COBRA (Complete Business Reference Adviser)

 Jon Cowley

Cobra

Libraries can play an important role in supporting small businesses and helping new businesses get off the ground. Haringey Libraries provide free business advice, training seminars, study space and networking opportunities. It is also important that libraries offer up to date business information – whether in the form of reference resources, new business books, magazines or business databases.

In times of restricted library budgets it is increasingly important that librarians can demonstrate reference resources offer value for money and are well-utilised. Resources also need to be appropriate for customers and meet their needs. Haringey Libraries had previously subscribed to Key Note (www.keynote.co.uk) which offers excellent market research reports alongside in-depth company reports and financial information. However, our budget could no longer stretch to Key Note, and as a public library service we needed a reference resource more focused on small business start-ups.

COBRA (http://www.cobwebinfo.com/services/cobra) provided a more affordable alternative and also has a lot of features which are useful for our customer base. Importantly the database offers remote access, so can easily be linked from the library website, allowing customers to access the service at home or work just by inputting their library card details. This not only is more convenient for customers but also helps to increase usage.

A further benefit of COBRA is that the interface is relatively straightforward to use compared to other business reference resources. It features a simple “Google-style” search facility alongside a clear menu navigation system. At Haringey Libraries we are able to provide COBRA training sessions on a regular basis to our small business customers – usually either one-to-one or in small groups. The simple log-in and navigation means that these sessions can usually be completed in under half an hour, freeing up staff time.

The database contains thousands of practical and digestible reports, guides and factsheets. These are usually just a few pages long but serve as a valuable introduction to the topics they cover, which is useful for both our customers and business advisors. The content of COBRA is divided into four key sections:

  1. Business Opportunity Profiles

These short reports have proved extremely useful, offering a “quick start” guide to over 600 small business types. The range of businesses covered is impressive – from more standard reports on coffee shops and security agencies, to reports on niche businesses such as goth clothes retailers and dog walkers – and even kissogram services! Users of COBRA can be very confident that there will be at least some material relevant to their business, no matter how unusual. Each Business Opportunity Profile includes key information such as qualifications/skills required, key market issues and trends, trading issues, relevant legislation and numerous links to relevant organisations in the sector.

  1. Business Information Factsheets

These are guides to over 300 small business management subjects in factsheets, checklists and “how-to” articles. The reports are relevant to all businesses and are divided into sections such as “Starting a business”, “Marketing and promotion” and “Employing and managing staff”. They offer valuable guides on all aspects of starting and running a business, and like the Business Opportunity Profiles are concise and easy to read. At Haringey Libraries guides such as “Writing a business plan” and “Setting up a co-operative business” have been especially useful as starting points for many fledgling businesses.

  1. UK Market Synopses

COBRA also offers some very good market research reports, although their numbers are nowhere near as extensive as those provided by Key Note and Mintel. The reports available cover fourteen popular sectors such as restaurants, clothing retail and tourism. Contents include information on industry size, key segments, market outlook and latest trends.

  1. Local Area Profiles

The Local Area Profiles is a section of COBRA which we use less frequently, though it does contain some useful information and we have received customer feedback that has shown the information to be valuable. It focuses on sources of support for businesses all over the UK, divided by region. This can include information on financial support, networking opportunities, training providers, regulations and council contacts.

Information and factsheets on COBRA are regularly updated. Guides are updated at least every two years but often more frequently when changes to statutory bodies or regulations affect particular aspects of running a business.

COBRA can also provide usage statistics allowing subscribers to justify expenditure and to see which guides are most frequently downloaded from the database. This is particularly useful for libraries as it enables us to get a better idea of what areas our customers are most interested in and to tailor training sessions and events accordingly. For example at Haringey Libraries we were able to see that reports on hair and beauty were frequently downloaded. As a result we invited ethical beauty entrepreneur Clare Eluka to speak about these topics during our programme of business events for Black History Month.

Clare Eluka, beauty entrepreneur

Clare Eluka, beauty entrepreneur

One area for improvement we found was the provision of promotional materials for COBRA, which are difficult to get hold of. This is in contrast to suppliers such as Oxford Reference Online who regularly send ample supplies of posters, leaflets and bookmarks.

Strengths:

  • COBRA is a unique source of information on small scale business start-ups
  • It is very simple to use with easy search or browse options
  • The industry fact sheets are short and well-structured
  • Wide range of business types are covered
  • Reports can be viewed online or downloaded in PDF format
  • Database can be accessed remotely with library card log-in
  • Generous printing and downloading allowances

Weaknesses:

  • COBRA reports are limited to the UK
  • They do not include a wide range of market research statistics
  • Promotional materials are difficult to obtain

In summary, COBRA has proved to be a valuable addition to our provision of online reference resources. It contains a large amount of practical information, is easy to navigate, and has played an important role in helping Haringey Libraries support small businesses.

Refer 31 (3) Autumn 2015

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