets. Once a company is public, the leadership has to frequently report accurate information-or eventually go to prison. They don’t have to tell the whole truth, but what they do disclose must be accurate.

This provides a treasure trove of data points. Want to know the average return on invested capital of your industry peers? What about debt terms, sales trends, or net margins? Ever wondered what risks your company might face, or what “normal” client concentration looks like? It’s all publicly available and just a few clicks away.

For U.S.-listed companies, the first step is to visit sec.gov. In the top-right, click on “Company Filings.” Type in the name, or ticker symbol of the desired company and click “search.” You’ll notice a number of codes that correspond to different filings. Here’s what they mean: 

  • 10-K: This is the annual report and the best place to start. This report will cover the previous full year’s annual performance and contains a tremendous amount of detail about every aspect of the business.
  • 10-Q: This report is filed quarterly and gives a more granular view of the operations. You can monitor trends from report-to-report and see how the business evolves.
  • 8-K: If anything material happens in between 10-Qs, it shows up here. Reviewing these helps build the story and show what’s happening in real time.
  • DEF 14-A: This is called a Proxy Statement and serves as a notification of items for shareholder votes, as well as information about the Board of Directors and executive compensation.
  • Earnings Call: Most companies will host a post-filing call that goes into extended detail and offers an opportunity for analysts, and sometimes shareholders, to ask questions. You can usually find written transcripts of these calls, but listening certainly provides more coloring.

There are more filings, but those are the go-to ones. At a minimum, I’d highly suggest all entrepreneurs check out their public company counterparts. It’s a reliable source for accurate information and might even spark a few ideas. Happy hunting.

This post was originally published on Forbes.