It's easy to become obsessed with the competition, but the real trick is to make intelligence gathering a natural part of your day. Among the 1993 Inc. 500 companies, 349 reported spending some part of their week on the task. Our tip: no matter how much time you devote to it, remember it's all about staying ahead, not looking back.

Lois Mitten, CEO of the Children's Discovery Center ( [Article link]) peruses her publicly owned rivals' 10-K reports to bone up for meetings with her advisory board. She also hires mystery shoppers once a year (cost: less than $200) to get a snapshot of her own and her competitors' centers.

The CEO and employees of $1.5-million Trapper's Creek -- an Inc. 500 fish and meat processor in Anchorage, Alaska -- have been known to stop grocery shoppers to ask politely why they've selected another brand of smoked salmon. CEO Andy Wahry also spends five weeks a year on the road servicing buyers; and naturally, he gets the industry poop. His travel is paid for out of the company's small (3% of sales) marketing budget.

For a few other approaches to keeping tabs on rivals, see "Competitive Intelligence," the Inc. Network, August ( [Article link]); "Scouting Out the Competition," this column, August 1992 (08920791); and "The Mystery-Shopper Questionnaire," June 1991 ( [Article link]).

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64% of those who track rivals spend one to five hours a week doing so; 36% spend five hours or more.

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