Make your business count! And have your business be counted. It's time for the Economic Census of the United States.

Every five years, the US Census Bureau gathers comprehensive data on the businesses and economic activity of the country. They collect data on over 1000 industries in every zip code. I can't begin to tell you how important this information is -- to your fellow entrepreneurs, banks and other financing sources, to policy makers, and, most importantly, to you.

If you want to expand your marketing, prepare a business plan, or apply for a loan, the information you can gather -- free -- from the Economic Census is invaluable. You can find exactly how many businesses there are in any given industry in any zip code in the country. Before opening a new location, you can see whether you're going to have a lot of competition or a little.

The Economic Census isn't just something cooked up by government bureaucrats -- it's a direct, important tool for businesses, especially small businesses. I use it all the time, as have my business plan clients. I'm constantly advising entrepreneurs to consult Economic Census information before making business decisions. Here's one government activity that's truly a help.

However, the value of the Economic Census depends entirely on the quality of the information received. Millions of businesses were sent Economic Census forms last December. If your business has at least five employees, then you've received one. Some businesses with fewer than five employees have also been included.

While the deadline for filing was February 12, it's certainly not too late to get your form in. Rest assured that all of the information gathered is completely confidential, and businesses are clumped together so that itís impossible to extract data about any individual business.

"Completing the census is an act of good corporate citizenship," said Bob Marske, Census Bureau spokesperson. "It's an opportunity for businesses to stand up and be counted to help assure the quality of the information we make decisions on."

"This information is also important at the local level," Marske continued. "Economic development officials use the information from the economic census to identify opportunities for growth or for trade promotion."

This year, the Census Bureau has added some fascinating new questions, including gathering the first comprehensive information on online commerce sales in every industry.

While there's a fine for failing to file, that shouldn't be your major motivation for returning your Economic Census form. It's a simple thing you can do to help your fellow Americans who want to start and run their own businesses, and yourself.

An example: Let's say you want to start a drycleaning business. From the Economic Census, you can find out exactly how many drycleaners there are in each zipcode in your community, how different zipcodes compare by number of drycleaners, how the number of drycleaners compare to other personal service businesses, and how well they are doing. All for free. All with just a few clicks through the Census Bureauís well-organized Internet site.

Think of how much money you can save in market research costs, not to mention the costs of opening a store in the wrong location! Even if you're already in business, Economic Census data might even keep a new competitor from opening in your already-well-served zipcode.

To help you see how to use Economic Census information, I've reposted the step-by-step guide from a column I wrote last year at www.RhondaOnline.com.

There's another reason I urge you to file your Economic Census form. If you're a regular reader of my column, you know I'm frustrated that government policy acts as if all businesses in this country were big businesses. One of the reasons is that for decades we only had good data on big companies. As a result, economic incentives and tax policies have done little to help small companies.

If you want that to change -- as I do -- if you want small companies to get a better hearing in Washington, then legislators need better information about the strength and numbers of small business. So get those Economic Census forms filed. If you've lost your form or need assistance, visit www.census.gov/econhelp or call the toll-free number, 800 233 6136.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies . Register to receive Rhondaís free business tips newsletter at www.RhondaOnline.com.

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