At the very least, you should have a sense of what the competition’s like, how many people are out there and what the standard financials are like.
There is plenty of information available–too much, in fact. Your hardest task is sifting through it all. There are websites for business analysis, financial statistics, demographics, trade associations and so on. The main web searchers are your best friend. There are also some of the old-fashioned reference works, just in case you really need them. Remember, though, that websites are always changing. Your most effective tools are good search techniques.
Multiple vendors offer standard financial profiles of thousands of different industries. So at the very least, you ought to know what the standard composite company in some industry close to yours does as a gross margin (sales less cost of sales divided by sales, usually stated as a percent. A 34 percent gross margin means you’re spending 66 cents of every dollar on cost of goods, or direct costs of some sort) and profit before interest and taxes, as a percent of sales.
Don’t worry too much about finding your exact industry. The financial profiles available are based on one or both of two main classification systems, the older SIC codes and the more modern NAICS. Both of them depend on large databases and standard classifications, so your Web 2.0 business won’t be there. Nobody’s business really fits the standard profiles. Find the one that’s closest to you and be ready to think through why you’re different from all the others.