Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 138 – Marc Zionts – Automated Insights – Cultivating Culture in Market Research

Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.

Today, my guest is Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Automated Insights is the creator of Wordsmith, the world’s first public natural language generation platform. Wordsmith allows users to generate human-sounding narratives from data.

Prior to Automated Insights, Marc has been a leader in both technology and market research for two decades.



Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marc-zionts-5b250/



Social Media: @happymrxp

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch/


Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Automated Insights is a creator of Wordsmith, the world’s first language public international platform. Wordsmith allows users to generate human sounding narratives from data. Prior to Automated Insights, Marc has been a leader in and research firms for over two decades. Marc, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you, and I am delighted to be here.


So talk to us a little bit about your early days, about your parents and where you were raised, and how that has impacted your career.


Well, thank you. I am fortunate that my parents were both working throughout my entire life –as I was growing up. I was born up North and then we moved down to Florida when I was young. My mother is an educator, and my father always worked in the electronics industry. And a couple of stands-outs from there that were great inspirations for me. First of all, my mother as an educator just really focused on the importance of being a life-long learner, you could be reader. And she set a couple of examples by doing a couple of things. One, going back to school at her mid-age and getting an advanced degree. And I think that thing is very admirable. At the same time, once my parents got older, they had not traveled a lot. And by the time they were 50, I think they had just traveled to maybe two countries. But since then, they have traveled to 125 countries. So I think that the whole quest for knowledge, understanding and learning, is something that my mother –as an educator, certainly imparted upon me.

On my father’s side, there have always been good careers. But I have to honestly say that my father never enjoyed working. So that actually set another good example for me. And that is, life is short, you better love what you do, you better be passionate about what you do. And if you are fortunate enough to have those things occur, as they say, work doesn’t become work, it becomes a part of your life –it becomes something where you become hungry for knowledge, you’re continuously interested in getting better, improving and learning more.

So in different ways, my parents have had an impact on me. But certainly I think it was a foundation for me in terms of developing.


Yeah, I found that as I enjoy what I am doing for a living, it creates this beautiful bleed into every other area of my life. And it winds up that work can be an enhancer of my relationships because it is not just a start-and-stop experience. And when I get home, I don’t need to plug out and sit on the couch to have a beer or think that I have to do that in any other way. You can engage and then… There is not this “Oh, I have to go to work right now” mentality. It is more of a “get-to experience”.


By all means.


The point about your mom and dad traveling and going to just 2 to 125 countries is really interesting. Have you done a significant amount of travel as well?


I have. I have probably been to more countries than that. And my wife is a traveler too. And then, our four adult children, that is something they have always been exposed to. That is, they have always been on a plane going everywhere around the world. And subsequently, they have a passion for it as well. A number of them have spent time abroad with their college, or in between college and running overseas, spending extended periods of time, months abroad. So our children, I think, have a passion for it. And you are privileged to have that but the way you pay that back, I think, is in terms of your understanding of the world. As it relates to our business, be it technology or whatever perspective you have, I think you have a much broader and a more balanced view and hopefully you can give it back to whatever field you are in and help you relate to others. Hopefully, there is goodness in all that because I realize that is something that not everybody gets to do so hopefully you can take it and be respectful and fortunate for that but at the same time hopefully get something back and be able to contribute back as a result.


Yeah, a lot of times people think that it’s only for the rich and famous. You know, going overseas once every few years. But the reality is that you can do it fairly inexpensively, even today. You have to be very mindful obviously about planning things out and controlling your costs, you know, where you stay, etc. But it is feasible to get overseas. What I hear from the people I have interacted with that have decided not to travel is that it seems that their biggest barrier is just this fear of unknown as opposed to it being a financial constraint. Of course, you are 100% correct that we are very fortunate to travel, and I am not trying to impose that. We are not. But the fact is that it really provides a ton of value for you as an individual, and obviously your family as well, in the event that you can expose yourself to other cultures, other cuisines. That opens your world view. And provides you with a fuller idea on what it is to be human and on what we should be focusing.


I absolutely agree with you.


So in the context of your background, because you have quite a storied career, maybe you can you talk to us about one of the biggest challenges that you faced.


I think what’s really interesting as I look back, and I frankly look forward is that I have always worked in technology. But I have been very careful to not define myself too narrowly. And I think that is really important. I think you need to focus on what is it that you are trying to do, what is it that you are trying to accomplish. If you dig your heels in, for example, if you say you “I am a C+ programmer”, your career will be limited. The issue should be more like I am excellent world class at UI/UX design and by the way, the tools I use may change. But I am not married to a language or something very narrow.

In my world, if you look back at technology 30 years ago, a lot of what we were doing was in the role of hardware. Today, to a large extent, hardware, storage, bandwidth have all become more ubiquitous and accessible to businesses. So there is a lot more of innovation and development around the world of software. And software is a service. So I feel I have moved from hardware to proprietary software what opens up in the sense that software is a service and is therefore, more like a journey. I would summarize that as “you better be able to deal with change”, and “you better be agile”, and “you also need to be a learning individual”.

I am so excited about what we do as a company. I am so excited about technology. And I have been doing this since high school. So since the 70’s, I have been involved in tech, and I feel we are scratching the surface of what’s possible. I continually have moved my career from one innovative area to another innovative area. So it’s fresh. I am learning. I am working with other people that are maybe early in their careers, and they have a lot to teach me about new technologies or how they solve problems. So I guess my big summary would be: “If you’re not comfortable with change, I think the business world, whether it is technology or anything else, is going to be very cruel to you. And if you want to be relevant, currently and in the future, you better be a learning individual.”


So humble, open to change… when I was reviewing your bio, you actually read your snippet on LinkedIn talking about your cycling passion, specifically cyclocross stood out?




Competitiveness is a major part of any cycling sport. I have done cycling on and off for about 20 years, and it is such a love-hate relationship. Ha! Well, it’s all love, I should say. But it can be bitter sweet sometimes when performances are not up to snob. Do you feel that your competitive nature is expressed in business in a way that you have to be humble? In other words, you can’t just assume you are going to win, and you have to be adaptable because the world is changing?


Yes, I believe that there is a tremendous amount of analogies between sports and business, or even more broadly, sports and life. One, as you mentioned, is humility. I mean, you may think you are great compared to the general population but when you get with a bunch of people like you, all of a sudden is very humbling and very hard when you are competing, so that’s a valuable lesson because you encounter that in life, be that in business, you may be very smart but when you are around other smart people, how do you stand out, how do you differentiate? The other thing with sports is that sports is all about setting goals. Are you goal-oriented? Are you disciplined to train? To do the hard work necessary? I mean the hard work isn’t the race. The hard work is everything that leads up to the race. If you have done your homework, you are going to have a good race, just like in business. So when I see people that have an outside passion, and it can be competitive or non-competitive, I think that is a great characteristic about somebody from the work perspective because I think that translates into the work. They want to continuously improve, they want to set goals and accomplish goals. They want to be the best that they can be. They have passion in their life. It may also imply that you have some balance. I mean, you have got to take care of yourself and feel good about yourself. You have got to take care of your family or your partners or your friends, and feel good about that. If those things are in order, work is pretty good. If those things are not in order, maybe work is good for a little bit of time but that’s when you hear about “the burnout”, or that’s when you hear about the person that says: “I am a workaholic, and I am unhappy”. Well, of course you are because you didn’t have any balance in yourself and you weren’t take care of the things in your life that are really important. You know, yourself, your friends, your family, those are the things that matter. So when I find somebody that has an outside passion, be it sports or something else, I know that they are disciplined because they are trying to work on get it done and itself, and improve but at the same time they have a life. So it brings a balance to the whole equation.


Yeah, totally. My most productive years are always when I am maintaining a level of balance, specifically relative to family and also, cycling or triathlons or CrossFit or whatever it is that’s hitting me at that particular point. The thing that I think you are right that protects us from burnout is… I will call it “balance”. And I put that in quotation marks, air quotes, by the way. We are often times working a lot. So there are a lot of hours that are still happening. It is just that our view of that work is much more in line of an enjoyment as opposed to that hard drum, “have to” sort of framing. The thing that I want to pull out a bit more on though is what you said about the preparation for the competition. It really isn’t the case that businesses or a competition is won at that particular event. I mean, it is but you might know that you can get to the top three based on the actual work that you put in to that effort, right? Or to that event. I think that analogy, carrying it out a little bit, is exactly relevant for all of us.  The scariest times for me in businesses, when everything is going great and then I wind up taking off my foot of the gas pedal, and then resting on my laurels a little bit. Have you had experiences like that or seen that happen to other companies?


Without a doubt. That kind of brings up another characteristic that you look for in people, which is often reflected in competitive people as well, and that is, resiliency. I think it is pretty clear that if everything is going well, you need to be humble because I guarantee you it won’t continue forever and things will go downhill at some point. And you have to deal with that. And on the flipside of that, you need to be resilient and determined because when things are at rock bottom, at the end of the cycle, you should take some solace in knowing that it’s not going to stay there forever, and it will get better.

So if you have a wave in the top and the bottom, it’s going to be some sort of a wave when you are at the top, you know where it’s going next, and when you’re at the bottom, you know where it will go next. It’s important to keep that in mind.


It feeds the whole journey thing, right? Which is exactly what you are describing. I love that. I love that vision, or that picture. You came into this space, this company, Automated Insights, really from the outside, after it had already been launched. What was the initial focus of Automated Insights?


The company was well under way when I joined. In terms of the focus, the company in its earliest days was very much about innovation and product as it should be in a young company. I came in invited by our private equity owner to take the company really to the next level, to work on scaling it up and building it up and adding, if you will, the commercial emphasis to the business. The challenges… I love what we do from a product perspective. I have nothing but admiration for our founder and for the founding team around innovation and product. And I did not want to take any spotlight off of that. But I wanted to equal weight that with a commercial business around sales and partnerships and business development and channels and in marketing. So that was the challenge: to preserve the initial focus around product and innovation, and retain those chops if you will, while adding in the other components, which to me simply validates that “yup, we got great product”. If we are the leader, if our business is growing, and customers are benefiting from our solution, that is a complete validation of everything the product team is doing. For me it was that focus of transitioning culture to equal weight the commercial side in the same way we had initially done around product and innovation.


The point that you are making here is really important, and I think a lot of founders forget about that. And that is that the reason it is a business is that its’ making money, and it is easy to get caught up in the actual product. But the point is that there is a much broader play, and that is overall organization and the investment in the organization or organism needs to be complete, not just with the head. You need the ability to move around and grab things and that sort of thing. And that infrastructure is vital throughout the life cycle of any business, and it’s good to hear that institutionalization is a big part of what you guys are doing, and obviously, as you said, equal partner with the product in moving the market in the right direction and bringing value. Can you talk to us a little bit specifically about what Automated Insights is, and the value it is bringing to the market?


The natural language generation, or NLG as we referred to it, is taking in structure data and writing stories, reports or narratives in software that sound like they were created by a person. So there is many business use cases for this, and we work into major whelms: one where we take in data and we create this directly, or two, where we integrate with business intelligence software. Products like Tableau or Click or Micro-strategy or Tipco or Power BI. The use case around BI is that according to Gartner, two thirds of the people in the enterprise, when they look at the dashboard visualization, they think it’s very interesting but they have one fundamental question, and that question is “What does that mean?” So they don’t actually process if you will, the meaning that was intended by the analyst –the business analyst that created that dashboard. So as a result, what companies end up doing is they might screenshot or export a dashboard and then the analyst writes up bullets, narrative by hand saying what it means. Or worse yet, someone may think they know what it means, they misinterpret the data and they make a business decision based on their understanding of the data, and that is very expensive. Or even a third scenario: we see people going into a meeting that is an hour long, and they spend 50 minutes of the meeting debating what the data means, and they only reserve the last 10 minutes of the meeting to discuss what they are going to do about it. All three of these cases are not productive. So when you can add in narrative to dashboards that fully interact with the dashboard as you are clicking around and looking at different scenarios, and there is narrative there to explain to you what it means, that becomes incredibly valuable to an enterprise. It is also great for the BI software because it means more people in the enterprise can use BI software. So it expands the total available market for the BI software provider. So our BI partners benefit, we benefit, and most importantly, the customer benefits. So that’s one big set of use cases. A lot use cases is just when we take structure data and with the structure data we can create these narratives, reports and stories. And there is a good chance that you have seen our work and not necessarily realize it’s us. For example, we are quite visible in the world of journalism.  There are lot of stories that are data-driven stories. A data-driven story could be a financial story, a sport story, a weather story, anything that has really data at the core. As an example, the associated press writes and sells stories on all public companies four times a year when they announce their quarterly earnings. All of those stories are written by our software, not by a business journalist. Likewise, the associated press sells stories on all 16,000 minor league baseball games. Once again, that is being written by our software.

Or many people like to play fantasy football, be it with Yahoo, be it with a national football league, and part of that experience is getting a weekly recap telling you how your fantasy team is doing. It is a totally customized story about you and your team, and once a week you get a recap that tries to keep you engaged in the season, and frankly tries to draw you back into those software platforms so that you spend more time trying to improve your team as the season goes on. And why do they care about that? Well, they make their money with add revenue monetization. So if you are more engaged, they can make more money. So all of those narratives are created by our software as well. If you think about an NFL football season, you could be talking about over 100 million individualized stories a season that are being written through our software. There are many places where people can see us, Dow Jones Group, The Economist, Standard & Poor’s. There are many visible places where our software is being used to write stories that are personalized, or at scale, or based on somebody’s role but all these are cases where we are using data to create narrative, reports, stories and help people understand what the data means or engage them with the data.


Story is the number 1 gap that has come up in the conversations I have had with large brands. The block and tackling of getting the data in a presentable format just doesn’t seem to be the issue. And there is a million different ways and tools that they are using and vendors partners to get that to those consumers insights. But the magic for them is that last bit in the red zone when the delivery is happening to the executives. The more powerful the story, the more powerful it connects with that executive and then, the bigger lever it has in moving the decision-process throughout the whole organization. Are you seeing market research data as well as journalism playing out with using your tools?


Many people use, take survey data, which is again data story to create that into a narrative or report that people can understand and they are using our software. So we see it in the area of market research, market surveys, voting information… We have a lot of customers in the CPG space. Brands that are doing constant reports on attribution around share data, around competitive data. It is very common for them to be using that information as the data input to create the narrative, or if they are looking into business intelligence, to add the data in so that more people correctly understand what that information is. So yes, certainly a great area for us because there is good data available.


Voice is on the rise. The way we are consuming information is moving from the written word… It’s never going to go to zero, it’s a huge part of our consumption but… there is more and more audio being consumed through podcasts like this one or audiobooks or what have you. Are you guys looking into that space as well as a distribution area?


We are already there. When we think about publishing the output of our narrative, our API puts out it’s what’s called “a J-sound file” –it’s Java script object. That allows you to publish the output as an email, as a text, in html, in your application, in a game console, or write to a device like Alexa or Google Home. We have customers in the world of gaming, in the world of weather where you are simply asking Google Home or you are asking Alexa about the weather or the weather for an activity or “what should I wear today to go golf?” Or if you just YouTube “Alexa call of duty”, you will see an example of our software. Because that’s how YouTube works now. You are asking Alexa a call of duty, and it tells you your story.


That’s super interesting! So from a J-sound file you are able to generate any sort of output natively to the specific platform.


That’s right. So we basically data in, runs through our software in the cloud, the data is not retained so there is no privacy issues, J-sound back up, publish it to any platform.


What are you seeing as a macro trend inside the market research space right now?


I think it’s actually… I can answer this more broadly than just the market research space, and I just think it is very simple. People are overwhelmed by the amount of data that is now being created, and being able to try to process that and understand that is becoming a challenge that is surpassing people’s ability to consume it. So we get right back to what people really want is to understand the data. They don’t need the data to view the data. In fact, our vision statement as a company is “We make the world’s data understandable”.

I say… The way I like to take people into this discovery is say: “Just go back in time, go into a cave and look in the wall. There is not a spreadsheet, there is not a chart, there is not a dashboard; there is not a visualization. There is a story there. So someone is trying to tell you a story about what something means.” And I think that’s what people just need. They don’t have fifteen minutes, twenty minutes to be playing around with the data. They just want to know what are the three key drivers that I need to focus on. “What are my KPI?” “Just tell me about my KPIs that are more than plus or minus 3% out of range.” “Are there any anomalies that I should be aware of?”

And people are looking for that to be fed to them because of the amount of data they have to deal with in making business decisions and the constraints on their time to make those accurate and actionable decisions.


This next question I think is probably one of the more important questions that we are going to wind up covering today, and that is, a large portion of our audience are executives inside of the market research world specifically, and you come into this space with a tremendous amount of relevant experience. What is one piece of advice or secret that you leverage to achieve success for shareholders and the company?


So I think what’s vital here is defining the problem that you are trying to solve or the value proposition you are trying to offer. So the definition of what that is, the problem statement and what is that corresponding value proposition you have to address that problem statement. Now the magic is… “Is this a niche issue or is it a mainstream issue?” And I think that will drive a lot of success factors in your business. I guess, for example, if you are talking about the whole role of data analytics, you have market research, you have survey data that you want to get to the bottom of, to know what does that mean.

It means that capabilities like ours probably need to be incorporated into every solution over the next few years. So how are you going to get there? Are you going to work with somebody like us? Are you going to want OAM us, build us into your products so that you can provide that capability for your clients directly? Are you going to try to build it yourself? I think people are going to wrestle with these solutions to do what we do. But as it relates to the space in general, I think that the most fundamental issue is that original definition. We see the problem as this. Our solution will address the problem by doing these things. So I think that, to me, is fundamental because look, you can create the coolest thing in the world and if there isn’t just a big enough problem out there, it’s going to be really interesting, it’s not going to be super relevant. Maybe you will have a little niche product that you are not going to have go mainstreaming and create tremendous amount of value.


What do you see as the three characteristics of an all-star employee? Not just at Automated Insights but more broadly given the depth of your career?


Three things that I would name right away would be passion, agility and accountability.

First, and I touch on it earlier in our discussion, you got to love what you do. If you don’t, it’s a job. If you don’t, you’ll be there for a period of time. But thinking that at the end of the day, you really have to love what it is that you are doing. And by the way, that kind of extend to who you are working with, who you are working for, what is the culture. The most basic building block of that aspect is “do you believe in the product?”, “do you believe in what the company does?”, “do you believe in the mission?” I think people in our company get really excited about the fact that we help people understand their data. And they see data as a huge problem, and they see there is something that is creating value. So I think that people have a passion around that because they think it’s a big challenge, and it creates a tremendous amount of value. So that passion, I think, is just vital. The second one I mentioned was agility. And I spoke on this earlier, if you don’t like change, you don’t like having to zig instead of zag sometimes, if you think everything is going to go perfectly under your 3 to 5 year plan, good luck! That’s not my experience. I am always suspect when somebody tells me: “This is my plan from the beginning. We did it perfectly. And this was our outcome.” And I just smile, and I am polite. Because when I look back on everything, many times we ended up in great places but it certainly wasn’t a smooth road. There were bumps along the way.  And then finally, accountability. I think it is accountability to yourself, accountability to your colleagues, accountability to your customers. And I think that if you have people that are accountable, it also affords you great freedom. It is freedom for people who work remotely when they want to work remotely. Or if they have something in the middle of the day with their kids, and they are going to get their deliverable out that evening, it enables that to happen. So you can have a trust-based organization where people are accountable. I think that our company is an example. Many companies do this these days. We have unlimited vacation. The interesting that happens is that if you look across companies in America and you say “in a white collar job, what is the general time of vacation that people are allotted?” It works out to be three weeks. We give unlimited vacation. So what do you think the average person in our company ends up taking?


I am going to go with three weeks.


Bingo! But we do not have a documentation system. We do not have a traditional hierarchy. We do not have the “apply for vacation”. We have accountable people. So you trust them, and they deliver, and you end up with the same result. But it is based on accountability, and it is based on trust. So to me, these are three key things in recruiting: passion, agility, accountability. Now, these are characteristics. Before we even get there, we are big on being very selective in hiring. And I think this is also something people need to consider. When you have a software company, you don’t have a factory, you don’t have a warehouse, you don’t have a distribution network, you have code. You better have the best people you can. If you want to satisfy the customer, you need the best people. So our front of the process, the way we evaluate, the way we test people, it is extensive, it is selective but we think it produces really excellent results.


What is the role of culture inside the organizations that you have managed? And has it evolved over the years?


Absolutely! Culture is not a static thing. It is a living, breathing thing. I think culture is often staffed and influenced heavily by the CEO and senior team. But it is also a function of the people within the company, and it is at the stage of the company. For example, you can say “our culture is to work hard” but if the CEO does not work hard, that may not be part of it. We try to have one where part of our culture, and things that are core to our values are enjoying the journey, enjoying what you do. And we try to set that example. If you do not have fun, and levity and enjoy who you work with, again, life is going to be a bit tough. One of our values is “no jerks in the business”. That doesn’t mean that everybody charmed with each other. But they should respect each other. And you do not want disrespectful people because that is unhealthy in the organization. So I think culture is very important. I think culture though is also a product of the passion that you have for the problem that you are solving. So you can’t just go to a company where you say: “Oh, that’s the coolest company in the world because they have off every Friday and Thursday afternoons they have barbecues. And the sliding door between the first and second floor is part of their fun culture.” Well, that’s interesting but if they do not do something relevant, that probably does not last for too long. It gets you in the door. It does not keep you in the door. So culture is part of the ingredient that, to me, is got to be you got to love what you do, you got to love what your company does, believe in the mission of the company, and if there is a great culture that you feel comfortable within, that you feel it respects who you are, that allows you to have positive and constructive relationships, that you feel comfortable in, that you feel safe in, and hopefully that culture has a lot of diversity and inclusion as part of it so that you get a lot more broad perspectives to help you create better products for customers, I think that can be a great combination. But you cannot isolate it as one variable and say: “I think people are here because of their great culture”. I hope people are also because of their mission of the company as well.


So I have a personal question for you: Are you still cycling?


Absolutely! I commute to work. Well, I have to do one of two things: I Uber to the airport or I bike to and from work during the weekdays. And on the weekends, I am either racing or biking 4 to 5 hours a day.


Okay! That’s awesome! So you kind of answered my question there. One of the challenges for me in cycling has been actually dedicating cycling time just because it tends to take a little bit longer than other sports. How do you manage it when you travel because I know you have an extensive travel schedule?


So when I travel, unless I travel some place for a week, I am not going to typically rent a bike or bring a bike. Mainly during the week, it could three or four days but usually my schedules are not like that. So I am working on the road. So I am doing cross train. I am in the gym, I am out running, I am doing other things. But I never miss a day of working out.


My guest today has been Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Mark, thanks very much for being in the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you!


And thank you everyone who has been listening. Please take time to subscribe, provide us with some feedback. This helps us grow our audience and allows other insight professionals to find this podcast. Have a great day everybody!

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 137 – Stacey Walker – Adobe – The So What and Now What of Market Research

Today my guest is Stacey Walker, consumer insights leader here at Adobe. Adobe is the global leader in digital media and digital marketing solutions. Stacey has headed up insights for Netflix, Walmart, Visa and has taught at Columbia University in the Sociology Department.

Find Stacey Online:



Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  Today my guest is Stacey Walker, consumer insights leader here at Adobe. We’re actually privileged to be in Adobe’s office today, and I’m joined by William. Unfortunately, Chloe could not make it because she is being responsible and actually doing work. Thank you, Chloe. [Chloe: “No, I’m not.”] No, you’re not.

Adobe is the global leader in digital media and digital marketing solutions.  Additionally, Stacey has headed up insights for Netflix, Walmart, Visa and has taught at Columbia University in the Sociology Department.  Stacey, welcome to the Happy Market Research podcast.


I’m happy to be here.  Thanks for coming to Adobe.


So, I’d like to start with the signature question:  Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.


Sure.  Well, I grew up in a really diverse area culturally.  I grew up next to Queens, and it was a really different experience, I would think, than a lot of people have as they’re growing up.  I had friends from all different cultures, lots of first-generation people, who I went to school with. And that sort of spurred my interest in learning about different subcultures, cultures, and sort of kind of got me into sociology a little bit.


So, tell me a little bit about your parents.  What did they do?


My father was an insurance salesman, and my mother worked in real estate.  My father was also a double-E, so he was an electrical engineer by training.  And he LOVED to tinker with computers, just LOVED technology. We would have little tiny computers all over the house that he would just toy with.  So I think that also encouraged me to move into tech because he got me into programming a little bit.


Back in the days of Basic?  [laughter] So, your mom, was she a life-long real estate agent?  


Yeah, I mean on and off for, I would say, 20 years.


Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you bring up that your dad is an electrical engineer and sort of his tinkering with computers.  Computers were a lot more like cars back in those days, right? And, if you wanted to actually have a computer, you had to work on the computer, like literally physically do work on the computer.  My first – I’ll call it real job – was managing what’s called a wang system, which was basically a vacuum-cleaner type. Literally, there was a whole room that was twice as big as the room we’re in right now that was just the main frames and everything like that.  And one of the neat parts that I got to help with (I didn’t oversee it but help with) was the actual transition from that mainframe to the desktop, right? I think it was Windows 3.5 like the very first from DOS to Windows. And it was a really… just like roll up your sleeves and get stuff done – wild, wild West.  You know there was no internet so you had to use different magazines to figure out how to code stuff, right? It was a fun time.


Yeah, yeah, it was.


I think that probably one of my favorite parts of that was just this…  grabbing a magazine and digesting the content inside of it because you had to wait 30 days for the next issue to come out.  So, do you have any memorable experiences programming or working on the computers with your dad?


I just remember when I was 12, I got so excited ‘cause I was able to do a printout of a house design.  [laughter] It sounds so ridiculous right now ‘cause it was so simple but I was, you know, a kid and it was just exciting.


That’s a really big deal.  It’s been interesting, that as a starting point to today driving up here to Adobe in San Jose, using Google maps.  And, of course, I know the route inside and out, but the reason I use Google maps was to identify if there were any traffic pattern issues, right?  So you go from that to your point – it’s like very early stage application of technology. And now, all of a sudden, it’s completely inundated everything, literally, everything that I’m doing right now.  And you at Adobe, you guys have been a massive part of my life. In fact, more so than any other tech company outside of maybe Apple, which was my very first computer. My first professional business that I did in college was called Anchor Graphic Design, and I started it so that I could be able to pay off my Apple computer that I bought.  And I used Adobe Illustrator and eventually saved enough money for Adobe Photoshop. Once I paid it off, I quit doing the company and just played video games on it, I think. [laughter]


Well, it’s great to hear that you’re an adopter of our brands even back then.


Yeah, thank you.  But my broader point is really how this company has sustained through generational shifts, right, as being the leader in this space.  Not a lot of companies can say that.


Yeah, I would say that Adobe doesn’t sit still or rest on its laurels.  We really have changed as the world has changed. We see opportunities in different places like experience design now, really designing for customer experiences, and moving beyond that to marketing and marketing experiences.  So we’re kind of the experience company now.


Yeah, it’s a neat transformation, meanwhile still having the underpinnings of the tool set enabling other companies – like even Happy Market Research – through Audition and Photoshop and Premier and so on and so forth.


It’s really great to hear that.


So, and incidentally they didn’t pay me to do that nor did they give me free software.  In 2003, you were at Netflix. I remember 2003 really well; I remember Netflix at that point in time also.  There was a lot of buzz. You guys had a million users; that was just like this break-through moment. And then, at the same time, you really started seeing the phoenixes come out of the ashes of the dot com bust that had happened just a year or two earlier.  Can you talk to us just a little bit about why you joined Netflix in those days and what it was like working in the Valley?


Well, at that point, it was a huge opportunity and a great product.  You mentioned 2003… I still feel like I’m dating myself by saying this, but we were mailing DVDs at that point.  And some of the research that we did was on the mailers themselves and how to get people to not rip right through the entire mailer so that they can mail back the DVD.  But it was pretty heady times. We were a very scrappy team in marketing and also really rigorous at the same time. So, it was very focused on really understanding the customer, getting a sense of how the brand was performing, especially in relation to Blockbuster.


Totally, totally.


But always really metrics-driven and conservative in a good way with cash so that we could eventually realize that dream of becoming Netflix being available on the internet.  That was always Reed Hastings goal.


And, of course, absolutely one of the most difficult transitions ever that I’ve heard about and to navigate that as successfully as he did, especially with Blockbuster declining the acquisition opportunity.  He is probably top 3 for me. [laughter] It’s just epic. What an epic story! The point that you brought up just now about cash is really interesting for me. I’m exposed to a lot of start-ups, and they’re burning cash right now.  And it feels to me at a tangible level a lot I saw in 1989 and 2000 where people were a lot less concerned about burn rates and a lot more concerned about user acquisition. And I just wonder if you’re getting that type of feeling with being in the middle of the Silicon Valley.     


I’m not going to say that I have complete déjà vu, but I have a little bit of déjà vu right now, in part, because the “not” part is because it’s not completely based on eyeballs, which it was if you remember.




Yes, I think user acquisition, monthly active views, those are all metrics now that companies focus on.  And they’re a little bit more tangible, a little bit more concrete than just getting eyeballs. But it still feels a little…


It feels a little frothy; I guess is how I’d put it.  [laughter]


Not exactly bubble territory, but it’s frothy.


Yeah, exactly.  Then, of course, we recently saw a change in the market, a little bit of a correction over the last few days.  And I think that’s been healthy, kind of seeing that – just not explosive growth. But it is interesting to me that you have companies that…  and I’m talking about not that are publicly traded but are really sort of at that early stage that are closing 10–20 million-dollar rounds. I’m sure they’re earning it but on a lot of faith that things are going to go great.  So run to cash. That’s it, right? Actually, it’s run to revenue; race to cash. That’s my mantra in start-up land. So, recently you did some volunteer work, trying to raise awareness of housing issues in San Mateo.


Yes, in San Mateo county.  It was a program put on by Joint Venture Silicon Valley with Adobe and myself and three other marketeers put together a program for the San Mateo Department of Housing to help them come up with a marketing strategy for second units.  Driving adoption of second units, which is a pretty big commitment if somebody is building on their property.


Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?  I think maybe most of the audience isn’t from the area, so…     


Sure.  So, here in Silicon Valley, we have a hugely disproportionate jobs-to-housing ratio.  We have a housing shortage. I’m trying to avoid saying that it’s a crisis because that’s language that sort of turns people’s brains off.


I think mathematically…  I just saw this statistic. I haven’t validated this statistic, but it’s like 3 to 50.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a big… my eyebrows went up. [laughter]


Yeah, and it’s a tremendous problem for traffic, for people moving out of the area.  And it’s not great for communities. So that really struck a chord with me in terms of a passion project where I could help the community, get involved, and, hopefully, drive some people to build on the land that they own so that they can accommodate either family members or rentals or teachers who can’t afford to live in the area.


It’s a worthwhile cause.  There were three colleagues – is that correct? – that you partnered with?




And all Adobe employees?


They were all Adobe employees.


Does Adobe help sponsor your time or other materials in that or…?  


Yes, they do.  So, they have a very generous volunteering program.  You can volunteer some of your time. And the hours that you put in to community service, they will actually match donations for charities.  Adobe is a great place to work; so, if anyone is thinking about it, they should really consider it. It’s a great place to work.


We just did an interview (I think it’s publishing in about six weeks.) with the founder and CEO of Research for Good.  And they are a panel supplier that has a double-bottom-line approach to their business. And they actually started out with that as the thesis.  So, for every dollar of profit, 50 cents or 50%, is donated to a specific non-profit that is feeding the hungry. It’s a very worthwhile cause. And it was interesting in talking with her about the tension between balancing a mission-driven company against profit, right, and especially in the context of…  She’s not a billion-dollar company. They’re privately held; they’re in a highly competitive marketing research sample providers. It seems like it’s a decreasing asset, right? But yet, having said that, they’re doing well. I don’t have visibility on the books, but my point is that the communication, what I see in the market place is very positive.  And their claim is that “our employees and our customers get behind the fact that we’re a missions-driven organization and also, we deliver best-in-class quality etc., etc. So you CAN have both, right?


I believe that you can.  I believe that you can do well and also do good.


Right, well said.  So, we have a little game we want to play.  This is going to be an experiment. This might get cut if it blows up.  [laughter] So, in this kind of made-up narrative, you’ve got ten Stacey bucks and you get to invest in a marketing research technology that’s going to pay out in five years.  So, what is that? 2023, I guess? I’m going to hand you the list, and you’re going to tell me where you’re going to distribute your ten Stacey bucks.


  1.  You’re not going to set this up as a conjoint?  [laughter]


I just blew the mic.  OK. I thought about that, but I felt that it would be less… less exciting for the…


This is probably less time-consuming.


Maybe.  It’s going to be full factorial too.  Really exciting. Big data, social listening, traditional focus groups, survey tools, voice (that would be like Alexa, Google Home, etc.), blockchain technology, AR, VR, machine learning and AI (which, for some reason I put those together, right?) and then brand trackers.  So, you’re going to invest in a company with ten Stacey bucks, and these are your ten products. So, you’ve got the pen. And I’m super interested to see where you put your ten Stacey bucks.


This is a tough one.


You’re trying to maximize your outcome.  But also, you know, of course, you have the risk mitigation factor as well.


Wait, I’m a venture capitalist.  I might get fired, but I’m not putting my own dollars on the line.


You do get fired or you’re rehired somewhere else, just keep being promoted by accidentally being right.  One in forty.


Right, exactly.  I don’t have to have a great track record.  [laughter] OK, here we go.


I normally hate asking respondents to do zero sum questions.  It’s the highest dropout rate. So, anyway, I apologize about the poor survey design.  So, for the record Big Data got 0; social listening got 0; focus groups got 0; survey tools got 0; voice got a 4 – and that was the first one you wrote down, I think.     


It was.


Blockchain got 2; AR got 2 – and that was the last one that you wrote down.  And AI/machine learning got a 2. Talk to us. What was resonating with you?    


Well, it was a toss-up between voice and blockchain, two technologies that I see as really emerging, especially when you think about Amazon putting products out these days: hardware that can listen and respond, Google etc.  So I think that’s going to be pretty huge. Blockchain… I’m excited about blockchain. But I do feel like there’s a lot of investment that’s happening in it. I’m excited as a market researcher because it will eventually give us a real fidelity into who is taking surveys and doing research.  It’ll tie it all together. So I’m actually very excited about it, but I think maybe the opportunity is starting to crest and likewise with the other plays that I have there. AI/machine learning – I feel like that’s on its way up but also cresting. And virtual reality… I don’t know how I feel about it.  I would invest more in augmented reality. That’s where I see things going versus virtual reality.




So, yeah, those are my ten-dollar plays.


Let’s piggyback on voice for a little bit ‘cause I’m super-passionate on this particular subject, especially relevant to market research, ‘cause I’m not seeing a lot of market researchers thinking about how they can help their customers navigate the data divide in a voice-only world, right?  So, we start moving more and more towards a or away from a traditional… Wherever I am I get exposed to something if somebody pays for it, right? So, if you’re wealthy enough to brand, you get to buy an endcap in the grocery store or whatever or a big billboard, or you can get on the front page of Google AdWords, Amazon search results, etc.  But in a voice-only world, the transaction is: me in the kitchen, “Alexa, buy paper towels.” That’s my favorite go-to example because I literally do that. But it’s something… buy something that I’m out of, and then Alexa fulfills that. And in that world, I think marketing research has an important job to do to help inform brands today before it’s too late, before they’re completely disrupted because of this massive change in the user journey…the user-consumption journey.  So, as you kind of work through where your bet was, what were you thinking? As I totally screwed up that question because I answered it before. [laughter] Market researchers don’t do this.


I believe that’s called leading the witness.  [laughter] What I was thinking is a few things.  We have technology now that allows video and audio capture, and I’m seeing that really come to the fore.  Just think about research, not necessarily about brands, but also about brands because video and audio is prevalent everywhere.  We also have technology that helps us analyze what we’re hearing. So I see this being the perfect moment to talk with people as if they’re people and not ask them to type and write in surveys but to respond in a more natural way.  So I see that emerging for doing studies but also how we interact to order products. It’s more of a natural way to get things done.


I love it.  You’re right because you start moving away from the 10-point scales.  And the way that we can do that is qualitative scale, right? And that’s exactly the point:  that we can process not just ten conversations, but we can process thousands of conversations and then make decisions as long as it takes out the conversations.  Super-powerful stuff. Well, I’ll let you know in five years how your Stacey bucks have evolved. [laughter] So, what is the function inside Adobe of market research?      


Ahh, market research helps the company make decisions.  We help inform whether or not products should stay in the market, come out of the market.  We help product marketeers with their positioning and messaging. We, of course, do run the business activities; so, we have more programmatic research as well that helps us understand the customer journey.  So, as they come to our website and visit us, who are they? What are they doing there? What’s their intent? How can we improve the website to help them? Once they sign up, we figure out where they’re coming from how their experience is going.  And then we have other touch points. Because we have a subscription model, we want to understand how people are doing as they leave us and if there’s something we can do to bring them back again. So we have programmatic research but we also have strategic research.  We do all kinds of research: qualitative, quantitative. And we’re embedded in a larger analytics team, which is really powerful because we can connect actions with “why?”


Talk to me a little bit about the larger team.  This isn’t the right way you guys frame it, I’m sure but sort of this data ecosystem.  Where does market research fit? Who’s inside of that sphere?


Inside of the data ecosystem’s sphere?


Does that make sense?  That’s silly. I didn’t mean it like that.  


[laughter]  So, that contains behavioral data – so actions that might have been taken in the product (product launches, etc.).  It contains data about website visits. It’s pretty much what you would expect from a digital company. The benefit of being collocated with an analytics team is that you get access to the data and you’re able to put everything together.


Got it.  So is the role of like UX sitting inside of market research or is that a different division?   


It’s actually a different division.  They are really pretty focused on understanding the product as it exists today:  user actions, and work flows, and generating ideas for building new products.


Is there overlap in the types of projects that are done between what I think of as traditional market research versus UX?  


Yeah, most certainly, and there are times when we work together.


Got it.  So there’s part bridges that are built.


Yeah, we are a very collaborative and highly matrixed organization.


You have to be.


Yep.  [laughter]  As most big companies, I think, are.  And so we work together: there are areas of expertise that they have, that we don’t have, and vice versa.


Totally.  How do you guys practically navigate that?  [laughter] Do you have an example of a project where there was some sort of collaboration?


It’s funny I don’t have…  The reason I chuckled a bit is because I don’t have a standard, pat answer for it.  Every project is different. There are meetings with a variety of stakeholders that come to them.  And we typically will hash out some kind of a project plan, based on that. But there’s no one right answer to that question.


So, in that sort of framework, how do you guys handle… (This is like super inside baseball) how do you guys handle corporate budgets?   


That is super inside baseball.  [laughter] Delicately. [laughter]  I mean we do touch base as teams to understand what the road maps look like, and we try to allocate accordingly… but, yeah, delicately.


Yeah, because you have to be agile, based on whatever the specific needs are at that point in time.  Interesting stuff right there. Market research has got a ton of buzz around blockchain. You talked about it a moment ago in your investment thesis.  [laughter


I like that it’s a thesis now.  That sounds smar


I guarantee you everyone is going to be looking for this online.  We’re going to start a fund on Stacey bucks. Yeah, the new cryptocurrency.  But, as it relates with blockchain, are you seeing any very specific applications of it where you guys are paying for it or other brands are paying for it?


I’m not seeing it realize its potential right now, but I see the potential.  Obviously, in currency, it’s real, but in market research, I think it’s pretty nascent.


What is the tipping point or what do you think the tipping point is for blockchain when it becomes part of our consideration as researchers?  Is it specific just to the panel quality. The first company that actually introduces… (We’ll pick on Research Now.) If Research Now launches a new blockchain technology, is there a big differentiation there?     


I think if a research panel company were to launch something like this, market researchers would be pretty excited about it.  So, when you said “tipping point,” I thought that there were a bunch of different things that could come into play, one of them being consumers’ willingness to put themselves out there and be identifiable and opting into that.  So, I think we’re at a point where that could happen. People are fairly identifiable now. So it’s just making it a bit more of a formal way of doing it.


And then making sure that the monetization model makes sense ‘cause that’s part of the choke point, right?   


Yeah, one of things that I would also be excited about is people actually selling their data.  We’re kind of getting it for free right now. I’m sure that you’ve heard the expression that “data is the new oil.”  Right? It’s just out there and go for it. But I think that is a more fair and more equitable model.


Yeah, I totally agree.  The problem is that the economics start changing obviously if we have to go to the pump versus the ground.  And that sort of starts for me thinking about where the big disruption is going to be inside of our space, right?  That is going to be for me the next three-year window: who brings blockchain to market? Because it will be disruptive.  And then also is the market going to be willing to pay for it? Because right now you might have an average cost per complete of, (I’m making this up; I have no idea what it is.) we’ll say, hypothetically, it’s $3, or $5.  I’m talking about if you go directly to the panel company that’s the cheapest. For GenPop. But in that world, I’m going to sell you my data my three bucks for a 15-minute survey? Probably not. I’m going to charge something for my time and then also the extrinsic value of all the stuff that is tethering to it, whatever that is.  


You know, considering the magnitude of the decisions that get made off of that data, I think having valid data is really crucial to organizations.


So your value there is trumping the cost ‘cause it’s still the tail wagging the dog. You mentioned Adobe is a great place to work, and you’ve worked at a number of other fantastic places.  In fact, Netflix, they produced one of the most famous HR decks. I don’t know if you ever read…


I have.


Yeah, of course, you did.  [laughter] So, when you think about – given your breadth of experience, especially in the Silicon Valley – what do you see as the characteristics of an all-star employee?


Oh, well, I can name a few things.  Specific to market research but also more broadly:  broadly, somebody who is flexible and agile, can work through change (that’s really important in Silicon Valley), and, for market research, I will say that some of the best researchers I’ve hired have been excellent communicators.  I fundamentally believe that market research has a marketing problem sometimes. So it’s great to get these “ah-ha” moments but, if you can’t communicate them effectively, they fall flat. And so I look for people who have really, really good communication skills – verbally and visually.


Have you…  Do you have specific resources you use to help train market researchers on storytelling?   


We have internally at Adobe used Duarte for storytelling and data visualization.  And that’s been very helpful. A lot of the folks who come in… We have templated decks that they can use and start from, but it does take some training to get people up to speed.


When you think over the last few years, do you find that corporate researchers are bringing more of the research function in-house or moving it out to vendors, specialized vendors?


It’s a mix.  I’ve seen it go in both directions just like I’ve seen departments centralized and decentralized.  It really depends on what you’re trying to tackle. I’ve seen hybrid models that work as well. I’m not necessarily seeing a trend one way or another at least in Silicon Valley.  I think, historically, companies here have in that sort of scrappy way taken on work internally. But even companies that have professed, “Oh, we don’t use outside research” – I’ve eventually found out that they have used outside research.  It’s really about how you want to spend your time and how you want to spend your budget. We get value from using external resources. But what I find… Where they can’t bridge that last mile is really telling the story. They don’t spend time within our walls; I find they don’t know our issues quite deeply enough.  And that’s not to say that they can’t get better, but it’s really hard to keep apace of all the nuances and change that happen within an organization. So you do need somebody on the inside to bridge that gap and tell a story.


Do you have then partners who have desks here or some regular sequencing?


We do from some of our vendors.  And that goes so far, yeah. It’s still not going to get us to the last mile because they’re not in every conversation that they could be in.


Right, and the obvious point being that you have to have that research owned internally in order for it to have the impact on the organization to effect change.


And we would prefer to be the ones who are driving the change and not have an outside vendor do that.


Yeah, I mean it makes perfect sense. Are there any other gaps that you’re seeing?  If somebody’s listening to this podcast, for example, is there something you’d like, say, “Gosh, shout out, I really wish somebody would do this.  Fix blockchain or whatever.” [laughter]


Yeah, fix blockchain would be one.  More, more video analysis: that’s another one that we’re always on the lookout for; really showing the human side of things.  Those are some of the things that we look for ‘cause we’re awash in data. We need to be able to pull it together and show the human aspect.


I love that:  “awash in data.”  I mean that’s an exact depiction of it.  We’re drowning in the oil, right? It’s the formation of the oil.  And you guys are doing a lot of work on that too, right? The formation of the data and then taking it to that full life cycle of feedback from the user perspective.  


Yeah.  It’s not to say that we don’t generate insights from the data.  Of course, we do. But there’s a lot of information out there. We need ways to distill it and put a face on it.


My guest today has been Stacey Walker from Adobe, Head of Insights.  Thank you very much for joining me today.


Thank you.


Everyone else have a wonderful day.  And PLEASE as always we love your feedback.  Leave a comment and ratings on Apple iTunes. That enables other insights professionals like yourself to easily find valuable content like this.  Have a great day! Bye.


Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, I’ll be joined by Mark Ziontz, CEO of Automated Insights.  This is a great opportunity for you to be able to learn from a seasoned CEO how he applies his two decades to drive very fast, rapid, healthy growth in our industry.  Have a great day! Hope you can tune in.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 136 – Robert Porter – Research America – Why Talent Is Important in Market Research and Beyond

Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today, my guest is Robert Porter, CEO of Research America. Research America is a leading marketing research and consumer insights company, serving the likes of PWC, Little Caesar’s, and Wrangler.



Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-porter-1271454/#experience-section



Social Media: @happymrxp

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch/


In today’s episode of Happy Market Research. we’re going to hear from Robert Porter, the CEO of Research America.  I’m going to tell you right now this is one of the most emotionally charged episodes that we have had on Happy Market Research and, honestly, across all the podcasts I have subscribed to.  So I hope that you will tune in; stay with the story. It’s got a great ending, but it’s a very interesting journey that this man has been on.


Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  Today my guest is Robert Porter, CEO of Research America. Research America is a leading market research and consumer insights company, serving the likes of PWC, Little Caesars, and Wrangler. Robert, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast.


Thank you for having me.


We’d like to start out with our signature question:  Tell us a little bit about your parents and how that’s affected your current career.  


So, interesting question.  So, a little bit different than most folks.  At three years old, my mother put me on a plane with my two sisters.  She went to one terminal; I went to the other. So, I was sent to Philadelphia.  She called her mother and said, “Hey, the kids are going there; I’m going to Spain.”  And that was the last I’ve seen my mother. I’ve seen her two other times. So that’s obviously had an impact on me for sure.  So not all impact that you get from your parents is always something that’s reinforcing or helpful or positive. Sometimes negative things help you as well.  So, I floated around the system for a while after leaving my grandmother’s because there were three kids (two sisters) and, as the boy, which one flew out the coop.  So I was gone. And I was in the system and went through different homes, went through a lot of things, both physical and emotional, and it taught me a lot. So there’s some positive as well.  I was in neighborhoods that had some wealth, education. And I was able to learn from different homes that I lived in from different parenting and different techniques how people succeeded. There’s really nothing that I could say that’s more motivation than having a parent tell you or a parent-type person, “Hey, you’re not going to amount to anything.  You’re not going to be a good parent. You should just be a good gym teacher. That’s all you can do.” There’s nothing that gives you more motivation than something like that. So the motivation that I got from growing up really came from those types of things, and how to overcome that, and how to be a better person than other people saw you. So that’s what I had. 


I love that – coming out of this catastrophic spot and then pivoting into the successful company that you subsequently built with Research America.  Now the CEO of a large company and then starting quite literally with nothing, not even a support network. Outside of that, was it just the motivation that enabled you to create that bridge to bootstrap yourself?  Were there other people that came along side you through that journey?


So at 21, I reconnected with my real father, who started an answering service.  And the answering service is really where I started my business when I was about 27 or 28.  And I bought that very small business from him and reconnected with him. And I bought it from him.  And my stepmother became a mother figure to me and is probably the greatest inspiration that I’ve had in my life.  So Joanne. So, I bought that business from them for, I think, around two-and-a-half million dollars and a loan pre-2008 because I was building the business really too large for me to ever buy it back.  It was just a one-site office. Well, I built it into about 15 sites, doing around sixteen million dollars and sold that business to a public company, a large public company. I could have retired at that time.  Instead, I was given Research America, which was a part of the call center business ‘cause all we did was data collection by telephone in 2014. And they left me with that business. They said, “Hey, we want no part of this.”  I said, “Great.” It gave me the opportunity to build out a market research company that was new and unique and did a lot of different things that other companies were unable to do both in field and full service, both in qualitative and quantitative, and with many proprietary products.  And some of the way I was able to do that is by 14 boutique businesses. So, we have 14 offices, around 300 employees currently, and one team. So we take these boutiques of boutiques, we put them together, and we’ve built a great business in just a five-year period. We’re actually four-and-a-half years right now, moving on to five years very soon in April.  


We recently, I think last Thursday, posted an interview with a young lady, 17-year-old female Latino.  Her name is Gaby. She actually has grown up with her grandparents – so slightly different story. And she’s recently bootstrapped her own company with a couple of high school friends, selling different types of ethnic food in a mail order format.  It’s a pretty interesting business. But what I see that’s really the sort of commonality between the two of you (obviously, she’s super young) is this concept of “I can do it and WILL do it. Watch me!” You, obviously, made a ton of money through the one acquisition you did and then harvested that.  And then to roll the dice again inside of Research America… I think a lot of people would rather spend the rest of their life on a beach with some Mai Tais, right? Do you think that’s just inbred, given the background?


Ahh, no question.  First off, I was born with a certain gene that you’re going to have to have.  Jamin, I know you personally; you have that gene as well. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit.  You’re born with that. I mean that’s something that I got from my biological parents that I was just born with.  There’s no question. That’s Number 1: you have to have that. But, certainly, give me somebody who’s hungry and has a past and something, a chip on their shoulder, that any day…  And we know that these are the guys that really, really change the world and make things happen. So this is an advantage. I mean what I’ve spoken to you was really an advantage. Something that a lot of people that I know, they have a disadvantage because everything was given to them.  I wonder even with my own children, “Hey, are they going to have the hunger that’s necessary?” But there’s just no question… I had the opportunity to retire at that time, and I never even thought about it. I said, “Hey, I’ll retire when I’m dead.”


[laughter]  My grandmother is a hundred-and-two years old.  We just celebrated two weeks ago her birthday.   


Oh, congratulations!  That’s a big one!


It is a big one.  No kidding.


I hope that happens to me and everyone listening to this podcast.  


I hope so too.  I lived with her for a few summers when I was doing field work.  She lives in a really small, rural community. And she would literally…  she would stay up after I went to bed. And I would go to bed late as a teenage boy.  And then she would wake up at about 4 o’clock and make me breakfast and get me out of the door by 5 a.m.  And I asked her; I said, “Grandma, when do you sleep?” And she goes, “You sleep when you’re dead.” [laughter]  And I think that that, right… And her other quick, great quote was, “If you lay down too long… If I lay down too long, they’re going to start throwing dirt on me.”  [laughter] I think you’re right. It really isn’t about the money as much as it is about this constant need that I have in this case. And I think, intuiting on how you framed yourself, that you do as well.  To prove myself and almost middle-finger the rest of the world that, “Yeah, I can do it. I have done it. Yeah, I can do it, and I can do it again even better.” I don’t know what’s that about. Something definitely is wrong with me, but anyway there you go.  I hear ya, man.


So, money to me is just a way of keeping score.  And I think that you’ll find that amongst true entrepreneurs:  it’s really just a way of keeping score; it’s not a real necessity.  It’s like any other one of your numbers. You have to know your numbers at all times, and it’s just another number.   


So, what would you see as one of your largest challenges with Research America?


So I’ll give you another story.  So the biggest challenge that I had was in 2016 in November; it was really solved by Rex Repass from REPASS Consulting, one of our main companies in full service in Cincinnati.  And I flew from his office to Miami to meet my son, and my daughter and my wife. (They were on a different airplane from our home in Philadelphia.) And I had met Rex just three times prior in person; so, this was the fourth meeting.  And we knew that we were totally aligned. We had only known each other for two months. And I had just bought business his weeks before. When I landed in Cincinnati, my phone blew up. And I found out that my wife had cardiac arrest, very severe due to multiple diseases and ailments.  She subsequently had hundreds of shocks; she was on life support – almost lost a limb. She was weeks in a coma, paralysis; waking up, rehab. So I had no way to run a business at this time, and I just bought five businesses that year, which was the largest. And two of them, Intellitrends and REPASS were in the last probably 90 days, both of them.  So, on Monday (this happened on a Friday, coming back from Cincinnati) I called everybody in our group meeting, had an emergency meeting with all of our sites. And I just said, “Hey, this is where we’re at.” I said, “Rex Repass is in charge of this company.” Some people had been with me for years. It was, to me, was the obvious decision even though I had met him just three times and had only bought his business two months prior.  And Rex took over the company. People were like, “Hey, who’s this guy?” Of course, they were shocked to learn what had happened to my wife, which has really become a great story. And she’s recovered and done phenomenally well. But the story here is – Wow! – during this time of hypergrowth… On November 4, 2016, I had this tragedy, and the company had to hold itself up on its own. And Rex was able to help that. So you have to have somebody who’s there to help and, fortunately, that had happened just a couple months prior.  My wife had slept through her birthday; she had slept through Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. We had to fly her five weeks later back to Penn where her doctors are – an emergency transport from Miami. It was a really crazy time; so, this was the time that was the biggest challenge for me. And I had a great support team with my company to allow me to do what I had to do for my family and for the wife and for my children so that the business would not fall apart. Certainly, my Number 2 and now president of my company, Rex Repass, is to thank for that.  We are completely aligned. He has helped me along with my CFO, who is one of my best friends from high school, Mark Schoenberg. So I have a good support team and now some vice presidents and many directors, who I count on every day. Basically, it’s one team that I was developing that was able to keep this afloat during such a challenging time in my life.


There’s a tremendous amount of complexity in that narrative.  The thing that stands out to me is (1) – just doing that level of M&A:  massive, massive amount of focus is needed to pull that off successfully.  And then to go through a personal trauma right in the middle of it… The fact that you guys were able to keep it together is amazing.  But, having only met with Rex three times and then to entrust him with the whole enchilada, that’s a massive capacity for trust that you exhibited, right?   


It’s like the guy who meets his wife and knew right away, “Hey, this is the person.  This is it.” Sort of no different than that. When it came, I knew that this was the person right away.  And when I left Cincinnati that day on my way to that tragic time, I knew that I had found my person to build this company with.   


Has that been a skill or characteristic that you have, obviously, sort of a high EQ in identifying people that are high capacity and also on your team, right, because he could…  there are a million different problems that could have happened there, and they didn’t, obviously. Like is that a skill that you’ve developed, or is it just coming natural out of your background?   


I think it’s definitely a skill that I’ve developed in what I’ve been doing, but it’s got to be a skill that you have, whether it’s innate or you’ve learned it.  Talent is the Number 1 thing that everybody needs. So, if you ask me, “Hey, what do you need for an all-star employee?” The most obvious is talent. And, if you don’t realize that talent is the most important thing, you shouldn’t be in charge of a business because that’s what drives the entire machine always.    


The other part of that though is your optimism that he would be able to not just take the ball but score a touchdown, right?  And that comes really from YOU initially.


Yeah, I think so, but really it all boils down to building a team; in our case, what we call one team and making sure that you have the right folks on board.  But, without that, there is no business, and that shouldn’t be something that I’m teaching anyone on this podcast; it’s something that everyone should know for sure.


I love the one team framework.  Let’s segway in, as you already have, to the characteristics of an all-star employee.


So, I won’t give you talent [laughter] from right off the list.  If you don’t know that, again you got to get out of the game. Number 1 thing for me is drive, and that’s manifested by hunger or self-motivation.  I need somebody who thinks out-of-the-box like an entrepreneur would. And here’s a funny one: how about obedience in a way or the ability to understand that rapid expansion really needs someone to make those decisions.  So, after thinking out-of-the-box and coming up with your own decisions and being listened to eventually, if you’re in hypergrowth, quick decisions have to be made, and you have to accept those decisions as an employee. And you need employees that will listen to you and work with what you ask them to do once you listen to them.  So you need to listen to them; they need to be open and give you ideas, but they have to be willing to say, “Hey, the decision has been made. I’m going to make it happen.” That’s really very important, and people don’t realize that, hey, it’s not just thinking out-of-the-box, ideas, and having the drive to do it; it’s being able to listen and do what you’re asked to do.  Two-out-of-three is not good here. You need to have all three to be an all-star employee: the ability to listen, the ability to think out-of-the-box, and you must be hungry or self-motivated.


I have an interesting story, kind of piggy-backing on that out of that, out of my personal experience.  I hired an area manager out of Asia, and they had an aggressive sales growth target when he was brought on board.  So the team, of course, was complaining though his answer simply was, “Our job is not to ask ‘why’ but to ask ‘how’.”  And that created this great series of productive conversations that led to very specific tactics that allowed them to reverse engineer the growth trajectory and then, ultimately, hit it.  So, you’re absolutely right. That mentality of ownership and the ability to just kind of do it as opposed to not is paramount. But I do want to kind of pivot back to this one team that you talked about.  So you have this rubric of what an all-star employee looks like and, obviously, your team conforms with that. After doing that many acquisitions, was there a pretty difficult process to align the team or cull the team so that they were completely aligned against one culture?


So, when you acquire different businesses and you put them together as one, you have owners and managers that are used to running their own fiefdom the way that they always wanted, that they always did.  If you’re doing different things, sometimes it’s hard to get everybody to agree, to work as one organism – one operating organism. And, getting people to do that, you have to make sure that they’re aligned with your core values.  We have core values, and we believe that we’ve instilled those in everybody to work with one another. And that allows them to sort of give up that private fiefdom and work with everybody as a team. And, when people start to do it, they really enjoy it, and they say, “Hey, I’m so glad to be part of this bigger, better team, doing different things.  And I don’t know everything, and I have so many people to learn from. But, as long as they’re aligned with your core values / your pillars, then you’re going to have a great company.


So, you’ve been in the market research space for quite a while. What are you seeing now as a macrotrend?


I don’t know if I’ve been in the business for quite a while; I’ve only been in the business for four-and-three quarters years.  So, I started sort of learning this, but I was learning from experts as I was looking at different businesses. I was going and talking to other owners constantly so that they could teach me, going to conventions and learning everything, getting a crash course in five years.  So, there are a lot of things that are changing and evolving in the market research field: artificial intelligence, reduced budgets – which is something that we have to, from supply side, have to work with all the time – and new technologies coming in, and DIYs. So these are the macrotrends in the space, and we have to work with them.  So, if we say, “Hey, qual and quant. They’re both great. But we to do both of them, and they’re better together. Full service and field service: Hey, they’re great separately, but they’re better together.” So those are important things. Same thing with artificial intelligence and using those products: those are better together with traditional research products when you’re using AI to moderate or AI to develop panel based on past information to build panel answers versus traditional methods.  You got to do them both. That’s the thing sort of… DIY is becoming something that is so important. Again, part of what we do, it’s better together. You can use a full-service market research company, and you can do as much or as little as you want but, as a researcher, it’s my job to put those things together and say, “Hey, do as much or as little as you’d like. We’re going to help you either way. So, if you have your innovation center that you have internally and, as long as your research is not unbiased, we want to work with you.  We want to figure out, “Hey, what can we do to help you?” We’re not large enough. And some of these businesses that are losing amazing amounts of revenue in this business. We’re growing in a business that, certainly, on a revenue standpoint, seems to be shrinking. I’ve always been in businesses that have grown in a shrinking market. That’s my story; I’m sticking to it.


What are you seeing as one of the keys to your success for Research America?  And then, are you drawing on your expertise coming from outside of the industry and bringing it into research?   


Yeah.  First off, there’s an obvious answer here.  And again, you have to drive growth and profitability.  You have to increase your conversion. You have to increase the leads that you bring in.  And you have to increase your product service offerings. So, this should be new to no one that’s making the kinds of decisions that I am.  They’re the same for everybody. So, what’s unique to our company and what I’ve brought in? I really brought in the same core values that I brought into… from my other business.  And I think that that was the secret sauce, and I don’t think it should be a secret for anyone. Our core values are: integrity matters; relentless curiosity, which is really necessary in marketing research (that was the one that was added new); certainly, the one team that we talked about before; and really, we can’t grow and succeed without a sense of urgency from everybody.  And these four core values are values that we spoke about with our leaders to make sure that they were aligned with them, and they agreed, and they aligned with market research. And integrity is very important in market research. Relentless curiosity is extremely important in building a good company. One team and a sense of urgency is so important.


Yeah, I think it’s brilliant.  I wish I would have talked to you before Focus Vision.   [laughter] Honestly, the one team pillar is very, very powerful and succinct.  I really like the centralization of decision-making but then also sort of how it’s a group effort as opposed to one person, you know, top-down whatever.  I really like that framing as an additional add-on to core values. I think we take that for granted in a lot of cases as just part of the value system in order to see the other one succeed.  Like you said, integrity or urgency or relentless curiosity, but calling it out, it really puts it in a special place and identifies it as critical.


There’s no question.  I often sign emails to team members “One Team.”  So, we’ll be talking about something, and there’ll be a group of us from diverse companies and  backgrounds in marking research. And I’ll remind them about that core principle: “One Team.” We’re always talking about it; almost every meeting that I have, that’s brought up.


Does it have reach to the customer as well?  


Oh, there’s no question.  So, one team to them means security to their data.  It means we have people working together instead of outsourcing that to a bunch of people.  We have everything internally working as one team to make sure the time when we have so much legislation regulation that we’re able to have a secure data and make sure that one team is working on all of their work instead of outsourcing it all over the place, whether it’s field or full service.  So, I think it’s invaluable.


Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your business.  What are you guys offering right now that’s getting a lot of traction in the market place?


Well, right now we’re developing a company, based on the boutique of boutiques.  So, basically, I’ve bought 14 or 15 boutique businesses. I’ve put them together into 14 offices.  They do different things, whether it’s recruiting, or data science, or qualitative moderating, quantitative. We own three focus group facilities – soon to be four, two of Test Kitchens lab and sensory rooms.  So we’re doing so many different things. This boutique of boutiques is very helpful to our clients; being a one-stop shop, as I just discussed, is very important. We have cutting-edge techniques that we use, both in a proprietary form and then also on non-proprietary, where we’re using some of the innovative folks in our industry who are working with AI and video and some of these things and social scraping to be able to help our clients.  Data security has been a huge push to us in the last year because we know that a lot of companies have not been careful with the data – as really the climate with viruses and with data theft and the things that happened in the last election and the sharing and passing around data between multiple companies – as we have. We think that data security is here to stay, and it really… If it’s not on your front burner, you better move it up. Data security is very, very important.    


My guest today has been Robert Porter, CEO of Research America.  Robert, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you.  I really appreciate your having me, and thank you for anyone who has listened this long to my story.  Hope it was inspirational and, appreciate being on.


The honor was all of ours.  Thank you very much for your full disclosure.  I do think that we tend to make everything really happy [laughter] incorrectly so.  In many cases, there are struggles and difficulties that we face at varying levels at different times in our lives.


Jamin, this is a happy story.  It has a happy ending, and it has…  I’m a happy guy with a happy family. Just because it takes you…  there’s a few slips along with bumps and bruises… doesn’t mean it’s not a happy ending.  This is a happy story. This is the happiest story as you could ever hear.


Love it.  Robert, thank you very much.  Everyone listening. Thank you very much for your attention during this time.  As always, we love your feedback. Please be sure to leave some comments on Apple iTunes, and those ratings continue to drive our adoption.  Have a great rest of your day.


Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, we’ll be talking with Stacey Walker on-site at Adobe.  This is my absolute favorite episode so far. We actually have her go through a card sort of trending technologies and have a few other fun games that we’re playing.  Hope you’ll tune in.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 135 – Sima Vasa – Paradigm Sample – The Importance Of Continuous Learning In Market Research And In Life

Today my guest is Sima Vasa, founder of Paradigm Sample, Chairperson of SampleCon, and founder of Infinity Squared Ventures. Additionally, Sima has recently started Data Gurus, a leading market research podcast.





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Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  Today my guest is Sima Vasa, founder of Paradigm Sample, Chairperson of SampleCon, and founder of Infinity Squared Ventures. Additionally, Sima has recently started Data Gurus, a leading market research podcast. Sima, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you for having me.  I’m excited to be here.


It’s an honor to have a fellow podcaster participating.  Podcasting, as I found out once I embarked on this journey in August of this year, is not widely known about in the market research space.  Has that been something you found with your journey?


Yeah, definitely.  It’s funny I started it probably about a year ago around about, and early days I remember when I launched, it was kind of like “Oh, that sounds a little crazy.  Why are you doing that?” And now as people like yourself and other people have entered the market, it feels like people… It’s getting some more traction. And I think there’s a lot of podcasting going on outside of market research.  That influences the acceptability in our industry as well.


Yeah, totally.  How long have you been consuming podcasts?


Probably, to be honest, I consume podcasts so much more after I started Data Gurus.

Prior to that, I was probably listening to the NPR podcast – you know casually, not on a regular basis.  


Yeah, totally.  For me, it was a transition from audiobooks into consumption of podcasts, which just gave me a much higher targeted set of content.  Yeah, which I loved and still do actually. It’s kind of a fun journey. Well, anyway, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background:  your parents, how that has impacted your career into market research.


So, my parents are first generation from India here.  They came here when I wasn’t even born. I was born here.  And they really had the traditional immigrant kind of values and affects in terms of working really, really hard, prioritizing education and the responsibilities of family and duty.  I think all of that feeds into who I am today. But I also had a sudden tragedy very early on in my life with my parents, in that my dad died when I was very young. So I had to get out there and work at such a young age to kind of help support the family.


If you don’t mind sharing about what age was that where you started contributing to the family’s livelihood.


About 13.  


Do you think that that… you know the entrepreneurial spirit sort of was bred in you at that point in time?  When did you decide that you’re comfortable stepping out and starting a company?


Yeah, definitely, I think the seeds were planted at that time, just given the circumstances that we were left with.  I kind of in my own mind said, “Gosh, I never want to be in this place again.” I watched my dad struggle to keep jobs in large corporations.  And after he passed away, my mom really didn’t have an income. So I swore to myself that I would never be left in that position. And that really drove me to continue to work really hard and then take eventually the leap of faith to start my own company.   


Yeah, my parents had some real rough times, financially.  I was very blessed to have them, obviously, in my life. But along that journey, one of the things that I recognized was I needed to be able to make money just to have spending money.  So then I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was. (I didn’t even know if that word existed. I’m kind of that old.) I started these little side hustles and then it transcended into this kind of like getting a job at age 15 and driving illegally just to be able to get to it.  [laughter]


I know I rode my bike for like miles to go to the McDonald’s to go work and babysitting jobs.  My sister and I had a lawn cutting business. So, I do think it kind of builds that early foundation for having the resilience to make money and rely on yourself to do it.        


And then also know that you…  this confidence I think feeds into that life experience that, in fact, you can do it.  


I completely agree with you.  It’s all about trusting yourself essentially that you can do it if you set your mind to it.   


So you’ve been in the workforce, obviously, since a very early age.   Can you talk to us a little bit about your exposure to market research and what actually brought you into this space from a career perspective.


Yeah, sure.  So, I graduated and the tech boom was happening.  I graduated with a market degree with a focus with international business.  And I knew I wanted to work somewhere in the tech sector. I lived on the east coast and decided that California was too far and set my eyes on Dell computers.  I actually interviewed there, got an offer, but also at the same time interviewed with a company called IntelliQuest, which was acquired by Millward Brown down in Austin, Texas.  And I got an offer there. And I decided to take that job because I thought, instead of having a view of just one company, the job that I got at IntelliQuest was really looking at the entire sector and being able to do syndicated tracking for the PC and laptop market.  That was it: I kind of just grew up in the market research industry from there on.


I remember IntelliQuest actually.  They were a BIG player in our space back in the 90s.  I had forgotten that they had been acquired by ahh… that they had been acquired period.  Weren’t they based out of the Silicon Valley?


They were based in Austin, Texas.


It was Austin.  OK, I knew you’d said that but…  They must have had some presence there.  But anyway, I had a few friends that worked in the Bay Area or lived in the Bay Area, I should say, that worked for them back then.  But, anyway.


Obviously, there were a lot of clients in the Bay Area too since it was focused on tech.


So, you moved from that dot.com transaction that happened before the bust though, right?


That’s right.  Yeah, so I was there in the early 90s, and I promised my family that I wouldn’t grow roots in Texas.  I just wanted to see if I could move to a city where I didn’t know anybody and really establish myself.  It was a great experience: I actually ended up meeting my husband there. And we both decided to move to New York City after Austin.  And I ended up working at IBM in their research and strategy department.


My friends and family don’t necessarily love me saying this, but I still think New York City is the best city in the [laughs]. I absolutely love it!  


Are you going to break out on Hamilton now, Jamin?


Oh, my gosh, yeah!  I tried to move there in 2003 and, unfortunately, there’s just a series of events that prevented that.  Yeah, such a great city. And, so anyway, you moved there. You’ve been very active from a career perspective as an advisor, Blink Insights, Mobile Marketing Research Association and now, most recently, Chairman of SampleCon.  Can you talk to me a little bit about what you get out of that? Like what the motivation is?


Yeah, I think at the core of it I really do like collaborating and working with other people.  I think that’s part of the joy in work, is the people you get to interact with and, ultimately, what groups of people can contribute and accomplish together.  And so it’s satisfying to be able to move the needle and see how… For example, on SampleCon, we can move the industry together and be able to collaborate and communicate on hot topics and try to resolve some of those issues.  So, that’s really the core of it. It’s something that I’m passionate about. Obviously, I get paid for many of the roles that I take, but it is a form of giving back and giving time to different projects and issues. I’ve certainly had the benefit of people advising me, and so it’s something that I like to do as well.    


What are you seeing as some of the hot topics that are coming out of the sampling world?   


There has been so much buzz about blockchain; you can’t really get away from that topic.  I think there’s a lot of interesting initiatives around trying to get all the stake holders aligned in the research value chain, if you will, from the end client to the research agencies to the sample providers.  So, really taking it down to a very basic level and saying, “Look, at the end of the day, you want to keep respondents engaged; you want to care about their experience.” To do that, you have to understand their experience.  Go backwards and balance the research objectives and designs to actually ensure that from happening. And, obviously, there are other things at play where clients are getting other sources of data because of the… I’m not going to say that right [tries to say “digitization”] because of the digital… all this access to information that clients have.  There’s a question about the growth or the health of online survey data collection. Those are just to name a few; there’s many more.


Yeah, of course.  So, blockchain is super interesting for me right now.  I’m reading a lot about it, been exposed to it. In a large way, most recently in February at the IIEX Conference in Atlanta, one thing that really struck me was, unlike online data collection where it was really clear there was a competitor, which was traditional methodologies in data collection – I have not (and I’m sure it’s just my intellectual capacity) I have not been able to connect:  Is blockchain just a technology or is it actually going to be a technology that companies like yours adopts, which is to say basically a better panel management system or is it actually going to be a competitive set to the existing sample framework?


Yeah, it’s interesting.  I’d look at it in a couple different ways.  To be honest, I haven’t totally figured it out either.  We continue to evaluate and talk to different companies in the industry.  I think from the back-end perspective, there’s certainly a lot of efficiency in terms of ensuring that there’s not duplication in the data sets, given the fact that the respondent can’t answer surveys multiple times.  So there’s less kind of fraud in the system as it relates to blockchain. In terms of the user experience, what I see is that, if you can store data that a user responds to at any given time, they don’t have to waste their time again to answer the same questions again.  They can monetize those responses and gain some benefit from it. I think that’s kind of where I am right now in terms of at least the benefit for a respondent. I think, as an industry, we always hear about a panelist being (I don’t know what the latest number is) maybe six panels at any given time.  So on the back end, you can clearly see the benefit because that duplication will be relieved. I believe that’s the case. Again, this is my knowledge, thus far… I’m not an expert in blockchain, but from what I can gather.


Yeah, that’s exactly my view on it.  And when I talk to leaders in the space – like yourself – one of two things happen:  either they frame it, “Is it a better, improving overall quality?”, which is something we’ve seen.  There’s been a couple of different programs and solutions that have entered our space that have tried to address that.  So, is it better there or is it this whole new thing? I just really struggle with understanding: when the technology is adopted, what’s the consumption like?  What’s that dollar? Where’s the dollar coming from? Is it a new dollar or is it coming from an existing, budgeted dollar that was going to be spent with – pick the sample company, right?     


Yeah, I think that’s a very fair question.  I think it gets interesting when you start layering in the passive data from the blockchain.  Again, the challenge there and/or opportunity is: you know we already have passive data access, and clients are still struggling on what to do with all that data.  So, at the end of the day, it sounds fantastic that you can get all this information about a consumer respondent; there are so many other things beyond that that we have to figure out once we have access to that data.


Yeah, this is exactly the point, right?  Because you and I have been using… I’ve been using transactional and behavioral data for twenty years.  I mean there’s no… [laughter] It’s not like, “Wow, now I can do this!” Maybe the benefit then really with blockchain winds up being the overall efficiency gained because you have an existing…  You know the problem is always taking disparate data sources and combining them in a meaningful way in context of time and budget. So maybe that’s the benefit that drives the overall adoption of blockchain, in which case…  Obviously, it feels like it’s just a technology enabler similar to the internet, but not this new thing, similar to online surveys.


Yeah, I would agree.  It feels like that. I think that it’s going to make us work smarter, be more efficient.  I don’t see this as a net new, if you will, in terms of our industry.


So, let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about what’s keeping the lights on:  Paradigm Sample. Why did you start that company? What was the market gap that you sought to fill?


So, I lived the market gap.  I actually was at IBM. And we were buying millions and millions of dollars of sample, and we ran into a major data quality issue with a tracking study.  And we started picking it apart and really looking at it. I think it was the first time that we went beyond the research agency and actually had sample companies come in because the discrepancy of the data was so big that we really had to get to the source or the root cause of it.  And we realized quickly that there was really no transparency. It was the wild, wild West. We couldn’t get a sense of confidence around what we were buying. And it made me realize there is a big gap here in the sense that the way to operate, and the way to consult, and the way to help clients is really to partner with them and to be able to provide the best solutions to a client, and know what you’re buying and know what you are selling.  It sounds so basic, but that experience was about six months of time, talking to multiple sample companies and really realizing that… You know the sample companies at that time were really about eyeballs and numbers; there wasn’t a research-driven lens to sampling. At least that was my experience at IBM. I don’t mean to cast that doubt for the whole industry at the time, but that was our experience at IBM.


Yeah, right, and I get that.  I think that’s fairly ubiquitous across the board then and, in many cases, even now.  The end consumer of the insights, which is obviously the brands, are largely blind to the panelists, right?  This sort of interesting journey that data goes through, and it’s always been like that, which, of course, you’re aware of.  Thinking about in-mall intercepts, there was so much fraud in that space. I know that because I did in-mall intercepts. [laughter]  I got to see and manage that first hand. The only way you could root that out going to in-mall intercepts… And for those who don’t know in-mall intercepts are the people with clipboards and paper-based surveys.  (Now they have tablets.) They would literally intercept people in malls, and malls were things that we had before Amazon. So, playing it kind of backwards now, for us that data quality had to be addressed by the manager at the mall floor, right?  It could not be addressed too far upstream. Whether it’s the research supplier or the brand, that ship had already sailed, right? You can’t go back into the field; the money had already been spent, whatever. So, the executive needed decisions. So it makes sense then that you saw that as a market opportunity.  Do you think that brands, not brands per se, but all of us even anybody in insights is going to then experience further removal from the respondent with the adoption of marketplaces, sample marketplaces?     


That’s a good question.  Potentially, potentially.  It just depends on the culture of research within a brand organization, right?  I did an interview with a woman at P&G, and she said she actually extends all her timelines for her projects because she goes row by row to look at the quality of the data because they’re making decisions about products that are going to be designed in the future.  I think other companies, they want it fast and they want it cheap. It’s not about sourcing or quality of the panels; it’s how quickly they can get that information and at what cost. So I really do think it depends on the culture orientation of the brands in terms of how they embrace research – and, fundamentally, how they look at data.


We’re seeing a lot of tools enter the marketplace – my gosh, I want to say for the last three years – that are leveraging machine learning in AI to create qualitative scale opportunities, which are unearthing, making it more apparent that there are some data quality issues that still persist in the sampling space.  Are you seeing qualitative as a growing segment in the sampling space?


I do, definitely.  It’s funny ‘cause It’s a little bit of a paradox.  As we have access to more and more data, the qualitative piece plays even more of an important role because I think it brings that data to life.  So from a sample or panel company, we’re definitely seeing more and more needs around supporting qualitative research, whether it’s video or if it’s communities.  I think that qualitative piece brings the customer alive within an organization, and so I can understand why that’s happening.


Yeah, for sure.  The scale side of it is interesting too.  I don’t know that there is (again this is just my lack of visibility), I don’t know that there is a specialized, qualitative panel in the marketplace.


I don’t know either.  I don’t think there is.  I think right now the way that it’s handled is that …  And every client is different. So they have certain needs and, depending on what role you play in the industry and the type of panel you have and panelists in terms of what they want to do, you kind of recruit across multiple panels to meet that qualitative need.  I don’t think there is a qualitative panel per se.  Honestly, it’s probably the focus group facilities that have all these lists of people who participate in focus groups.  


Yeah, that’s true.  Maybe a company like Schlesinger or others that might have that sort of niche, niche opportunity.  Infinity Squared Ventures – tell us a little bit about that and what your impetus was for starting it.


After founding Paradigm and growing and building some technology, I really realized – and even through my experience when I was at the NPD group – I really love the early stages of a company and helping accelerate innovation, entrepreneurship and so, starting that was just a platform to help other entrepreneurs, other business leaders, kind of help them with the growth of their business from all aspects of operations:  either it’s helping with product concepts, product development to potentially helping them figure out… I think every P&L has a story, and so, “What is the story of your P&L and where do you want that story to be?” … and help kind of peel back the onion.


Podcasts are growing, right?  We talked about that at the beginning, and it got a lot of runway.  I was early in the web sharing space. And then, of course, CEO of FocusVision, I got a big indoctrination on video conferencing, etc.  Webinars, they continue to be the number-one way that we communicate inside of our industry to our constituents, whether it’s brands or each other, I guess.  But what’s interesting about podcasts… I’m feeling like there will be a shift away from the traditional webinar to podcasts, right? There’s a lot of benefits: the evergreen nature of podcasts and then also the niche (brand, sorry) communities you can develop, being two really obvious ones.  And that was really for me one of the reasons I decided to start the podcast. For you, what was that reason why and then how has it evolved over the last year?


So, in all honesty, it started doing it because you hear from everybody to increase your brand in the industry.  You should be writing a blog and you should be producing content. I started writing… I’m like there is no way I’m going to be able to sustain this.  You call it early. I’m going to start writing like one or two blogs and I’ll be done. But what I love is people, and I love talking to people. And so I decided to start a podcast.  That was kind of the early reasons as to why I started, and now to me I feel like there is so much change going on in the industry that it’s a platform to at least share with our industry what different players are doing and kind of building a story and, hopefully, for everybody who can’t get to a conference, they can get bits and pieces through the podcast and understand what’s happening by the different talks and interviews that I do.  


Yeah, totally.  I see in my world view in the next…  As soon as 2019, I’d be surprised if major conferences like TMRE and IIEX and whatever don’t have – SMR, etc.- a podcast on site, whether it’s exhibitors or speakers are being interviewed.  


I totally agree with you because you just get so much more mileage out of the content from that conference.


Totally, and it adds free value to the community.  You think about I was able to hear Beth Comstock at TMRE.  It was a fantastic, motivational speech. My audience I think would really enjoy hearing it.  It would be great to be able to port that content, or a portion of it, into a podcast format, right?, for general consumption.  And what’s interesting is this whole subscribe option, right? So you can either one-and-done or, if you really like the content of the show over time and want to add it to your regular consumption.  It’s a really neat opt-in/opt-out mechanism.


And you know what else is really cool is that the people…  You know that in companies not everybody gets to go to the show.  So this breaks down hierarchy as well and function. Anybody who wants to invest in themselves, who wants to know about the industry can listen and know potentially more than others who are not investing in themselves and learning about the industry.  So I really like that element. I feel like everybody is empowered to learn.


Totally.  It’s so powerful.


And actually, I sure, Jamin, you’ve thought about this.  There are so many creative ways that you could change this up, right?  You could have a co-host one time; you could do a series. There’s so many different options you can think through as it relates to keep it creative and fun as well.    


Yeah, and you know you listen to some of the older podcasts (and I mean absolutely no disrespect), but they have not adopted some of the newer approaches.  So it is two people sitting around talking about sports but really the content is about, or their venue is supposed to be talking about data handling or whatever it is, which is again very early stage as opposed to on point, clear CTAs, and then really driving the human interest element of things.  I’m not saying that that’s a bad role; in fact, I even subscribe to one just ‘cause I like to listen to the two guys talk. That’s weird. But, anyway, you get the point. Yeah, it’s definitely an evolution.


I loved the interview that you did with the woman last week, the high school student.


Oh, Gaby.  Wasn’t that great?


In fact, I’ll tell you my daughter and I (my daughter’s in high school) were listening.  And I said, “Would you do an interview like that?” She’s like, “She’s really nervous.”

I go, “But she’s so good.”  Yeah, it was great; it was nice.  We could both listen to it.


Gosh, thank you for that!  That was my favorite interview.  You’ve got a seventeen-year-old, who’s raised by her grandparents in one of the poorest zip codes in America, and she’s starting a business.  You know what I mean? It’s just so powerful.


It really is.  It’s powerful. It’s also like you feel like there’s hope.  You feel like, you know, there’s good stuff happening.


I am going to be honest:  I have not bought her box yet.  I am going to do that today. Thanks for the reminder.  I need to do that. Anyway, so…


I’m going to buy one.


[laughter]  Let’s do that, you and I together.  Oh, my gosh, what a miss! Anyways, maybe we should do that as like a holiday gift.


Holiday gift, yeah.  That’s a good idea.  


Totally, and we could co-promote our podcasts.


Yeah, I like that.  We’ll follow up on that.


Yeah, definitely follow up on that.  You’re a very successful founder, CEO, advisor.  What is one of the secrets that you employ that drives growth, profitability or success of your company?


Learning, invested learning.  Stay fresh. You never arrive; you’re always on a journey.  Listen to people, all points of views. Don’t assume you know the answer.  I think you got to measure what you want to manage. You can’t hope and dream and pray.  You kind of have to say, “OK, this is what I want to do,” and again measure it accordingly.

Those are some of the things that come to mind.


Yeah, that’s a really good one.  I want to dive in on the “listen” part.  Do you have any specific examples, either good or bad, where maybe you’ve had a personal experience or connection to that?  


Yeah, it’s funny ‘cause when you look back in your career, you kind of see a different version of yourself.  And I recall many times when my manager, my boss would give me feedback, and I wasn’t open to it. I really wasn’t.  And now, looking back, I was like, “Wow! They were really trying to help me. Like that was really good feedback I got.”  And I just wasn’t open to listening. So now, fast forward, when employees give me feedback and I’m not necessarily crazy about hearing it, I really try to stay open to it because they’re trying to give me information that a lot of times you don’t want to hear ‘cause you got ten other million things on your plate.  But it’s valuable to that person and, hence, it has to be valuable to the company.


Yeah, totally.  I mean one – there’s humility injected, but the second part of it is the validation, right?  Because a lot of times we’ll behave, or I’ll behave… I mean don’t hear what I’m not saying…  But I’m not behaving the best way I could, right? So I might be short with an employee or, just because I’m under pressure.  Now I’m justifying it. See I always default to the “why,” but the problem is that I just need to shut up and acknowledge that and then think about how I can change or adapt if it’s appropriate.


Exactly, yeah.  And I always say from a customer point of view or a partner point of view, it is amazing when they give you critical feedback because they have the option to defect from you and not say anything.  So those are golden nuggets that they’re giving you a second chance to improve and to partner. So I’m grateful when clients speak up and talk and are critical. And the great feedback is good too, but it’s that stuff that’s hard to listen to that’s really valuable.


Yeah, when the employee provides that, it’s a lot like…  Listening to you talk, it kind of reminds me of that… Ron Franscella gave me a piece of advice very early in my career, which is when a customer starts negotiating, they’re buying.  And so, it is the same thing, right: it’s a buy-in conversation. So what do you see as three characteristics of an all-star employee?


So one is…  I believe in this notion that you have to continuously learn.  It’s not a manager’s or boss’s job to ensure that you’re learning.  It’s basically investing in yourself to continue on the journey of learning.  I do think a lot of things is mindset. I love that book Growth Mindset versus the fixed mindset.  I so believe in that growth mindset, which encompasses the learning, which encompasses the attitude, right, the perspective of being realistic but still optimistic.  And I think just working hard – there’s nothing wrong with working hard


OK, I think the word “work” has been trumped over the last decade by this term “hustle.”  


OK, [laughs] yes.  


And I hate the word “hustle.”  I use it sometimes, but I hate the word “hustle” because it’s like tangibly different for me.


Well, “hustle” almost feels like…  It doesn’t feel like you’re really… like that grit is there.  It’s like, “I’m trying to get by. I’m trying to make a buck.” At least, that’s what comes to mind for me.   


Totally, totally.  It has a completely different connotation whereas “work” is something…  And it also feels sales-zy, to your point, “Make a buck.” But “#work” I mean, [laughter] I mean it’s about the basic stuff.  My late grandfather gave me this piece of advice right when I first got a professional job. He said, “Jamin, the most important thing for you is that you always beat your boss into work and you never leave before he leaves.”  [laughs] It’s just like super basic stuff, but anyways that’s my rant on work. Thanks for bringing that up.


You know I think working hard is underrated.  I mean I’m not saying that you have to work around the clock, 24 hours a day, but it builds really strong character.    


Yeah, it totally does.  And, along side that, it brings this point that we addressed with your 13-year-old self.  It brings the confidence that you can do it. If you don’t have to put your shoulder to the plow and get the work done, you don’t know that you can do it.  And so that’s always… That’s just a naggy sort of piece in the back of your mind: something that will hold you back or help you cave, give you an excuse to cave when the times get tough.


So true.  


Like we’re going to be OK, no matter what happens.  You know what I’m saying? You and I are going to be OK.  


We’ll figure it out.  


Totally, ‘cause I know how to mow lawns.  I swear to God I’m really good at that, right?  You know what I mean? And I know how to walk around my block and knock on doors until they’re so tired of seeing me they pay me to mow their lawn.  Alright, so you work with all different types of companies. What are you seeing as a macro-trend in our insights space?


So, I think this was an Aha-moment for me a couple weeks ago.  It might sound silly, but we as an industry have been so much on the defense about making sure we’re adding value and we’re storytelling, with automation, with artificial intelligence, the amount of time our industry puts toward putting research together has shifted dramatically.  All of a sudden, we’re like, “Oh, wait, we can actually analyze data; we can create the insights.” Simultaneously, what I’m realizing is that there’s a whole other workflow that’s happening in brands. And that is in the analytic space. And the brands are building these different organizations within their company where insights isn’t necessarily being included.  And I think that has a huge factor on our industry. I don’t have an answer for it, but it feels as if bets are being placed in those different departments or divisions in brand companies. And insights, as researchers and companies that provide insight, you have to figure out how to get to the table there.


Answering that question is massively important.  It’s just so… And I like your workflow connection because that’s exactly what’s happened, right?  As technology continues to bring automation and time-savings and lowering cost to how people do their job, you see UX departments or product managers employing various types of…  even free survey tools or other tools (it doesn’t have to be surveys, right?) or just using Webex to conduct IDIs. And it’s completely usurping the traditional insights function inside of the organization.


I was going to say, personality-wise, there’s not a ton of extroverts in our industry that will pound on the table and say, “Wait a second.  Let’s try to figure this out.” So we have to think through that. And how do we ensure that that value of the customer and owning that process doesn’t go away.     


Were you able to listen to the interview I did with Lori Iventosch at GoDaddy?


I listened to some of it.  


So, this subject came up in that interview.  At least, I think it made it in the interview; maybe it didn’t post.  Market research and UX do sit beside each other inside of the organization, right.  But what’s interesting is I think more commonly in the brands I’ve been exposed to, UX or data scientists are sitting outside of the market research function, which is a whole other layer that should be addressed because then you start thinking…  because both are doing the same stuff. They’re doing different stuff but there is definitely some overlap in that venn diagram. I think it’s exciting for us when you see a company like Qualtrics filing their IPO. The reason that they’re getting the valuations and growth is because they’ve stepped out of the traditional market research total addressable market.  So that’s just broadly creating a ton of opportunities that we just simply as an industry have not been exposed to. How is Data Gurus offering value to market researchers right now?


I think it is providing different aspects and perspectives on the data ecosystem.  You can hear about what a research director at Microsoft… What are some of the challenges they might have… or P&G…  and understand their world to understanding the perspective of a CMO, right? We keep talking about we got to get to the C-Suite.  Well, what’s their day like? And how does research fit into it? You layer that on with new technologies. How is AI impacting the industry?  How’s the sample industry changing and shifting? Blockchain. It’s really… My goal is to provide a platform of learning and ask questions that I want to know and, hopefully, other people want to know as well.     


I love that.  So, in a lot of ways, what you are doing is curating the viewpoints of brands and agencies and then bringing those together for a more fulsome conversation.  


Yes, yes.  I like the way you said that.


My guest today has been Sima Vasa, founder or Paradigm Sample and host of Data Gurus podcast.  Sima, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.


Thank you so much, Jamin.  I loved it, and I can’t wait to have you on Data Gurus.


I can’t wait too.  


Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, Robert Porter, CEO of Research America breaks down how he overcame significant personal adversity and provides us all on the perspective of positivity and gratitude that you’ll find refreshing and impactful.  Hope you tune in.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 134 – Baillie Buchanan – Research For Good – How to Give Back Through Market Research and Grow

Today, my guest, Baillie Buchanan, is the Co-Founder and CRO of Research For Good, an online sample company with a mission to provide reliable, high-quality respondents for market research while at the same time ending childhood deaths from hunger and malnutrition globally.


LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bailliebuchanan



Social Media: @happymrxp



Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  Today my guest is Baillie Buchanan, CRO of Research for Good. Research for Good is a sample and fieldworks solutions provider dedicated to delivering high quality data in 13 countries. They’re unique in the industry in that they also make a corporate donation to charities for every survey that is completed. Prior to founding Research for Good, Baillie has spent over a decade in the marketing research industry. Baillie, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.   


Thanks so much for having me, Jamin.


You know our signature question is tell us what your parents did and how that’s affected your career.  


I love this question.  I had to do a little bit of self-reflection.  It made me think. So, my parents both grew up and started their careers outside of the U.S.  My mom is from Scotland and worked as part of the administrative staff at NATO headquarters in Belgium before meeting my dad and moving with my father to Canada and then eventually to the U.S. where she finished her career working for travel agencies focused on international travel.  And my dad’s career started in Canada. He specialized in international finance throughout his career, met my mom in Belgium, moved several more times, including all of us as a family moved to Holland for a year when I was a child. And then we finally settled in Seattle, and he finished his career in treasury for the Savers, also known as Value Village Organization.  Interestingly, that company is a for-profit organization, working as a fund-raising engine for non-profits, which is a business philosophy not unlike that which I’m running now. So, looking back, I can say certainly having a two-career, parent household had a lot of impact on me as well as moving a few times, especially internationally. And their guidance, it really led me to become quite independent at an early age, learn how to be adaptable to new situations and new people, which I think drives a real desire to understand people and really an almost perverse compulsion to push myself outside of my comfort zone.  I just can’t stop doing it. [laughs]


I love that.  And there’s a lot to unpack here.  The 13 countries that you’re currently serving…  It sounds like, given your background of starting outside of the U.S., and then really mom NATO, coming in from Canada, etc….  All of that helped inform probably a global view as opposed to more of a national U.S., North America centric, or U.K. centric or wherever most of us have spent our early years.    


Yeah, absolutely, it has really colored my perception.  We traveled a lot when I was young as well, having family that lives in countries outside of the U.S.  It does definitely color the lens by which you look at both what’s happening here domestically and what’s happening outside of our borders.      


So, is part of that lens the discrepancy in the quality of life based on geography?


Yeah, that’s a good question.  I think so. I’m always open to…  I’m always trying to life hack, right, and figure out what’s best.  Where’s the best place to be? Where should we be positioning ourselves?  Actually, as a company, we have several teams that are international. And so, we work as a virtually run company.  And that has been an interesting perspective and kind of brings together that kind of global perspective on things.       


I think the…  So, tell me a little about some of the…  You know you’ve got this – I’ll call it a double bottom line.  (I’m not sure if that’s completely accurate.) But you have, obviously…  You’re a for-profit entity, correct?


We are, yes, for profit.


So you have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders, but then at the same time you also have an element of your net profits that are going to support social good, right?  So, in that framework, tell us a little bit about how you are making a difference as a company. Are you donating to a specific organization or set of organizations?


So, we have a one-for-one model where for every survey that one of our respondents completes, they receive a personal reward and then, on top of that, we make a donation to our charity partner.  And, for the last several years, we’ve had just one charity partner and that’s Action Against Hunger. They’re a global organization working to solve the problem of hunger globally, and they look at hunger very holistically.  So it’s not just feeding someone, but it’s looking at education and infrastructure and clean water. So beyond just emergency relief and famine relief, they’re looking at hunger very broadly and doing a lot of really great work.  So we’re pleased to be partnered with them; we’re partnering again with them next year. So, all of our donations go to that organization. And what’s unique about the way we’ve structured it is that this is baked into the DNA of our company from day 1 from survey complete number 1. We have always made a donation with every complete.  Even before we were profitable as a company, we were making these donations. So it’s really fundamental to the DNA and the value system of how we built the business.


I just tweeted yesterday, “Karma always wins.”  And I believe I’m living proof of that in some aspects – both positive and negative.  [laughter] I have seen where people are minded beyond just the bottom line, that those corporations tend to do better in the long haul, right?  The tension though is always how do I manage those shareholder expectations. And I like how you’re doing it very systematically where just have a one-to-one ratio.  And that’s just the non-negotiable. But part of my question I guess is really why hunger. Now hunger is a material problem; I’m not trying to demean it. But there’s lots of different charities that you could be looking at.  Did you have some experience with that or views into that early on?


It is a problem that has been close to our hearts.  And the reason we chose hunger is that… We’re a four-founder team and all of us have young kids.  (Some of them are older now as the business has grown.) We looked at what were we driven to make better in the world.  And the thought of children anywhere going hungry was gut-wrenching to us. And so we sought out a charitable partner who was working on that core issue.  And we wanted to choose a partner that was being very smart about the work that they were doing, responsible with the money they were taking on and using and spending that in a way that we felt that we could get behind.  It’s always been a passion choice for us. Although this year we did open… So, we worked with Action Against Hunger for several years. This year we allowed the industry to vote. We thought it may be time to… You know we’ve done a lot of good for that organization.  Maybe we can share what we’re doing with other organizations working on other problems because there are so many. But, actually, through the voting process, the industry spoke and told us that they loved our partnership with Action Against Hunger. So we were really happy to make the decision to stick with them again for another year.  So that’s super exciting. And I think that it has had a couple of maybe some unintended benefits: it’s a cause that everyone can get behind; so, both our customers and our clients as well as the respondents can all kind of rally behind what we’re doing, and it’s a real call to action that resonates with everyone.


Yeah, I like that a lot.  Personally, so I’m a member of the board of directors for a local Boys and Girls Club.  We have 19 chapters in the central valley of California. This goes back years – like 2007 when I joined originally.  Through the interview process, I was taking a walk around one of the clubs, and the young woman who was giving me the tour said…  She was very sharp, and I knew she was paid minimum wage, which kind of surprised me. There was just like delta between what her capacity was and what her compensation was.  And I asked her why she was working in the job. Not in a bad way, you know what I mean, but was it a higher calling or what? And she goes… When she did her first tour walking around and she saw some kids in the back of the campus where the after-school program was happening and so she went back there and kind of pseudo was going to reprimand them and when she kind of uncovered what they were doing, they were literally trying to get food for dinner out of the trash cans.  For her this, as you said, this gut-wrenching point of reference where “Wow, there’s this massive need here that is worthy of some hard work and sacrifice for us.” For her personally. Obviously, as a society, we need to pay attention to that. I think it’s – to your point – not a politically contentious issue at all, and it is certainly one that… If you can address hunger, you start addressing a lot of other issues. So it’s almost this meta topic I think in a lot of ways.      


Absolutely, and it’s a solvable problem too.  You know there’s the global goals initiative, which says that hunger is a solvable problem and a problem that can be solved in our lifetime.  So there are great organizations working toward really solving that problem because, as you said, it can solve a lot of other problems too. If you’re not hunger, you can further your education.  You can go to school, pay better attention in school, further yourself, you know, rise out of other situations that are unfavorable. Really, it’s the root of a lot that can be better about the world today.


Yeah, exactly.  You open up a lot of doors when you get those…  (It’s been a while since I’ve said the word. Milo, is that right?  The hierarchy of needs. Maslow, Maslow – the hierarchy of needs, right?)  The benefit is just multifaceted at the human level even down to how parents can feel about their parenting skills, right?…  ability to be able to provide. And that has a whole subsequent warm glow or halo effect over self-confidence inside of the home and etc. etc.  Important issue. It’s encouraging to see you guys pioneer this – I’ll again call it double bottom line approach. Do you feel like it functions as a hindrance in some ways though?  Being competitive in the market place or do you feel like it actually maybe goes the other way and is – because you have this social good element – it functions as opening more doors or what have you.


Yeah, I think it’s certainly a balance, but we find that it has more of a positive effect than perhaps a negative effect of taking funds and donating them to a charity versus reinvesting them in the business.  For example, when we started the company and started to grow, we realized very quickly that in order to sustain a model of being able to allocate funds towards donations, we had to build a platform for our sampling that was highly scalable and super-efficient so that we could sustain that model through our growth.  The technology that we’ve had to put in place and build has been home grown with this model in mind to be scalable and allow us the ability to be uber-efficient. And we have to be uber-efficient in everything that we’re doing. There’s no room for waste in our organization. So, that’s one impact. Additionally, it’s been good at keeping us very in touch with the human element of sampling.  I think, especially as you start to move beyond panel and into the real-time sampling and the recruiting of respondents through multivariant sources, you move away from seeing the respondent as a human and into the realm of this… (hate calling it a commodity, but it’s a transaction, right?) But, because there’s such a human element to what we’re doing, we’ve had to really stay laser-focused on the respondent and their engagement, and valuing the respondent so that they continue to participate in market research surveys because, without their participation, none of this is possible.  None of the donations that we’re making is possible and, obviously, the clients don’t get the insights that they need. And it has always been, and continues to be, really a motivator for us as a founding team and everyone who works with us. It’s great to come to work every day and work for a corporation and drive revenue and grow a company and that’s great. But, when there’s this additional value-add of a cause that’s greater than the corporate organization, it gives that little extra boost to the motivation to just drive excellence every day and make sure… It makes coming to work feel good and means something more than just your paycheck at the end of the day.   


100%.  This whole social good narrative is, I believe, going to continue to be an important differentiator for companies.  In our space, we’ve been a little bit slow to adopt. Are you seeing other companies start picking up on this theme, granted not at a dollar-per-dollar basis but maybe in some other aspects?   


We’ve certainly seen…  I think it’s not unusual for a sample or panel company to offer respondents the opportunity to donate their incentives.  Several other companies have that type of model. I think what’s unique in our model and I’m not aware of anyone else doing is that we don’t actually ask the respondent to make that donation or make the choice to give up what is theirs to the cause.  They get their full reward. A full incentive is paid to the respondent or shared with the respondent, and we’re making that donation from our end of the transaction. And I think that’s unique. And I think the industry is a little bit at a crisis point around respondent participation and really getting back to respecting the respondents as human beings with lives and valuable time.  And this is a model that, in our opinion, values that respondent transaction just that much more. We’re not asking them to give up anything. The donation piece is a value-add to their participation with us.


Yeah, respondents are not renewable resources.  There’s a ton of data that illustrates that. After a few bad experiences, you’re going to lose that respondent for their in perpetuity, and back-filling is just tough.  [laughter] Bad model. I would say that, in general, I think that research companies or panel companies, more specifically, are becoming more aware of the cost. And that’s why you do see such a non-linear increase in price based on length of interview.  But it’s an interesting model that you have My hunch – and I don’t have the data – but my hunch is that increased buy-in with employees; increased attention to operating margin, that is, efficiency; and then increased buy-in from respondents probably drives a very favorable outcome for you inside of the market.  And me, personally, whenever I see a press release of a partnership with you and somebody else, I literally would take the time to process that as opposed to go, “Oh, another press release,” right? And the reason why is I’m a little bit envious (This is the truth.) I’m a little bit envious of that partnership, right, because I feel like there’s this halo of good that is associated with your partnership network.  And I DO believe that has material impact on what you guys are doing in the space.


Yeah, absolutely.  One of our favorite things to do is at the end of the month we send emails out to all of our clients that specifically outline the impact that our work together that month had.  So, at a client level, we can say because we ran x number of projects together, we donated x amount of meals or amount of money. And we get to share that back with our clients. The response from the clients is very positive, but it also just feels great to us that we get to share back with the corporate researchers the social good that they’re doing as well.  Just by choosing us to be their partner – all other things being equal in service levels and data quality in everything else – there is a little bit of an extra feel-good factor there that I HOPE our clients enjoy from working with us.


Yeah, absolutely.  So, let’s shift gears a little bit and dive into your background.  We started with your parents, international-based experience. You know you had Peanut Labs on your resume, which is really impressive.  But what were you doing before Peanut Labs?


So, I started my career at GMI before it was part of Lightspeed.  I started right at the bottom: sales assistant and kind of worked my way up.  I actually had the opportunity to be transferred to… (I was working in Seattle.)  … had the opportunity to be transferred to their London office for a year to start up the inside sales function over there.  So I did that for a year, and then when I decided that it was time to come back, that’s when I made the jump over to Peanut Labs.     


And then from Peanut Labs, of course, you had a successful transition.  You guys were acquired, correct?


Yes.  So Peanut Labs was acquired by Research Now.  I had been working in business development, a little bit of marketing, and really focus on educating the market place about what was then a new platform for sampling in social media.  Peanut Labs was all social media sampling at that time. So, we were really helping researchers to understand that way of recruiting and engaging respondents and kind of educating them that this was a methodology that had merit, could be representative, and wasn’t just a fad.  That was a bit of an uphill battle, but eight or more years later wherever we are now, it’s kind of standard operating procedure. So that’s been a fun evolution to be part of.


Of course, about two billion people now on social media.  It’s definitely going to be around for a while.


Yes, it’s no passing fad. [laughs]


So, what was the impetus moving out of that corporate successful environment and then starting your own company?


So, I think that what we loved about Peanut Labs was driving the growth and the entrepreneurial spirit of a young and small organization.  So, it became pretty clear when the transaction with Research Now went through that that wouldn’t necessarily be the case, that there wouldn’t be that opportunity to be as entrepreneurial within that larger organization.  Wanting to continue building and growing an early-stage company, we were actually inspired by the ideas of a friend in the industry who was using donations to non-profit organizations and I think church groups as well as a way to recruit for in-person focus groups.  So we decided to kind of repurpose that idea, take a slightly different approach and apply that to online quantitative sample. And that’s how we got to our methodology.


I like that, but there’s a big bridge between understanding what the methodology is and then just like stepping into the abyss of entrepreneurship, right?  [laughter] …especially when you have a tech-heavy offering, which I imagine you did in the early days. What was one of the biggest challenges you and your team faced in starting Research for Good?


Ah, where do I begin?  I think growing a sample company is an interesting challenge because it’s very much a chicken-and-egg problem where you can’t drive respondent growth, access to respondents without having survey inventory.  And you can’t have survey inventory without having a pool of available respondents. So how do you grow the two simultaneously in a way that, you know? A researcher wants to come to you and say, “I need a thousand of this type of person.”  And you got to deliver. As you’re growing, these needs are not always exactly lined up with each other, so it’s a big challenge to try to figure out how to deliver and how to grow both of those pieces at the same time. It’s a huge challenge; it continues to be a challenge.  We are continually rocking back and forth on that seesaw: respondent growth and demand growth.


Yeah, the utilization of the respondents or the panelists, you know…  You got to have enough inventory for them to participate in so that you maintain the engagement, of course, and you maintain the income.  


Right.  Yeah, a sample buyer doesn’t want to buy a portion of the completes from you, generally.  So you’ve got to be able to deliver full projects to continue to engage with the clients as well and the researchers who just need to get their project done.   


Then in those early days, going forward with the unique double-bottom line company has its own fundraising challenges I would imagine; I’ve never gone through that.  


Yes, so we primarily have bootstrapped the company.  It hasn’t been as much of a fundraising challenge for us because we’ve grown the company in a way that we, you know…  Talk about uber-efficiency: we’re not only making donations but we’re reinvesting in our own business to fund our own growth.


I love that.  It’s so rare. You know we did the same thing in Decipher.  It’s so rare for entrepreneurs to start at that level, mentality-wise.  I don’t know if it’s always doable by the way. So, if you can find a path to not having an outside investor from Day 1, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache down the road and maintain a lot of autonomy in terms of how YOU want to spend the net profits that you hopefully achieve one day.


Right, yep.


So as a successful founder, driving a very unique company in a highly competitive market, what do you see as one of the secrets that drives either growth, profitability, or success?  


I think for us…  We talked a lot about the mission.  That is truly the core of what makes this business work.  The mission is the core tenant of our company; it’s the rallying cry; it’s the driving force; and it’s what drives each person in the organization to pursue excellence.  There’s no room for mediocrity when we’re trying to do what we’re doing. So, that starts at the top with our four-founder team. We make strategic decisions together; we live and die by those decisions together.  It’s not to say that sometimes, you know… It gets a bit messy. We don’t always come up with the right answer the first time. But, by keeping the mission at the forefront of everything we do, it drives all of us.  It keeps us on the right path forward. And I think that’s so crucial in maintaining a core focus as a business because it’s so easy… (And we’re guilty of this ourselves.) …it’s so easy to get distracted by, you know, shiny-object syndrome and what’s this great idea over here.  And there are SO many great ideas, and we want to be able to do them all but, by maintaining this focus on mission and efficiency and excellence, we have had to drive and deep dive onto what we do well and do it exceptionally well to continue that forward momentum.


So, as your business has been growing, of course you’ve been adding head count, what do you see as three characteristics for an all-start employee?


Yeah, I love this question because I’ve obviously been a listener of your podcast as well and there are definitely some themes you see emerging and that are kind of getting repeated because they’re just so important.  So I would say that for our organization – I love alliteration – so we talk about a good employee is someone who is humble, hungry, and high energy. And it’s the unique combination of all three that I think is actually a rare find and a rare gem.  The energy of each member of the team impacts the whole team. Similar to what Dyna at Survata mentioned in one of your recent episodes, its all about a positive attitude and a willingness to just make stuff happen whether it’s technically your job or not.  We look for people who are hungry for growth opportunities: that could be simply they just want to drive, drive, drive on their job or they’re hungry to learn a new skill or anything that an employee is proactive about working on to always be improving. And a humble attitude – and what I mean by humble is someone who is willing to learn, willing to bring forth ideas even when they may be canned or won’t be implemented or we have to shelf them for later or we have to poke holes in it to see if it’s the right ideas for us at the right time; someone who is willing to kind of change with the ever pivoting needs of a small nimble organization and who doesn’t have ego about it.  So humble, hungry, and high-energy that’s kind of the trio that I think makes a rock-start employee.


I love that you really nailed it in terms of to the Dyna interview talking about the energy vampire, right?  That’s the opposite of what we want; we want the people that are injecting energy in the meetings on Monday morning when they come in.  Gosh, that humble piece: that is a consistent element in almost every single one of the interviews said in different words, of course; the ability to have a strong point of view or an idea, be able to bring it to the table, and then let other people pick it apart and not feel like you have to defend it.  Being willing to be wrong either wholly or partly and then reembrace whatever is left is just a critical part throughout the organization.


And I think a fallacy in some organizations, looking from the outside in, is that all the ideas come from the top, and I think that that’s absolutely not the case.  Maybe the initial idea came from the top, and that’s what initiated the business. But the day-to-day ideas that come from the people directly liaising with the clients, directly on the ground floor doing the work are some of the best ideas to continue to grow and scale that business.  Team members who are willing to bring forth ideas is (And sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.) but that’s key. The other thing too, especially energy when you were talking about that just now, reminded me that we’re running an organization that’s primarily virtual. All of us founders work from home, and we have remote employees, and so bringing that energy to the table in a remote environment is that much more difficult and that much more important when I compare that to previous jobs where I’ve worked in an office environment with other team members.  The ability to maintain high energy, enthusiasm, open lines of communication through email and Slack and Zoom video calls is so key to building a culture in a remote workforce.


An entirely remote workforce is super interesting.  There’s lots of challenges with having remote employees.  I’ve managed quite a few obviously. At FocusVision, 13 offices globally and then, of course, we had remote workers as well.  How have you dealt with the accountability element associated with the remote employee?


That’s a great question.  We’re very metrics-focused and goal-oriented in the way that we manage the team.  So, to the extent possible, everything is managed to goal outcomes. And we, having a founder mentality that we’ve hired adults, and we expect you to do your job; we can see that you’re doing your job by hitting your goals and, if that’s not happening, then there are issues that will be addressed.  Maintaining visibility and metrics… Now we’re not asking people for timesheets and things like that. In our environment, it’s: get your job done whatever time of day that may be or however many hours that means you put in that day and less the next day or whatnot. We’re not micromanaging it, but I think when you set expected goals and productivity outcomes and then measure against those to make sure they’re being hit, you can ensure that you are getting the work product you need out of a team even though you’re not sitting next to them in the office.  But it is certainly a challenge.


And the nice part about that too is you’re able to get a sense of velocity so you can understand what that person is capable of and then reward accordingly and then also monitor how they’re improving.  So, getting down to the other point that you had made about innovation really needs to happen from within as opposed to top down, that is so 100% accurate, right? So, I think about gross margin: the improvement on operational efficiency is…   It can be done by “I’m going to fire 10% of staff.” Clearly, that’s a possibility. But another way of tackling that is to put the challenge out there to the organization and have internal innovation competitions and identify “Hey, if I get my work formatted in this different format, then it’ll save me whatever, two hours per project.”  When you multiply that three projects a week, all of a sudden, you’ve got a material savings, right? I think this metric-focused, goal-oriented approach has short-term and long-term benefits for managing employees. And, obviously, it’s a discipline that I think most organizations that I’ve been exposed to don’t have. Hard to implement, of course, and keep, but once it’s in place, seems like it’d be a very, very powerful tool.     


Yeah.  I would not claim to be perfect at it.  We have to challenge ourselves to continue to stay this razor-focused, but the benefits pay off.  And we’ve actually had the experience of our team members and our project managers taking this mentality and applying it to our clients’ projects and actually going to clients and saying, “If you changed operationally the way you run this tracker, over time it could make the sampling for this project x amount more efficient and save you significant amount of money in your sampling costs.”  And that’s huge value-add for a client for a fieldwork partner to say, “If you thought about your survey in this slightly different way, we could save you money.” That’s huge and that’s because that’s the mentality within our organization that then they naturally apply to looking at all aspects of the business.


Yeah, it’s interesting how the mission just continues to inform every part of the work delivery.  So, what is Research for Good offering right now that is finding purchase among your customers?


Ooh, excellent question.  So, our customer, for the most part, is a market research firm or agency.  And our specialty is two-fold: it’s number one – sampling the human component of data collection and two – it’s fieldwork, ensuring that projects run and are optimized to meet budgets and timeframes and deliver that actionable data that is so necessary.  The value that this adds is that it frees up our clients, the true research and insights professionals, to spend more time delivering what brings value to their clients – the brands. And that’s the insights, the answers to the business problem and, ultimately, driving revenue for that brand or client as Kristi Zuhlke mentioned from Knowledge Hound in her talk.  At the end of the day, what researchers need to do is really start to tie the insights that they’re delivering to revenue growth and the bottom line of the organization to become not just an expense-line item but actually a value-add. And I think that’s so important. So where we excel and our wheelhouse is that middle part, that delivery engine so that our clients can spend less time thinking about, “Where am I going to get the next 300 people I need for this project?” and “Is it going to close on time?” and “Are my quotas filling appropriately?” and on and on and on.  We take care of all of that so that they can think about the true insights and deliver that value.


So, very much white glove, customer-centric delivery.  




My guest today has been Baillie Buchanan, CRO of Research for Good.  Baillie, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast.  


Thank you.  It’s been my pleasure.  


Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, Sima Vasa, entrepreneur, advisor, accelerator, investor, and podcast hostess with the mostest.  Tune in. It’s going to be awesome.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 133 – John Papadakis – Pollfish – How to Start a Market Research Tech Company

Today, my guest, John Papadakis, is the Founder and CEO of Pollfish,  Inc. Pollfish is a platform that provides brands a revolutionary way to learn, communicate and interact with existing and prospective customers.


https://www.pollfish.com/ LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/papadakisjohn/



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LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch/


Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted. Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses.

You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is John Papadakis, CEO and founder of Pollfish. Pollfish is a survey platform with a unique approach to sampling, designed to improve data quality and speed to insights. Prior to founding Pollfish, John had worked in technology, developing a platform that made building Android apps easy. John, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thank you so much for your time, and for inviting me.


I’d like to start out with this marquee question of ours: Tell us a little bit about your parents and how they have affected your career.


First, some background: I’m Greek. I was born in Athens, Greece, and then moved to Germany until I was five years old, and then ended up in a small town one hour away from Athens. Both of my parents are retired now, but they were elementary school teachers. So for the first three years of elementary school, they happened to be my teachers as well. Twenty years ago, being a teacher in a small town in Greece was a really respectful role for the local community. So I grew up in an environment where my parents were very respected by the community, and the other way around. Especially my father was very diligent: he would not have any task undone; he was a very responsible person, and still is. So one of the key things I take away from my parents is “being diligent” and “being consistent”. The other thing is that my father was also leading the school, so he was running a small business. I didn’t understand that at the time; but now seeing back—his having a proper P&L, and having employees—maybe some of that background was passed on to me. The most important one is that they were teachers, so one of their main responsibilities was to understand their kids. So I had infinite moral and financial support from them to follow my crazy dreams. Maybe that’s one of the most important things. But I’ll tell you what: there was one thing that I didn’t learn from them, and that was teaching. I’m notoriously bad at teaching, especially people who don’t want to be taught. So I had some takeaways while some others, things and perks, didn’t pass on.


Things sometimes didn’t stick. I think all of us have some of those good and bad characteristics, thankfully, that maybe we didn’t carry over from our childhood. So “supportive”—it seems that was a central theme with your parents. We’re going to get into the details in a minute, but you’ve had a background of entrepreneurship. With respect to your father: Was he a principal? Did he start the school?


He was a principal. He was leading the school in the very last years of his career.


Interesting. Then what brought you out of Greece?


I only recently flew out for the first time to follow my dreams and my career. And that was Pollfish. I flew out of the Greece the second year that Pollfish was founded. Until then, I was in Greece, a Greek-only ecosystem, and doing some technology stuff.


So you recognized that Greece wasn’t the best environment for you to be able to create this technology startup. Did you immediately go to New York?


No. First of all, Greece on its own is not a good ecosystem to grow a business in. You can grow a local business, of course—you have access to the local market and local talent—but in the very early days with Pollfish, all of our clients were especially from the States. The first time I came to the U.S. was 2015, and I flew to San Francisco. I was staying in one of those houses with twenty-five people in one room. I loved it. I stayed there for about probably six months. We didn’t manage to get any investors, any clients, any partnerships, so immediately we knew that San Francisco, or the West Coast, wasn’t suited for us. And then we started to get customers and partners from New York, so gradually I moved to New York as well and brought a big part of the business here.


So technology startups think about Silicon Valley—of course, it’s the “heart” of tech-based startups. I’ve got a lot of experience in that specific ecosystem. Why do you think you found traction inside of New York, with New York investors, versus Silicon Valley?


It’s mostly with New York clients. This is because a lot of research agencies are here, a lot of brands are here; and our product—market research and what we were selling at that time—was really suited to agencies and consumer-facing brands, especially their marketing departments, and there are a lot of those in New York. In San Francisco you have more technology companies—technology consumer-facing companies in the early days—and they might not be doing so much market research in the very early days, or they might rely more on the early adoption data rather than going out to the market to ask people. We just didn’t find a “fit” at that time.


So “Go to where the customers are.” That’s one of my rules in business. You don’t expect customers to come to you; you go to where the customers are in a physical sense, obviously in a digital sense as well. You’ve got a lot of different types of companies, but you’re right: market research is, in a lot of ways, East Coast to West Coast in terms of size, with obviously some outliers in Hollywood et cetera.


I think that as well. And one other key factor is that—although, I’m biased—in New York you find better talent in that specific sector because you have more experience here, more companies are in New York, in the East Coast, or Connecticut. A lot of market research companies are here, and so you have a lot of people with experience in market research as well.


Did you find that your customers in those early days—well, actually, let me back up. How did you wind up getting your customers in the early days?


I can tell you the story of how we started. That’s very well-related with this. Back in 2013 we had a few apps, popular applications for the Android and iOS devices. It was the very early days of mobile apps back then. We had quite a bit of users, but we couldn’t make any money out of the advertising that we chose to monetize our apps with. Back in Greece, as well, there were not many advertisers who wanted to advertise, and the only way to make more money was to include more ads, and we didn’t want to do that. So we thought: What is the best way to get money and monetize our content? And we came up with surveys. That was the origin story. We created a survey platform that we incorporated into our own apps, and we re-launched the app and updated the app. We were running surveys, our own surveys, to see if our users would respond to that, and we were amazed by the response rate. So we took those results and we said, “Hey, we have 300,000 users and we launched a survey and got 3000 responses in two hours”; and we went to a local market research company, and they said, “All right, I’m going to try that.” This is when we actually formed the company; this is when we actually became a company. So a kid that has nothing to do with market research goes to a local market research store and tells them, “Hey, I can do this. Do you want to buy?” That was the very first client and the origin story. After this we went to LinkedIn groups and started creating a buzz around how we do market research and how we collect responses, and clients started to come. From the very beginning, all of our clients were self-served, so we didn’t have any services. It was DIY from the very first day. So we started seeing customers from New York and India, but especially and mostly in the East Coast. They just came in.


So you quickly moved to a digital customer-acquisition model, is that correct?


Right. So the only non-digital acquisition model was the first sale. After that it was all digital.


And that gave you, of course, the market proof that there was a product-market fit in that context.


Right. However, the story is not that smooth. So, very fast, we went into the market research space and started to get clients. Immediately we started to get a lot of interest in our product, but then we saw that our clients were seeing, at that point, that the way we collected data, because we were not operating as a panel, and the way that we collect from the consumer being mobile-only—not mobile-first, mobile-only—they considered Pollfish to be for toy-surveys. So they would be our customers, but not really. We had to spend a lot of time and a lot of years, actually, to come to 2017-18, where mobile and other sampling technologies are becoming the norm. But in the very early days it was extremely difficult. We had the luxury, and we are very happy to have had supportive investors in the very early days that also believed in that vision, otherwise we would not be here. It took us a while to start making money.


Yeah, that’s quite a while, too. It takes a lot of fortitude to stick with a startup for three, four years. Tell me a little bit about your experience, or exposure, to market research. Did you have an understanding of it, or were you more introduced to it as you found your consumers’ interest in taking surveys through your app?


Right. Now we have. In the early days we had no idea about market research. So we were very naïve going into that market; and actually, I believe that it turned out to be a plus and a benefit of doing so. We came with a fresh set of eyes to a world that was very standardized. You had the panels, and you had people to get paid to respond to surveys, and you had surveys with a hundred-and-fifty questions—and if we knew all those things before we started the company, we wouldn’t have started the company; there’s no way we would have started the company. So being naïve, we said, “We know mobile, we know people there and we see that our app is getting downloaded thousands of times a day, so people are in there. We’re going to make an experience work for that and want to put the consumer first. We don’t care about the customers, for now, because they’re going to change their mind.” That’s a very expensive and very luxurious decision to make; and if we didn’t fundraise, we couldn’t make that. But luckily, we were naïve enough and had the support of our investors to do those things and be where we are today.


How did you manage that relationship with your investors? I’d have to believe it was fairly tense in the early days.


Well, not really because, if you think about it, we have a two-sided marketplace. We are providing a way for the publishers to make money, in a very nice way, in a user-engaging way—we take a lot of care about the user experience while doing so. And at the same time, we’re looking for customers to use our services. Luckily, we were extremely successful in the first part, and we managed to train the market, and the market adapted to our mobile-first survey offering for monetization, and the numbers were amazing and the adoption was great. So, to be frank, something was there. Everybody could see that. It just took us a while to go into the market at the right time that the clients will adopt such a solution.


It’s pretty indicative of market research. As you said, we are an industry that is very steeped in tradition and approved methodologies, data-collection approaches et cetera, et cetera. And it is interesting. There is this J-curve effect I’m seeing in the tech-space of the companies that can persist for three to five years. The market hits an inflexion point where, all of a sudden, they become considered norms, and then the adoption just sucks up, right?


Right, but if they make the right choice.


Yeah, you’re right. You have to have the right bet the whole way through, but I think it would be very easy for a lot of companies to pivot as opposed to stay the course in market research.


Right—and I’m sure you know best—but last year market research was extremely different from what it is today, and next year will be also extremely different. So the good thing is that it took a while but now the market is starting to adapt and is starting to try new things and actually acknowledge that there are more things to collect samples, more things to get data, and actually make sense of those all-new technologies.


Right. It’s really an interesting time right now in market research. We’ve got questionable growth, and the majority of that growth is actually coming out of social-based approaches, specifically social-listening. Mobile-first is something that we’ve talked a lot about. I like how you framed it as a “toy”, Certainly in the early days of mobile that was the case, but now that brands are under this tremendous amount of pressure for performance, I know mobile is where the consumers are, and just like you did, they’re modeling their data-collection approaches accordingly.


Right. And looking to the future, maybe the days of mobile phones are numbered. Market research needs to be mobile-agnostic, really. It doesn’t need to marry formats. Just go to where the customers are and everybody will be happy at the end of the day.


You had a company before you started Pollfish, correct?


Correct, yes.


And that was an app that created apps, if I understand correctly.


Right. Correct. It was an app that created apps.


Which is a freakin’ awesome idea, by the way. I love that, conceptually.




Did you wind up folding that into Pollfish? Or did you close that, and was Pollfish a new initiative?


The second part. Pollfish is a new initiative. However, there was a first company—again, going into the entrepreneurial space without knowing anything about it. We had as a company a lot of great technology, we had great experiences. The company didn’t end up going anywhere, but that was my first MBA, essentially—I haven’t done an MBA. So I think the takeaways from that experience were so big: what is a company, how to create a company, how to communicate with clients. All those things might seem very straight-forward to people that run businesses, but if they take a step back and remember themselves before they did so, it’s a really good school to start a company. So for me it acted like an MBA. It was a great an amazing period of my life. It ended up being a failure as a business, but with a lot of takeaways.


What was one of your key takeaways in starting Pollfish?


From the previous business?


Yeah. In other words, what was one of the key learnings from the previous business that helped you start and, ultimately, scale Pollfish?


Well, it provided a head-start. Instead of learning all those things, you have some experience of how to do the first steps. That was the major one. It would be very hard for me to just name just one.


So you found a lot of value in the starting of the company, in terms of the formation of the entity—really what I consider to be more of the block-and-tackle of managing the bureaucracy. Was that one of the big takeaways?


One of the main key differences in the beginning was that we started the last company without having any clients. We started Pollfish only when we had the clients. Small things, but maybe a change of mindset and experience played a role. And I also think that those experiences play a role today for me. I love when technology enables business, rather than the other way around, but this is not always the case. By looking at our previous experiences, it acts as a reminder as well.


Yeah, absolutely. So what is getting you really excited about the marketing research space right now?


It’s changing, and that’s amazing. I don’t like things that stay still. I like change; I don’t like inertia. To be honest, I’m fascinated to see how this will end up. And when I’m thinking about market research, I always see a lot of similarities with advertising space. Programmatic advertising took 10 years to form the form it has today, and I see that market research lags five to seven years behind advertising. So I’m very curious and excited to see how the market research landscape will evolve; what is the programmatic market research that everybody sees today but nobody really understands what it really is because it’s not defined yet; and how the landscape will be in the next few years. I think that there’s going to be a lot of specialization—not in the use-cases as we have now, when we see companies doing specialization in healthcare or consumer insights, but more specialization in the functions. So we’re going to have companies that are amazing—and they’ve built technology, the best technology they have, with the best people to communicate with the clients—and other companies that have the best flow detection algorithm and the best user experiences, and all those companies working together, and this is when we will truly have a programmatic market research landscape. Right now, we’re having baby-steps, right? We’re at the very early beginnings.


Do you think that’s a framework for Blockchain to thrive in, this research market place? When I think about the disparate pieces of a market research project, specifically, there’s a lot of logistics involved, right? Whether I use Pollfish or, you pick the company, that’s a piece of a piece of a piece. Do you think that a Blockchain-based marketplace would be really the framework where we’ll see that technology thrive in market research?


I don’t think so. At the same time, I own some coins, but I’m no expert in Blockchain and their technology. But if I were to estimate that opportunity, I would take a look again in the advertising industry. Does Blockchain play a role in the advertising agency? Not yet, as far as I know of. I can see some applications regarding transparency and everybody having a ledger of who responded to what survey so we have the best data, but the same thing can happen to the advertising industry, as well, so that the one side knows what the other side is doing in any market place. So to be honest, I do not believe that in the next period we’re going to have blockchain playing a role—not in the advertising space, and especially not in the market research space. If coins become a really cost-effective way to reward people, maybe we will see some applications there, but that also applies to the advertising space as well. You have rewarding solutions and rewarding advertising units. So, again, I would first look in the advertising space before making any bet for the market research one.


I think that’s super interesting: using advertising as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ to dictate where we are going as an industry. And that makes perfect sense given that, obviously, that’s the primary customer of marketing research.


Yeah, I think it makes sense as well. I mean, as you said previously, the other companies are feeling the pressure to go on mobile. Five years ago, they felt the pressure to advertise on mobile. At the end of the day, it’s where they are going to find their consumers and where they’re going to spend their money—here’s where market research goes. But we all know that market research moves slowly, and things need to be proven before we do something, so that takes five to seven years, maybe.


So coming out of a company that didn’t do well… I’ve had a company, incidentally, that failed. It was called Webconstruction.com; it was one of my very first startups. I did it in 1993, where I created websites for companies, and I wound up closing it. I could do the technology side of it really well, I just couldn’t—it was ironic—handle the accounts-payable and accounts-receivable side effectively. Just really basic stuff that I was failing at. I could do that sales and the delivery side. Anyways, it was a tough time for me, closing that business and taking a job for a few years, which, thankfully, worked out to be a blessing in disguise. How did you emotionally transition or maintain a highly positive perspective moving into Pollfish? Was that ever an issue for you?


Very interesting question, and it was not that hard. It was very natural. First of all, we didn’t raise any money, either from friends or family, or VCs; or we didn’t have any clients that were missed or that we had a responsibility against. So, really, it wasn’t that big of an issue or that hard of a decision. And it’s important to know that it was something that happened right after university, with no strings attached.


Got it.


And the thing that made it easier was that Pollfish was, right away: there are no period of doing nothing. It was, “Here is Pollfish. If this business doesn’t go well, half of the team will move forward,” and we moved forward to Pollfish. So it wasn’t a bad period of bad experience whatsoever.

[00:27: 40]

So employees, of course, are the core of any business. In fact they are the asset of the business I have always argued. A contingent of our audience are from the University of Georgia, Michigan State… It would be great if you could talk to us a little bit about what you see as some key characteristics of an all-star employee, and how that really impacts your business.


An “all-star employee”. That question really depends on the time that you are asking and the state that the business is in. So at this point of time, where we’re running at 200 miles an hour, I think the all-star employee is somebody who is extremely adaptive to changes: “We’re going to this. We’re doing this. The first week we don’t see results, we’re going to retreat immediately.” So being able to handle that acceleration. And the other one is “self-motivation”. Doing so many things and being such a small company addressing such a big market, you need people to be self-motivated all the time. Down the road, maybe one or two years from now, that definition may change, right? You may have more people that can lead teams effectively and educate people and on-board people, but at this point in time “self-motivation” and “adaptiveness” define the all-star employee.


Yeah, I love that. I think, experientially, that “adaptability” has always been key; and then, similarly, “self-motivation”. I’ve only managed a 400-person company, but from that framework of zero to four-hundred, I’d say the people that have excelled are the ones that are always adding value above the standard deliverable, and that comes, I believe, at the core of this innate desire to do better, which is to your point all about that motivation. That critical eye that that employee provides on the work, and then the communication and how that informs the broader organization, is really vital, honestly.


I agree.


In fact, taking it a step further—sorry to be kicking the horse as it were—this concept of motivation and adaptability starts blurring the lines of responsibility a little bit, which can make people uncomfortable, when they like strict guidelines, but that’s where I’ve seen improvements to gross-margin, because people will reach outside of their specific deliverable in a project-process and say, “Oh, if I got the information or the data in a slightly different format then it would save me a certain amount of time.” That sort of dialogue, if it happens at an organic level, can make all the difference in the world for a company.


Yeah, and any trait, if it’s in a very exaggerated form, can be negative as well. So, don’t get me wrong: you need responsibility in there, you need communication, you need diligence from the employee for them to be a good employee; but if they have all this and they are also self-motivated and they do not provide an obstacle every single time the business is changing years or direction, that’s an all-star employee.


You’re absolutely right. And I think that’s a point well-taken. You have to own your deliverables, your lanes, what it is you have to get done in the context of budget and time. So you’re right, there is absolutely a ceiling and a floor to that framework for it to be successful. And the reality is, I think, we all have and will continue to balance that to some degree. But I like that “adaptability” and “self-motivation” as core to an all-star employee. You’ve built a very successful company. What is one of your secrets that drives your growth, profitability or success?


I’m going to go back in answering this question to a similar way I answered one of the previous questions. I think it’s naïveté. It’s going back with a fresh perspective. And I’ll give you very specific examples just to understand what I’m saying. The period that we launched Pollfish, the standard was panels and interviews—they still are, but there was a notion that you had to pay, in some way, with a gift card or actual money, the people that were responding to the survey. That was the standard, and we didn’t know that. And we went into the industry saying that what the consumer and the respondent values is not necessary thirty cents per response, or even one dollar, it’s the experience they are getting: that’s what they value the most. So going there and those things being very native to us, we did it. You don’t expect a yellow cab driver to invent Uber—all he knows is yellow cabs; he does that every day; maybe he’ll invent a better yellow cab. So coming from a very fresh perspective, we managed to change the dynamics and the unit economics of sampling. If we didn’t pay the consumers—this actually happened: we didn’t do the calculations to do that, it actually happened. Without paying the consumers, and only paying the channels that the consumers will have access to, and giving the consumers native, in-app experiences every single time they respond to a survey, we can pass that unit economics benefit back to the client and allow them to do research very cost-effectively. If we had to pay the consumers—that model is broken. And we also couldn’t understand how a person could do 150 questions in one session. I have never done a survey like that. And if I wasn’t research-based, it would grow on me. I would say, “All right, it happens.” So we only, in the beginning, were allowing people to do twelve questions, and then we increased that to seventeen questions. And we lost a lot of clients because of that in the early days. But we were very stubborn, and coming from a different world, and saw—I’d like to think—the disadvantages of the market research base, and we took a completely fresh approach.


Know your assumptions, right? This point is my favorite thing that we’ve talked about. I take it for granted myself and am guilty of it as anybody is. We need to understand what our core assumptions are and not assume that they are “truth” because we are probably, to your point, missing the bigger picture. And that’s why it’s so important that we surround ourselves with people that are outside of our industry, that are widely diverse from us on a diverse a perspective as you can get, because that’s where we can start triangulating and then finding “core truth”.


I completely agree with that. Yes. Also, it’s a very hard thing to do: once you think you know something, it’s extremely hard to accept a different way of thinking. So it’s also a very hard thing to do as well.


So what is Pollfish offering right now that’s finding purchase in the marketplace and offering a lot of value to your customers?


So essentially, there are three things. We allow our customers to tap into our survey network—it’s a very big survey network that reaches half a billion consumers—and we allow them to do so in a self-serve manner. So we brought two things: we brought speed and cost-effectiveness by not paying the end-consumer, by paying the channels, and implementing that new unit of economics. And at the same time, we said that we will only allow you to use our service if you know what you are doing, if you can build the survey on your own. That, again, is something that in 2013 nobody would do. So what we are presenting is that we want to make it extremely easy and no-brainer for a business to do research. That has a lot to do with the cost and a lot to do with the speed and ease-of-use, and I think we’re getting there. Maybe we’ve played a very small role in it, but the businesses also want that today. So whatever you are doing now, if you are in a company and you have a question, it’s a no-brainer to run a pollster survey and have more insights for things that when wouldn’t normally pick up a phone and run a survey campaign.


Does the SurveyMonkey IPO get you pretty excited? I know today’s an off-day in the market.


Yeah, you picked a day. But yeah, it’s the first after a lot of time, right? And I don’t think it’s a secret that more will come. It’s really nice to see how markets react to market research, but it’s a pretty different model and different industry—it’s not on the sample side, it’s more the provider and the tools. But yeah, I was very excited on the day of the IPO. I actually went to Times Square to see the whole thing with the NASDAQ images there. But I think that everybody in the industry is excited with that, to see how that will go.


Yeah, it’ll be neat to watch them and then Qualtrics, of course, coming out sooner rather than later, I believe.


Right. Yep. That’s my prediction as well.


My guest today has been John Papadakis, CEO of Pollfish. John, thank you so much for being of the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you so much for inviting me, and I enjoyed very much the conversation.