Chances are, outside your selling territory, companies like yours are just as hungry for marketplace information as you are. They aren't your competition, so why not share secrets? That's what Sheila West, CEO of Archery Center International Inc. (ACI) in Monroe, Mich., figured in 1981 when she bought an archery retail shop full of bows and arrows she knew nothing about. "I didn't know who else to call and I needed to know what to order for the upcoming season," admits West, who now runs $3.4-million ACI, an archery equipment distributorship spun off from the retail shop.

Early on, store owners were suspicious of her motives, and hang-ups were common. So she offered them the phone number of a manufacturer who would vouch for her. She conducted short interviews with about 20 shop owners and got a handle on which products were hot sellers, the best quality, and good prospects for the upcoming season. "People who warmed up to the idea found they wanted to know about these things just as much as I did," says West.