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Ep. 142 – Dom Ricchetti – Service Now – Understanding KPIs In Market Research

My guest today is Dom Ricchetti, Senior Staff Research Lead at ServiceNow. Headquartered in Santa Clara California, ServiceNow is a software-as-a-service provider, providing technical management support to the IT operations of large corporations. Prior to ServiceNow, Dom has been leading research at many of today’s top companies including in Microsoft, Intuit, Millward Brown, Dell, and Gartner.   

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 [01:01]

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 Dom Riccheti, Senior Staff Research Lead at ServiceNow. Headquartered in Santa Clara, California, ServiceNow is a software-as-a-service provider, providing technical management support to the IT operations of large corporations. Prior to ServiceNow, Dom has been leading market research at many of today’s top companies, including Microsoft, Intuit, Miller Brown, Dell, and Gartner.

Dom, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.   

[02:01]

Thanks so much for having me, Jamin.

[02:04]

I’d like to start out with a little bit about ServiceNow.  This is a massive corporation, impressive growth, yet I don’t think a lot of our listenership have heard about it.  Can you tell us a little bit about ServiceNow?

[02:17]

Sure thing.  We’ve been very successful, and it’s been an interesting story.  We started out really being a small engineering company, developing a platform.  Out of that platform, trying to figure out selling it in enterprise how best to apply it.  The logical conclusion to start with was in IT service management. So, most people know when they have a problem with IT, they call up IT; they create a ticket.  You make a request, or you have a problem – there’s a ticket. Somebody’s assigned a ticket to work on it, and it gets passed around. People use a knowledge base, look up information about what’s going on, what kind of things worked in the past, how to we solve this problem.  That whole process of IT service management fit our platform very well because it’s geared towards assigning things, managing the workflow process, integrating with other software and information in the knowledge base behind it. So, that’s really matured over the years to be this awesome, workflow-integration platform underlying everything, and we’ve started to extend it to many other business processes.  Besides IT service tasks, we’ve extended it into IT operations, and IT management, like asset management and other uses for IT. Then into external customer service – you have the same kinds of issues: when a customer calls up about your product, needs help, has a request, just how to use it, or break/fix kind of things. That’s also a service desk management, facilities and field service – same kind of issues and processes where the workflow and integration really benefits those areas.  

Then an area we’re really excited about – it’s been growing fast – is in HR.  You think of problems that HR internally in a company is trying to support their employees on a wide variety of issues.  An interesting scenario that we delivered is on-boarding new employees. You get a new employee you have to set them up with their computer, desk space, access right to networks, get them signed up on workday, APP payroll, United Health Care benefits.  You’ve got all these processes you have to manage and take somebody through. Different people manage those tasks, integration with different software; so, that whole workflow can be automated on our platform.

[04:57]

Is a large part of the pitch to your customers improvement to operational efficiency that then impacts gross margin or another way of thinking about it would be the benefit be improvement to workers’ output quality or overall enjoyment

[05:21]

Yeah, that’s a tough question.  I guess I’d have to say it’s both.  I think where customers realize the value is, first of all, in efficiency.  We thought maybe artificial intelligence and virtual agents would help the service desk have fewer people; there’d be fewer agents needed to answer stuff because there’s usually the top 20% that comes up 80% of the time.  People need to reset their password and stuff like that. Most companies have some way to automate that and a lot of consumer products do, and you can go down that list. But really what we found is that our customers are finding they can process more requests and do more things; so, they could start applying the resources that they have into more areas that may be important in helping the whole business process move better.  Then it becomes more about improving the way the company works, improving people’s life at work.

[06:43]   

Yeah, and improving the overall customer experience, right?  That’s really interesting how your customer base is adopting the technology, and instead of shaving off large pieces of their departments, they’re reassigning those resources to create better customer experiences.  

[07:03]

Yeah, that’s right.  

[07:05]

Recently, you won a – I should say ServiceNow won a Forbes #1 most innovative company.  That is a very prestigious award. Can you talk to us a little bit about that award and what that means to the company?    

[07:21]

Yeah, that was just a tremendous success.  People really got pumped up about the recognition of it and the perspective.  We’ve been working a long time on just growing the business and the application of the platform.  We’re used by about 40% of global 2,000 companies; so, we’re well penetrated into large companies around the world.  But a lot of that is just in particular areas – maybe IT service management or maybe even they’ve adopted HR as a first application, and the expansion of the platform into helping their business processes across departments is a huge thing driving our growth, which has been at 35% – 40% been running along at that rate. But a key part of this has been just trying to get across our positioning and our value of what the platform can do in a lot of work with people like Gartner and Forrester.  Now we find that we’re recognized as the leader or, at least, a visionary in many different Gartner magic quadrants, which is where a lot of the IT departments go to the find out which vendor has got right stuff to help them with where they need to move with their company. I think it’s been an outcome of that understanding of the value and application of the platform that’s driven this number 1 most innovative company.

[09:07]

In April of last year, you got a new CEO, John Donahoe, who was the previous CEO of eBay.  He’s well known as a marketer and branding genius. With his appointment, is… how’s that impacting ServiceNow?  

[09:33]

Yeah, it was quite interesting.  Little aside: John and I started on the same day; so, I hope both of us are contributing how much stock has moved up.  [laughter] But it was an interesting move by the company. He’s our third CEO really, and another phase in terms of the company’s growth.  We’ve been growing so fast that the board and the company has recognized that we need different talents, leading the company for the next phase of what we’re doing.  So, with John coming in, we’ve put a lot more emphasis now on developing brand and marketing so that people will hear more about ServiceNow, know what that means, and what we do.  As well as just discipline in managing strategic decisions and our internal processes, we do a lot of running ServiceNow Now, we call it, so the Now platform. We use our own tools and our own… or the release.  We’re the first testers of the applications of things. And we’re a big enough company you can push and break stuff and understand how to apply it best. We learn a lot from that internally.

[11:07]

It’s really interesting to me that you are applying your public platform to your internal processes.  I personally found at Decipher that platform was birthed out of me needing to program surveys efficiently and then it becomes the preferred platform for, I call it, institutional or research-heavy companies.  The reason why is because we have this certain level and certain job function with a consistent type of deliverable. Everybody has shared pain points and, if you can automate… if you can apply technology to automate those processes, then you just inherently improve people’s lives.  It sounds like that’s exactly the application at a much, much larger scale, of course, that you guys have been successfully applying.

[12:06]

Yeah, that’s a great point.  I’m sure from that experience, you realize too what we see is that it’s the most intimate use of the product.  And you can get so deep with yourself, as a customer, that you could really understand what’s happening and how to improve things.  Yeah, we get some work actually. It’s been in HR department. It’s been interesting because we’ve done some work for our HR to understand our employees and what are the moments that matter in an employee’s experience at work.  How can we make their life better, evolve the things that affect an employee’s life? We’ve done work on both sides: we’ve done work with customers for HR product and work internally about how we can improve HR. And they overlap.  Some of the information on both sides is driving: well, what do we do in our HR, in our own HR, and what do we do for HR product for other companies?

[13:15]

Yeah, and that creates this beautiful connective tissue between product delivery, R & D, and sales.  So you’ve got this, in my opinion, this perfect eco-system of constant product improvements. And then you guys understanding, because you’re using the platform, the implications of those improvements and how they’re used, which then just informs everything else that the company does all the way up to or down to, depending on your view, the end-user or the customer.  So, prior to joining ServiceNow, you served for eight years as the Senior Vice-President of Radius Market Research. This is a very large market research firm based in New York. Why the pivot from the agency to the brand side?

[14:10]

That’s a good question.  Let me tell you a little bit about how I ended up there.  I guess I can just go into some of my background. It’s kind of unique in the diversity of different roles that I’ve had and how things have evolved.  I feel like I’ve been asked similar questions along the way in my career. [chuckles] I’ve been back and forth from tech, brand, and product side with different companies, brand companies – let’s just say – in different types of research agencies, including doing product and market research in different kinds of industry analysis.  I think seeing the world from those multiple sides in building a multi-disciplined education experience has worked great for me in my career. It is something that I would advocate for other people because I feel especially if you want to be a researcher, you should be broad; you should understand the different people in different departments who you work with, and how they might be looking at problems also helps you understand customers.  But, of course, there’s some areas you should probably be deep in; pick those based on your own talents and what the call is for you in your career opportunities. I started actually as an engineer, studying computer science, Although I did a lot of math, it was wasn’t the same kind of statistics you would normally learn to do market research, but it gave great perspective, I think, and it was easy to extend from that kind of STEM education.  I learned a lot about critical thinking, formulating and testing hypotheses, and thinking about problems as we do in research. In research we typically think of it… We’re designing an experiment to test a hypothesis and then prove it or disprove it and develop new insights from that – if not that hypothesis, what’s a new one? That’s what you try to do in both a lot of engineering and science roles as well as in research. So with that, I started working on microprocessors and personal computers and graphic workstations at Digital Equipment way back.  For those who remember and know the name [chuckles], they were the number 2 computer company in the world next to IBM. IBM brought about personal computer; Digital Equipment competed. Digital Equipment was also a leader in networking. They were one of the first companies to develop chips and low-cost what was ethernet at the time and then the internet was build on and their involvement in the internet and integrating that with the PC in the way you’d work with distributed computers. So it’s quite an interesting perspective, but digital equipment no longer exists.  What went wrong really? I learned there first-hand how some of the best technical solutions just don’t necessarily succeed in the marketplace. They aren’t solving a real valued problem for customers that makes it worthwhile. Otherwise, it’s a… you’re overbuilding, a lot of people would say, or maybe you aren’t applying it in the right way to what brings value to the market and will sell well and endure. With Digital Equipment, I actually moved out to Palo Alto, California, which was interesting. The group out there was developing Unix-based workstations and was seen as a little bit rogue in the company, but we were very plugged into Silicon Valley and seeing what was happening in the market.  I changed roles out there in realizing this with engineering roles to then do market and competitive analysis to start to look at more about how could we apply technologies better and guide the engineering teams to being more successful in what we delivered in the end for the product.

[18:51]

Originally, you were a… started out on the engineering side.  What attracted you to Gartner? ‘Cause you’d spent a lot of time at Digital Equipment like twelve years.  Then to move to an insights function inside of Gartner twelve years later, that’s a BIG pivot.

[19:13]

Yeah, it was.  I think making this bit of a transition out in Palo Alto to looking more at…  looking at the market and doing competitive analysis and being part of the Silicon Valley world really opened my eyes to that.  And that’s what got me interested in moving to Gartner and more industry analyst roles. So I was at Gartner and then a little later after Dell too, I went back to Millward Brown, and Telequest Group as a VP of industry analysis.  So there I was starting to round out more disciplines in my career, more experience. At Dell, I was actually part of a strategic group underneath Finance. We were looking a mergers and acquisitions and other areas as Dell was developing…  as Dell was expanding in the server marketplace. I first joined them to do industry analysis about what was happening in the server market. Back then, it was more of just take a desktop PC, turn it on its side, put extra disks in it [chuckles], and you could build a server.  But Dell was up against Compaq and IBM, SunMicro Systems with Unix, and all other kinds of other players who had this great VAR network about being able to load and support applications and other things on a server to make it a more robust server, but Windows was great in driving…   There was particular areas of the market: the file and print servers [chuckles] That’s where you kept all your storage, right? And also Outlook and Exchange servers. So for mail, that was pretty much standardized. So it was easy for Dell to progressively start at the low end of standardization and push up levels of standardization and push more into the server market.  That’s what my analysis was showing, what we were looking in, what we started to drive. Then in the server markets, I was doing analysis of some of the shipments out there for Gartner Dataquest where I was working previously and IDC and found that at least half or more of the revenue to be made in the server market was about storage. So, that’s where Dell got into the partnership and initial work with network appliance and EMC (EMC now part of Dell in the end), made a lot of revenue and bit off bigger and bigger chunks of the server market.

But I also did more studying then too.  So this was the point in my career where instead of a typical MBA, I took Master’s courses in operations research.  I was extending out of engineering management roles and got into more marketing and finance. That breadth got me more exposed to statistical analysis, visualization, business communications, storytelling – put together more of the picture and understanding broader perspective of the business.  At Dell, it was very different in that it was driven more by the market and financial opportunities and trying to optimize finance and optimize efficiency of manufacturing, which was very different than my years at Digital Equipment, who is very technology-driven. That provided a different perspective.  At Dell, I worked on their initial submissions for the Malcolm Baldrige award, which is an extension out of Total Quality Management, in thinking about how in the end does product and manufacturing deliver for customers, solve problems for customers, and satisfy market requirements and needs. It was a real turn that kept happening in my career from engineering to understanding the market in being able to build skills that provided other perspectives on how to analyze markets and do research.

[24:04]

Yeah, I think one of things that I’ve learned…  Of course, you know this intuitively, but after you hear it…  Gosh, what is this? This is over 40 times for me interviewing people (actually closer to, gosh, over 50), sorry.  But is that this diversity of experience actually applies as tremendous amount of advantage to market research because it gives a more complete lense to the data for the researcher to then analyze and understand the consumer’s point of view.  And, secondarily, and maybe even more importantly, the ability to communicate that to the stakeholders effectively so that data then has change in the organization.

[24:49]

Yeah, that’s right.  In research, good practice is that you involve those different departments and get their perspectives.  So being able to relate to them, I think, is something that’s really important for a researcher. I found when I’ve done product innovation research, I came from a role where I was an engineer and was like, “Well, I understand this technology better than the customer.  What’s the customer really going to tell me about how to apply this technology?” Or, in things like artificial intelligence, there are discipline experts that understand that so well. They can engineer a great solution, but it comes back to how is that solving a problem for the customer.  How would you measure that you succeed on what you envision this technology’s going to do for a customer? Trying to understand that perspective in that it not only technically does things that they need but does them in a way that they can make use of it, that it’s intuitive, easy to use.

[26:06]

And then the ability to be able to connect that to an ROI…  Kristi Zuhlke of a company called KnowledgeHound out of Chicago, she was a guest on the show.   She actually talked about one of the tenets of Proctor & Gamble is every research project needs to have an ROI associated with it so that just connects the research with real business outcomes as opposed to more just fodder for a library wall.  

[26:37]

So, let me come back to answering your question about why I moved from Senior

Vice President at Radius to a tech company, being back on the brand side.  It’s my passion in developing and applying these techniques. I did a lot of it at Microsoft; they have a very large in-house, central market research organization; and at Intuit, they had a strong Six Sigma practice where you apply a lot of different research techniques to the end result.  Although I was very excited at working these things at Microsoft, I wanted to get more into the research techniques; so, I moved to a small research firm where we became part of Radius. That’s how I ended up a Senior VP at Radius. It was great that I was working with more business units than Microsoft, Google, Intel, and ServiceNow as well as some other smaller players, and I got my first exposure to ServiceNow, but also things outside of tech – so Starbucks, Nordstrom, REI, others in the Seattle area, and West Coast, where I had clients and could broaden that perspective of applying the techniques.  But in the end, ServiceNow – great company, great opportunity, and we’d been talking for a while; the stars aligned, and I saw that ServiceNow was really ready to start to put this discipline in place, mature their practice in research. It was a huge opportunity to leverage that back around, being able to apply and develop techniques to a technology company where we could try technical innovation. I’m loving it! [chuckles]

[28:44]

That’s awesome.  Congratulations. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about some issues that are facing big brands like ServiceNow.  How is market research being used by these brands to address those issues?

[29:00]     

Yeah, it’s interesting in the industry, and you go to the conference events and stuff too, there’s so much focus on Do-It-Yourself research and the tools, like what you developed at Decipher.  Broader perspective of the tools out there have enabled a lot of Do-It-Yourself research. I was seeing this at Radius Global too that… where traditionally large research firms made a lot of money on doing tracking studies.  Tracking study is not necessarily reinvented. There’s a lot of execution. You want to have accuracy about the dashboard and great insights and interpretation out of it, but it’s something easy enough for companies to do internally with the tools.  There’s been a major shift; there’s key pieces of research process that are easy enough to execute internally. And we’re doing that at ServiceNow and encourage people to take advantage of those tools, you get very intimate with the whole research process.  But I think one of the issues is that – and not to say full custom research firms are all going away. I think they’re reinventing themselves around the things that are trickier research problems and things where it’s harder to execute yourself or that it will take more perspective to derive the insights.  So a partner in a research firm that could bring experience in a discipline like customer experience, research driving loyalty and satisfaction areas, and bring that expertise to partner with you is highly valuable.

[31:10]

Just piggybacking on what I’m hearing:  it sounds like the utilization of longitudinal studies – large trackers. I’ll say – is…  trackers are, in fact, going away, not ever altogether but at least in the current framework, right?  And they are being replaced. What do you see as replacing those trackers? What types of projects?

[31:34]

Yeah, right.  You see it in the research industry that the numbers are shifting the types of work that they’re doing.  I think more of that is coming in-house: it’s easy enough to execute yourself because if it’s longitudinal, it’s repetitive by nature.  But I think there’s something more fundamental that’s changing, and I hope researchers are learning as well as companies that… You still see a lot of management wants the dashboard.  What is our net promoter score? Or even developing better and broader KPIs, net promoter scores, and everything over the past two decades of it being around or so. It is not the end game.  But having KPIs about what needles are you trying to move and tracking them is something that’s important. There’s the old Total Quality Management adage that you can’t change what you can’t measure.  But you also have to know how to change it. And that’s where I think research is shifting and becoming more valuable is that, instead of putting so much money into large longitudinal trackers and making sure you have the nth degree of accuracy on that dashboard seeing it move all the time quarterly, whatever, it’s more about doing the diagnostics.  What’s driving those KPIs? Do we have this KPI exactly right? Do we really understand what this means when we’re measuring it?  Do we understand it from the customer’s perspective? Our target customers or as we expand our market to other prospects, do we understand what it means to them?  You know, the full scope of it and clarity around what that KPI is. I’m a big advocate of the quantitative statistical analysis. We see there’s a huge amount of customer behavioral data just because the systems are in place and then especially with the cloud solution anything online what customers are doing in social media or on your website you build this vast knowledge; so, you have a great amount of data to be able to build models and do statistical analysis about what’s really driving those KPIs and diagnostic work, both qualitative and quantitative, to dig into those, understanding what those big levers are and how you can move them is so much more valuable than the dashboard.  I’ve been at a couple places now: Intuit, and I did some other work with Google, where after you learn enough about the big levers and build confidence in what’s driving those top level KPIs and things you want to watch on the dashboard, you refocus your attention. It’s no longer so much about the dashboard but putting campaigns, initiatives in place that we focus on those big levers. And we’ve done the diagnoses, learned something unique, and often a competitive advantage, about the way the market works or, at least, how the market works in your space of what you’re trying to achieve strategically.

[35:48]

Right.  It’s kind of like…  I can’t believe that I keep going back to this interview, but it is so poignant, with Rogier Verhulst at LinkedIn:  the “now what” and “so what,” which is NOT found inside of the dashboard buy is entirely found in the post-analysis work that is done, whether that’s incorporating external transactional behavioral data or doing deep-dive qual or whatever.  Are you using qualitative, any unique qualitative tools right now outside of focus groups and traditional IDIs?

[36:27]

That’s a good question because we’re looking at them and trying to figuring out what to apply where.  Use a lot of traditional techniques, but what’s been interesting at ServiceNow too is that we’ve always had a very deep dialogue with customers.  So we have a lot of interaction CEO to CEO on down through all levels of people, great executive briefings and dialogue about implementing and applying the platform.  Those unstructured, often one on one or meeting kind of conversations more so than structured focus groups that you repeat, are very valuable but they’re not as easy to leverage for insights over time and across the company.  So having types of qualitative tools where you could record that stuff… You mentioned like Knowledge Hound and ways that you could integrate qualitative with quantitative with past research are key to maturing the process and in having more impact, other than the insights, making it more valuable.

[37:54]

With all of your hypergrowth that you’re experiencing at ServiceNow, what do see as the three characteristics of an All-Star employee?

[38:04]

At ServiceNow we say we listen, learn, and act.  That, I think, is a nice, short way of focusing on this aspect of listening to customers.  I think part of that is that researchers really need to let customers talk. Facilitate the feedback, but let them talk.  Listen beyond what you expect or what you’re looking for to hear. Something that I heard early on in my career and I like to use when drilling into things is to ask three “why’s.”  So when you ask “why,” somebody’s saying that, ask then two more times. Often they have the things they build on when they’re talking about it, but when you ask the third “why” you’ll get something unique, sometimes something unrelated.  But it gets them to open up and think more. Give them time to talk.

So, listen, learn, and act is the first thing.  I think the second thing is telling good customer stories.  There’s a saying of “Speak truth to power.” Internally, up the ladder at the company, telling good, honest stories about what customers’ situations are and how we can solve problems, how a competitors is solving the problems, or what’s happening in the market is essential to helping the organization understand the truth about what’s happening out there.  Pick your battles and build honesty and trust; be honest and build trust. But it’s about creating good contexts too for what you’re hearing. The third area is just getting that breadth of involvement across departments, leading participation, teaching things like Six Sigma practices, jobs to be done, outcome-driven innovation, how to apply different techniques.  We’ve done a lot of pricing studies. What is discreet choice modeling? Why is that best for doing pricing studies? How could we optimize the way we bundle package products? So teaching the organization how to better utilize the tools available, use the insights, create KPIs, and be clear about them, understand that you have to focus on the diagnostics besides just spending a lot of time watching that dashboard – is it moving or not?  It’s better if we spend the time and effort on the diagnostics; then we can understand how to change things and where to focus our work. That kind of leadership across departments to get them to participate and understand how the tools work in research and how to apply it, I think, is the key third thing that’s important to researches and employees at ServiceNow.

[41:23]

Yeah, so listen up Insights Nation and those of you that are looking to get employed in the market research space.  You’ve got to listen, learn, and act. It isn’t enough just to do one of two of those options. And that means you’ve got to be open-minded and check your biases at the door as much as possible.  And then the action – the feet to what you learn – is really important. The application to the business requires a business context of those insights. Then tell the customer story, and then lastly, lead participation.  That is critical.

My guest today has been Dom Riccheti, Senior Staff Research Lead at ServiceNow.  Thank you very much, Dom, for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast.

[42:11]

It’s been great.  I enjoyed it so much.

[42:13]

And thank you, everyone, who’s been listening.  As always, our oxygen is your word-of-mouth referrals to this podcast.  Please give us your ratings. We love to hear from you. Have a wonderful rest of your day!

Ep. 141 – Katrina Noelle – KNow Research – Qualitative Market Research Is On The Rise: 3 Keys To Maximize Its Impact

Today, my guest is Katrina Noelle, President of KNow Research, a qualitative consultancy based in San Francisco. Additionally, she is the co-Founder of Scoot Insights, a firm offering an agile qualitative methodology for decision-making. Katrina is an active member of QRCA which is the Qualitative Research Consultant Association, the Insights Association, Women In Research (WIRe) and ESOMAR. She is proud of KNow’s status as a certified woman owned business, and serves as a mentor through both WBE and WIRe’s mentorship programs.

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[00:48]

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. Today my guest is Katrina Noelle, President of KNow Research, a qualitative consultancy based in San Francisco.  Additionally, she is the co-founder of Scoot Insights, a firm offering an agile, qualitative methodology for decision-making. Katrina is an active member of QRCA, which is the Qualitative Research Consultant Association, the Insights Association, Women in Research, and SMR. She’s proud of KNow’s status as a certified woman-owned business and serves as a mentor through both WBE and WIRe’s mentorship programs.

Katrina, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast with me today.   

[02:01]

Glad to be here.

[02:02]   

So, tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you parents influenced your career.

[02:07]

Yeah, so I grew up in the Bay Area before it was the Bay Area that we know today.  It was more about Hayes and Fisherman’s Wharf and things like that. It was not the tech center that it is now.  But I think the biggest influence on where I ended up was the fact that my parents owned their own business. So, I grew up as the second child next to an audio-recording studio, which is still going strong.  The main thing that really influenced me was the fact that that is okay to start your own business and to start it pretty young; that it’s kind of a default option rather than a rare enterprise. So I started my business fairly young, based on that inferred approval of the small business.        

[03:01]

Did you parents have any specific hard times that you recall they went through with their small business?

[03:09]   

I think it is tough.  I mean they co-owned a business and ran a family together.  So there were some general negotiations, shall we say, that went on while I was growing up.  But I think that is an industry that changes very much with the times and has to. And a lot has happened with audio over the past few decades.  So, I think just seeing the constant need to stay ahead of the game and keep track of what new technology and expectations are… Their client base has changed radically over the last years.   So, just watching that constant need to be agile and to transform with your industry… It was a challenge, but it was also very informative to watch.

[03:56]

Yeah, that specific industry has gone through massive disruption.  And it sounds like they were able to traverse these periods of time successfully.  As you think back on their ability to work together to negotiate both successful family and then successful business, were there some key takeaways that you learned, some behaviors that you adopted?

[04:26]

Yeah, I think one of the most prevalent things was the agility about what was going to walk in the door and present itself may not be why you set up the business.  They started with very small-scale production jobs: people who wanted to record books on tape or their own CD, or things like that. And it morphed into corporations needing voice mail and other kind of needs from the voice perspective.  So, that’s kind of sat in my mind as based on what you do, who might need this. And who might need this isn’t someone you might think of as the most immediate connection. So I think that that’s really stuck with me, that you have a set of assets and a set of services that you provide and to think really broadly about how to offer that and where to offer that set of services.

[05:20]

So, growing up in an entrepreneurial family is pretty exciting, I would imagine, and then setting off ultimately to start your own business.  How did you find yourself in market research?

[05:32]

As anyone who’s starting off in market research knows, it’s very irritating when people say they fell into it.  I think these days you can intentionally fall a bit better. But, when I started out, it was definitely not anything I knew about in college; it was nothing that I knew to study or prepare for.  I found myself right out of college in a marketing department sort of by…. You know I had a communications degree; I guess that’s what you went and did. And fairly soon after starting work, I ended up being borrowed by the Insights Department to go take notes on a set of focus groups, and I begged my boss at the time because, honestly, I just wanted to take the trip, right?  I just wanted to be able to travel around. “Sure, whatever this focus group thing is, I’ll take notes.” And it was within a couple of days of observing that process that I thought, “Wait, hang on. This is what I want to do.” It was more about which end of stick you’re holding, right? Instead of telling people what they might want and need, really listening to them and providing that feedback and loop back into the company about what they actually wanted and needed from the brand.  It just sort of struck me in the middle of that trip, and I don’t think I’ve ever really looked back from that. It took me a long time to get into the industry. I was trying to figure out how to do that. I was working abroad at the time. It was a visa thing; it was a lot of different things at the time. So it took me much longer to be doing what I wanted to do than finding out that’s what I wanted to do.

[07:10]

That’s super interesting.  So, originally the motivation there was simply just to exposure of other areas.  So, travel was kind of the big, baited hook for you into qualitative research.

[07:24]

Yeah.  I mean thank God, right, because that is a lot of your life when you decide to get into this field; so, you do have to have a certain amount of love for new places and continually stay curious about meeting new people and new places because that’s a big part of the job still.

[07:40]

So, when you’ve done it as long as you’ve have, do you…  obviously… The second or third or fourth time to London is really exciting still, right?  But like the twentieth time or whatever time? [laughter] I’m not saying like it goes away, but the enthusiasm sort of…  Do you have that, still that connection and drive and love for that aspect of the business or is it turned a little bit more into the work/grind?

[08:10]

It’s difficult.  I definitely preach better than I practice on that front.  Junior folks on my team know I tell them we have a trip coming up.  “Do you have any friends in New York? ‘Cause you should probably pad it.”  I tell them to do that, and I end up taking a red-eye. So, I try not to lose the love and the interest in it.  I think what’s it’s turned into for me is more than seeing different cities. That’s kind of a different soapbox that I’ll get to in just a second.  But you end up going back to the same places over and over again, it does lose a little bit of the mystique, but what it doesn’t lose is the fact that you don’t live in a bubble.  So, especially being based in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, it’s very different than most places in the state or country or certainly world, right? So, I think just the fact that we as a profession are lucky enough to meet people from so many different places and hear input and thoughts and really considered observations on life from a really diverse set of people, that to me never gets old.  It doesn’t matter what plane you’re on to what city, the fact that your world is that broad continues to be a hugely exciting benefit.

[09:27]

How does that inform then the insights that you derive from the qualitative efforts?

[09:34]

For a long time, qualitative has insisted quite rightly to touch base with a few different markets for any study, right?  These days it’s turned into doing a lot of digital qualitative and getting people on webcams from all across the country to get that multifaceted viewpoint.  So how we’ve done it has changed but, I think that impetus to get as many viewpoints in the mix as possible, you need to broaden the set. We know we’re not quant; we know we can’t get you statistical significance about X-region or X-country, but we can certainly get you depth and that depth is eroded by the fact that, if you only get depth in one area, right?  The whole point of getting depth is to have it be a very broad set of depth. So, I’m sort of talking in like a meta-speak right now, but I do think it’s important to get as many voices heard as possible. And, of course, that varies by project. So, if your client has a few targeted audiences, that’s what you’re going to dive into. But you still need to make sure you have representation from all the facets of that audience, which brings me back to the soapbox I was alluding to earlier.  We do go to the same cities repeatedly. I mean I can’t tell you how many times in the last year I’ve been to L.A., Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Dallas; this is where we go repeatedly. But there’s a lot of us who are pushing to get to second tier markets, to get to markets that aren’t heard quite as often – not only from a fresh participant point of view but just a diversity of perspectives in the insights really.

[11:18]

Yeah, totally.  There is definitely… I call the triple A teams, right?  The markets that tend to get neglected are the ones. But some good-sized populations have triple A ball teams like the one I am in right now – Fresno.  You got a million people that are in the center part of California, and they could not look more different than everybody else in the state: varying shades in some cases.  So you wind up… Go ahead.

[11:46]

I was going to say…  So, in those cases, actually we have done a couple of studies this year that have been in two markets:  San Francisco and Sacramento. It sounds kind of funny, but it’s very true. It’s very true that that’s two separate markets.  And, if you have a client whose travel budget…they still want to do in person, but they don’t have a huge travel budget; you have to think creatively like that.

[12:08]   

100%.  So, one of things that you had brought up a little bit ago is this general notion of pulling truth out of the groups.  My boss taught me this kind of saying (He certainly didn’t invent this; it’s been around forever), “Do what I want, not what I say.”  And that’s a big part… I mean I feel like that’s the crux of effective research, is intuiting what exactly the person really desires as opposed to trying to build the building based on the schematic that they verbally try to communicate, right?  So, how do you pull that out? Are there tips in your interviewing that you can give our listeners on ways that you’re able to kind of get to what the person is intending to say as opposed to just the quote?

[13:04]

Yeah, it’s a very hard thing to put like five tips to hear what they’re really saying.  That’s a hard article to write. A lot of it is very intuitive, right? It’s listening empathically and being intuitive.  

[13:17]

I just have to say that is the best SEO hook we could ever come up with.  [laughter]

[13:22]

Right?  Yes. Effective interviewing in five minutes.  I mean it’s just difficult. You have to get into it.  There’s a reason why clients ask what your moderation experience is and what kind of brands you’ve worked on and what kind of insights you’ve drawn because it takes practice.  There’s certain people who definitely come to it with a more innate ability to listen for the truth behind the words, right? I usually say it’s a process of being with the person.  Obviously, this is easier to do one-on-one than in a group, but it’s still possible to be in the moment, to be with whoever is telling you what they’re telling you. And if you are truly not worrying about your rapport or not worrying about your client behind the glass or… and have your discussion guide down so that you don’t have to refer to it by the letter, and you’re able to just communicate and say and be there with them, you’re going to be a lot further towards that goal.  The other thing we do which is actually much more of a tactic is once that discussion guide – the sort of formal interview guide to make sure that the client knows that you’re going to ask about all the important points is written – we then write a check list. So we say, “Okay. After this hour, I need to have understood these ten things from this person’s point of view. No matter what the questions are, how they are written, in what order they are – I need to walk out of this room with those ten answers.”  And that really sets your mind to listen, to understand them rather than to go through a set of bullet points in a “guide.” You just need to make sure you understand that many things about that person. And then you sit down with the next person; you understand that many things about them. So that’s as much process as we put around that.

[15:10]

I think that’s great, and then you move towards that empathy and pattern recognition, right?  In a lot of ways, as you’ve already said, interviewers or qualitative researchers in general are naturally intuitive.  With your team, are you cultivating that EQ?

[15:34]

Yes, I think it’s very hard to teach if it’s missing at all.  And I don’t, honestly, think very many people get involved in qualitative research if they don’t have a degree of EQ.  If they are not emotional, empathetic listeners to begin with, there’s frankly not a lot of interest to get into the profession, right?  You have to be passionate about it; you have to be curious about people; and you have to want to listen to them. It’s sort of entry level into qualitative.  If you don’t, then you can just do something else. It’s a lot of self-selecting: “This is what interests me. This is why I’m in the industry. Okay, now I need to know how to do it well because I have the interest in it.”  But maybe honing the skill is more necessary at that point. We practice a lot on each other. We’ll sit down; if someone is training, we pick another team member and have them run through that interview. We do observations so that a junior moderator will always watch a more senior moderator and sort of see how that process works, how it’s pulled off the paper because I think it’s very tempting to stick to the paper – it’s very tempting to stick to the guide.   But a lot of those insights aren’t going to come unless you can get off script, so to say, and run that conversation. So it’s a lot of practice partnering up, learning from each other that has to happen. There’s not a lot of remote “sit and read this,” “watch this course” that will really help you do it in the moment.

[17:09]

I really just complete transparency…  I really struggle with that or struggled even more so – I still do – but it’s been a journey having these conversations.  I critique myself afterwards. So, of course, have to listen to the damn episode multiple times; by the end of it, I feel like I need counseling.  [laughter] I’m a very bad self-critic, but the thing that I keep coming back to, as I self-audit, is this ask open-ended questions and don’t step on the points.  You can get better at the craft, but it takes a truck load of willingness to look, to develop self-awareness, I guess, and be willing to separate your ego from the opportunity for improvement.  

[18:07]   

It’s true and that’s a big part of this “one mouth, two ears” kind of ratio that goes on because you cannot be a moderator with an ego.  No one is there is hear you. The client is not paying to hear your wise statements or poetic turns of phrase. They’re here to hear the participants.  You’re really a conduit: you’re trying to bring something out of another person. And I think that is really key. I think that a lot of people think you have to be an extrovert, and you have to be a showman.  There’s a little bit of that to this. It’s very much not. Some of the best moderators that I’ve worked with check themselves at the door. This is really about the person in the room with you.

[18:56]

Right.  That’s exactly the picture that the customer is paying for:  what is the view of the respondent? In 2003, you got certified from the Burke Institute for qualitative market research facilitator training program.  How important do you see continuing education in a modern context now with Lynda.com and all these different online tutorials, etc., etc., versus more of the institutional way of self-improvement?   

[19:29]

To be honest, the main reason I went and got my certificate is because I had been banging my head on the wall for a little while, trying to get someone to train me

in-house and I finally… There were a series of corporate maneuvers that left me between departments continually.  I was a little bit of a mess when I was a younger researcher. And I said, “Forget this! I’m just going to go save up and get myself trained and then I’ll be legit.”  I talk to my younger self quite frequently, amazed at the kind of ego behind that particular maneuver. I recommend a lot of people to start off with an agency, and preferably a smaller one, that will let you do a lot of the work to learn on the job rather than thinking a certificate course in two weeks is really going to get where you need to be.  That said, I had an amazing training at Burke. I still remember poignantly quite a lot of the lessons and try to teach a lot of the lessons from that course. So I think that the robust training institutions are very appropriate if you’re interested in going out on your own, if you’re starting from scratch, if you don’t have a way to be mentored or learn within your organization and you really want to just dedicate a week or two to this process – invaluable.   

I think in an ongoing sense, it’s slightly different.  And you do want to kind of learn one thing at a time. The industry has changed so rapidly and grown in so many directions at once, it’s very hard to wrap your head around everything you “should be learning and doing at any given point.”  So I think the bite-size trainings now are so helpful: if you can just concentrate on a workshop, a day session, one webinar, and actually make sure you practice something from it within that week and sort of take a bite out of everything and decide what you want to get further into.  There are so many buzz words, and there are so many things you could be chasing after, you almost have to learn a little bit about something to understand, “Okay. Is this what myself or my firm wants to go tackle or is this something I just need to know enough about to have a conversation about and identify why we do something a little bit differently or a little bit not on that track?”  That’s a roundabout way of answering that question, but I think I might have gotten there.

[22:01]

Yeah, no, you definitely got there in a couple of different ways that is very valuable.  You’d mentioned earlier about qualitative tools. There’s been such a transition over the last 20 years in the creation and adoption of qualitative technology that’s just speeding things up, right?  And then on top of it, you’re seeing through sentiment analysis or face recognition or “you pick the thing,” a rise in qualitative scale, which is finally giving qualitative the scope to have a big enough base to say this might be representative of a sample.  Are you employing…. What qualitative technologies have you been using and how are seeing that evolve over the next couple years?

[22:59]

Yeah, that’s a big question.  I remember – it wasn’t that long ago – in 2014 or 2015, I think, I presented a very brief PowerPoint presentation of the tools you need to know.  And somebody asked me last year if I could update that. “No, I can’t anymore. Sorry.” There’s such perfusion; there’s such a perfusion of tools that are not only built for us but that we can use.  And I think that’s a lot of the difference. A lot of it is there are a lot of tools that are both purpose-built for the industry or you can tweak them so that they can be used by the industry. If you look at that in aggregate, it’s too much for any one firm to really get a hold of.  I think for our business, we try to make sure we have a set of tools that allow us to do synchronous, remote qualitative. So, anything where anyone is being interviewed somewhere where we are not physically, we need a set of tools to help us do that. Then we need a set of tools to help us moderate asynchronously:  so, if anyone is doing diaries or shopping or bulletin boards or any of that – it’s remote and we’re not there – we need a set of tools to do that. The third set you need are a set of tools if you’re there in person because you’re not enough these days. You need some tools bolstering that, recording it, getting all of that ready to be delivered to your client.  So those are the three buckets that we think of.

So we’re a smaller agency; we want to make sure we keep a lot of that capability

in-house and sort of judiciously bring in vendors and partners when we need them.  What we have not stepped into is forming a set of tools of our own to tackle some of the things you’ve mentioned, like text analytics or eye-tracking or things like that.  There companies that do that well. And if there needs to be a partnership… or our client asks us for something specific, we will pull them in and we will work with preferred partners.  I think you definitely need to make a decision what you’re going to keep close (develop your own guidelines, methods, tools, and relationships for) and what you’re going to treat as a partnership.  I think in a lot of boutique or smaller providers are just not in the place to be able to offer everything internally. And I think that’s okay if you’re upfront about it and you say, “These are our methods and techniques.  And for what you’re asking for, we have an amazing partner who does X. And so we’re going to put our pieces together and give you exactly what you need and work in tandem to do so.” And I haven’t found a lot of clients who are not okay with that kind of solution.  

[25:47]

How are you handling the…?  (I call it the “note under the door.”)  You know what I’m talking about, right? So, for those that don’t, the customer oftentimes sitting behind the glass will want to have communication or say in the direction of the dialog.  And so there’s a variety of different ways (all of them obtrusive) to pass that note. How are you handling that? Is there like a technology hack that you’re using nowadays or…?

[26:15]

I’m laughing because a very, very dear client of mine last week said, “Now, remind me, Katrina…  Can I text you?” And, apparently, I gave her a look that meant, “No.” [laughter] She’s like, “I’m sorry I must be thinking of someone else.”  because you’re right: it is one of the most distracting things. Not only does it remind participants that someone is watching them, right, which you’re trying to kind of dissuade them from remembering, but often it is something that you’re getting to or haven’t quite circled back to, or used those words, or something like that.  But, on the other hand, we work in a business where we’re third parties; we don’t know people’s business as well as they do. And sometimes those notes are really essential because we have gone down a path that maybe they can’t execute on or we’re brainstorming in an area that they know this product is not going to reach into. And, while it may be interesting for us – “Ah, it’s interesting that people want this,” that is not where we need to be discussing.  So it’s important to have a way to get a note under the door definitely. What we tend to say is we, in our guides, we create break points. We give our participants something to do, something to work on, some sort of worksheet, or just something without looking at their watches, right? And the client then knows, okay, at these two or three points, she’ll come back here and talk to us. So there’s just a reassurance of, “My moderator will come back and check in with me,” maybe it becomes a little less dire to put the note under the door in the moment.  And we try to create those with subject-change points so that anything that did not get covered in subject A, there’s a time to discuss that and ask those questions before you move on to subject B. Now this is similar when you’re doing something remotely in chat boxes to the moderator; we try to keep that same cadence. It’s much easier for people to put a note through the door when all they have to do is chat in a message box. But we try to keep that same rhythm in place. And also set a cadence whenever we’re doing anything asynchronously of saying “Send me your notes from Day 1.”  “Did everybody read Day 1 responses?” “Okay, feedback on that?” And give them a moment to send their notes so that we can integrate it and make it as fluid as possible.

[28:42]

So, how are companies (your clients, specifically) using qualitative research today?  And is it different from when you first started.

[28:52]

Yeah, I think it’s more entwined with other things they’re doing, which is a very good thing.  The worlds of qual and quant, like you just mentioned a few minutes ago, are getting closer. And, honestly, at the end of the day, the client wants insights.  It’s not about, “Did this come out of a focus group?” “Or did this come back in a customer satisfaction survey?” or “Did we hear this on Twitter?” They just want to know.  I think the integration or the fact that a lot different reports from a lot of different sources are being compiled together on the client side is happening much more – there’s more data sources.  But there’s also more emphasis on seeing it all under the same roof, which is great. But it also means that, as a qualitative supplier, we need spend a lot of time telling people what else are you doing, where’s this going, what is this getting pulled together with, laddering up to, supporting because we know we’re a bookend business.  Sometimes we’re the meat, but often there’s a big, juicy survey or some other kind of component of the work being done and we ARE in the business of complementing it and supporting it, And so it just means a bigger conversation about what the full scope of work is and what role our pieces are playing in it so that we can then create deliverables that can sync up with the other things being done on the client side.  

[30:25]

Are you seeing a shift in spend in qualitative over the last whatever it’s been… in your career?  In other words, are more dollars being sent this direction?

[30:38]

On a macro-level, I’m probably not the person to answer that, but in our experience, what we’ve seen is that if you are going to do “full-scale, traditional qualitative,” that’s happening less frequently and with a higher price tag because I think a lot of people are able to do quicker usability studies or customer-journey work or use their own tools, do DIY, mine their communities.  So some of the smaller-scale projects in qualitative are, we’ve noticed, being done in-house. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but we’ve seen that increase over the last few years.

[31:27]

So, small amount…  I want to make sure I understand.  So, it sounded like you said or what I heard you say is smaller projects are being… are more likely to be done in-house versus through an agency whereas larger ones are going to have a larger price tag but those are going to be partnered.  

[31:42]

Well, that was more concise, yes.  [laughter]

[31:45]

I just wanted to make sure I grabbed that one.  Obviously, you said I just… You know it’s an important distinction because we’re seeing the same thing on the quant side, right?  The flurry of DIY tools, whether it’s from Survey Monkey to “you pick the platform”… people are now empowered (I’ve been saying this for a couple years) from the intern to the CEO, they’re all doing surveys.  But when it comes to… it’s either… there’s a CYA element or it’s this really important project and it’s going to have a lot of eyeballs on it. That’s when you’re more likely to get the outsource scenario being conducted whether it’s through Ipsos or whatever.      

[32:34]   

I wonder…  I mean you guys probably have these similar conversations in quant where you say, “What do you not know?  So, what are you not getting?” because most clients now are getting something. There is a feedback loop. They’re using it.  When I started, it was like, “Oh, my God, how do we talk to our customers? Show us the light.” Now, there are so many processes in place to be able to collect data.  So, it’s like, “Okay, what are you not getting? What can we supplement?” It’s kind of hard to get lapsed users to organically talk to you or a new market segment or talk about a product that you haven’t released yet ‘cause no one can give you that data right now unless you push it out as a specific project.  So, I think it’s having that kind of conversation; it’s acknowledging how much is done in-house. And it’s not something to fight. It’s something to understand and say, “This is great because I am starting a step ahead of where I would have if you didn’t do this ‘cause now we can go after something really juicy.”  

[33:35]

But in the quant realm, there’s these longitudinal studies, which are large and whatever, and then there’s more ad hoc, right?  So, there’s budget considerations that are done on an annualized basis for longitudinal studies and then there’s, “Oh, we need to do this project because this executive wants an answer,” which are much more ad hoc in nature.  Does qualitative follow the same budget guidelines?

[33:58]

Yeah, so our equivalent to that would be ongoing communities versus ad hoc projects.  A lot of our clients do. And that’s to be determined if that’s done in-house or through a vendor, through a supplier.  But it’s a very good idea to get a group of people at your disposal to answer questions. And sometimes that can be a qual/quant situation, right?  You can still ask that panel of people survey questions, but it’s really nice to be able to throw a qualitative conversation in the mix every once in a while.  And we actually then partner a lot with our clients who have those communities set up to say, “Great! You have a community. Can we recruit out of that? Can we do these ad hoc projects actually from your long-term community?”  I think it’s again kind of playing around with the methods and playing around with the options to see what you can use. In my experience, a lot of those qualitative communities are run in-house on the client side, but there’s a number of people that I know (and we’ve done this with a couple clients in the past year) to have a small-scale, qualitative community, purpose-built for them.  It is usually to track something specific. “We’re going to change our marketing messages in the next six months. Let’s get this community involved to talk to us along the way. We’re rolling out in this new market. Let’s go find people in that market and have them communicate with us qualitatively while we do it.” So it’s longer term, but it’s often more specific.

[35:36]

So, how are you recruiting the people and then are you recruiting them to an Excel database or is there some sophisticated technology there?

[35:44]

Yeah, we usually use a platform.  It definitely depends on the needs of the study.  There’s a lot of great options out there, and it definitely depends on what you need it to do, but we definitely need a repository of some kind.  Now, recruiting can happen a couple of different ways: what we’re doing a lot more of is intercept recruiting. We have a lot of retail clients and, if we can get permission to be in stores or in shopping areas for them, we often recruit live.  It’s something we’ve been pushing a lot in current years to kind of do a lot of recruiting that way. Not mall intercepts with a clip board – we try to not come across like that. It’s more about finding people where they are in the moment to talk about that topic.  So, if they’re holding a bag, they kind of qualify, right? So you have a little less worry about fit and accuracy. “Do they really buy from this place?” “Are they really involved in the brand?” If they walk out of the store with a bag, you’re probably likely to get somebody who’s a “real” customer and most likely fresh from a market research perspective.  So we do a lot of that to build communities. We have to get trickier when it’s something that you can’t do out in public or it’s a different topic or it’s a different client, where it makes that less relevant. We can do pop-up booths where we entice people to come in with some sort of incentive to give some sort of feedback on a topic and then say, “Are you interested in doing another research activity or getting involved in the community?”  And then we work with a lot of client lists to do that as well. So there are a number of different ways of populating and then, I should say, the other important part of that is refreshing because not everybody who starts is going to be there with you six months later. So, of course, you have to continually refresh. But the platform itself really depends on how robust it’s going to be. Is it just somewhere that you have to send out a couple questions? Or people needing to record videos?  Are they needing to perform shopping exercises? Do you want them to do card sorts or creative activities? So, we have about three or four go-to platforms and pick depending on what we think that community is going to need to do on it.

[38:04]

So, what are you offering right now that is finding traction among your clients that you’d like our listenership to know about.

[38:12]

Honestly, the pop-up recruiting is really helping people.  Clients are kind of loving the fact that these are authentic people found in the moment whether it’s pop up or within a specific store. We’re really enjoying being able to offer that with almost the same turnaround time if not shorter than going out to panels.  So we’re a big fan of that approach. The other thing that we’ve been doing is trying to take our deliverables up to the next level in a few different ways. Most recently, we’ve been partnering with Nimble MR and doing podcast or audio reports. So, you asked me before if I was a podcast listener:  Yes, and apparently a producer if you call an audio report a podcast. But any of those kinds of things that either increase the quality of the data in or increase the engagement with the deliverable that comes out of the process. We’re really kind of concentrating in those two areas these days.

[39:24]   

So, I’ve got to go back to this whole like…  the trend thing that, you’ve really got me interested in this.  The theme that I’ve heard 50% of the time among the 36-38 people I’ve interviewed so far is consistently the human story is what resonates inside the organization that moves it to change, but it has to have the quantitative data behind it.  Are you seeing a closer tie with qualitative and quantitative, or are you seeing them still as the disparate bookends?

[40:05]

It’s tough.  To some degree, they are different animals in terms of how you conduct the research, but I think where they cross more now and where they need to be more integrated in how you feedback… how you read out on that.  So, I think what I’m finding is a much more entwined presentation of qual and quant or synthesis of the data all along the way and in the reporting deliverables where a few years ago I wasn’t seeing that as much. As a qual provider, you were lucky to be shown the quant report at some point like if you managed to get an email by mistake or something.  There was no withholding about it; it’s just like was not seen as necessary for what you were doing. It’s like here’s basically what we learned in the quant; now, let’s go do some qual. Now, we do a lot of persona development and do that very closely with a quantitative partner so that it’s almost like this entwined process where we learn from each other along the way; we recruit the qual participants from the quant survey that built the personas and it’s all very…  it’s all synthesized. And I think that’s what I’m seeing more of and so the result is this synthesized piece of information where the client gets things from both sources at once. But it is a bit tricky. The field work definitely has different processes and procedures, and that has stayed separate in most of the work I’ve done to date.

[41:44]

My guest today has been Katrina Noelle, president of KNow Research and co-founder of Scoot Insights.  Katrina, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.

[41:57]

Thanks for having me.

[41:58]

And thank you everyone who’s been liking our podcasts and providing feedback on Apple Tunes and Google Play.  Special thanks to RonerForever; he said or she said, “This is a must-listen-to podcast for anyone interested in quantitative projects.”  I got to tell you I think we just added a qual to the equation. Hope you guys found value. Please share episodes. Have a great rest of your day!

Ep. 140 – Nancy Hernon – G3 Translate – Speaking The Language Of Market Research

Today, my guest is Nancy Hernon, CEO & Co-founder of G3 Translate and an official Member of Forbes New York Business Council. G3 Translate is a translation and transcription resource for the market research industry offering access to today’s top translation professionals and the very latest translation software platforms.

Prior to founding G3 Translate, Nancy has spent most of her career in the translation space.

FIND NANCY ONLINE:

https://g3translate.com/

Linkedin

FIND US ONLINE

:www.happymr.com

Social Media: @happymrxp

LinkedIn


[00:58]

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 Nancy Hernon, CEO and co-founder of G3 Translate, and an official member of the Forbes New York Business Council.  G3 Translate is a transcription and translation resource for the market research industry offering access to today’s top translation professionals and the very latest in translation and transcription software.  Prior to founding G3 Translate, Nancy has spent most of her career in the translation space.

Nancy, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast with me today.   

[02:02]

Hi, Jamin.  Thank you for having me on.  

[02:04]

So, tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how your parents influenced your career.

[02:12]

Certainly.  Well, I grew up in a small town in northeastern Ohio, kind of midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  So it was a town divided between the Browns and the Steelers. I grew up with my mom, and she actually influenced me by constantly pushing that I needed to be independent and that I should definitely go for my dreams and never hold back.  And when I was 16 years old, I went to her and said, “Listen, Mom, you’re always telling me to be independent; so, I want to go live abroad for a year in a totally foreign country with total strangers. And you have to let me go.” She was not too happy about that level of independence.  But in the end, I convinced her, and she let me move to Germany. And that kind of changed my whole path in life. It really opened me up and broadened my perspective and helped me to get on the path that I’m on now with the translation business. Living in a foreign country was great. 

[03:21]

As a parent, I’d imagine that would be terrifying if your child came to you with that same sort of request.    

[03:28]

You know I think about it a lot, and it’s actually not.  I would love it if my kid would do the same. I really do hope she follows in my footsteps and is just as headstrong as me and demands to get her way.  Actually, I’m kind of praying that she wants to go to Germany although she’s really super-interested in Spanish for some reason right now. So [laughs] she might be ending up in Spain or Mexico.  But now I love it. I think that we live in a global society, and it’s really important to understand other cultures and to learn about it and not to just be stuck in your own little bubble.     

[04:05]   

Now I’ve talked about this a number of times with respect to some of the other CEOs that we’ve had.  And, when you start operating at a global level, one of the things that becomes really apparent is that the people that are heading those companies often times have grown up with some level of significant experience, I would say, abroad.     

[04:31]

Oh, yeah.  My family was a little bit skewed and weird because my mom and dad split up when I was just a little one.  And we moved to the Netherlands when I was two and were there for about two years. And she was with a Dutchman.  They never married, but they were together for the rest of her life. So I grew up with a Dutch “stepdad” partially in the Netherlands and back in Ohio. And my father was from Austria; so, I had that influence of the Arnold Schwarzenegger-style German.  And I loved going abroad, and we would go abroad for vacations when I was a little girl. Then on a whim, I decided to go to school like university in Germany, which was a real eye-opening experience from being an exchange student to actually going and trying to “immigrate” to go to school there.  So, yeah, I think it’s important to have that experience and understand that there are other cultures and there are other ways of thinking and doing things. It does shape you, and it changes you and helps you to see the world in a different perspective and step outside of your own personal box to look at things and really observe.      

[05:59]

What was one of the biggest attractions to Germany for you?

[06:04]

It’s so funny.  I’m like such a spontaneous person.  I chose Germany because there was a German girl that I became good friends with, who was an exchange student in my high school.  And also, my high school happened to offer German as a class. It wasn’t because of my father, strangely enough. It was just a random like, “Hey, you should do this.”  I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I think I will.” I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life that way. I guess a happy “falling into place,” “being in the right place at the right time” kind of thing.          

[06:36]

Do you find that the decisions that you make in that mindset are often times more right or do you second-guess them?

[06:44]

Definitely.  I went to Germany when I was in college in the U.S.  I went on vacation over the summer to visit some friends.  And I decided to check out some of the universities over there, and I wasn’t really sure what to do.  And my friend handed me a coin, and he said, “Listen, if it’s heads, you’re going to come back and attend the university; if it’s tails, you go home and just finish your education in the States.”  And I flipped the coin; I’m like, “OK. Whatever happens – this is what I’m doing.” And it ended up I was going back to Germany. So I went home from vacation and said to my mom, “Listen, I’m moving; I’m going to go live in Germany; I’m going to go to university there.  And, hey, guess what? It’s a lot cheaper; so, you should be happy.” And she’s like, “Yeah, it’s like four thousand miles away. I’m not too happy.” I’m like, “Well, you know [laughter] this is the way it goes.”

The same I ended up in New York City like literally.  My mother had passed away, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to go back to Europe or not.  I didn’t want that “Oh, poor girl,” you know, like the pity thing. So I thought, as I’m driving down the highway back home from the funeral, I see a sign “New York City 396 miles.”  And I said, “You know what?  Nobody’s going to care about me losing my mom and my dad and all these people in my life and being the ‘orphan child.’  I think I’m going to move to New York City and see what happens.” And my friends are like, “Oh, you’re just crazy. You’re grieving; you’re just sad.  You’ve lost so much so quickly.” And I’m like, “No, no, I think I’m going to do it.” And I got home, went online, started applying for jobs, looking at apartments, calling realtors.  A couple of months later, there I was – walking into my first translation project management job in New York City. And nobody cared that I was that little orphan girl. And I kind of got lost in the crowds and really found my place in life.      

[08:37]

What’s interesting to me about that is the independent spirit but also the ownership of where you are.  Your lense isn’t one of victim but one of opportunity and “This is my life, making decisions. Bad things are going to happen, but it’s not going to be the defining moment for me.  I’m making my own way.”

[09:03]

Definitely, definitely.  When you realize there’s no one you have to prove anything to but yourself, I think it really alters your state of mind and your decision-making process somewhat.  So I can be more impulsive and more a little crazy. When I say, on the turn of a dime, I’m going to move to Europe; I’m going to move to New York. I’m going to do this; I’m going to start a company.”  Why not?  What can I lose?  I think going in with that thought of “Let’s just do it and see what happens” rather than the fear of, “Oh, no.  Everything could go wrong” is a much better way to look at it.

[09:45]

So, the “Why not?” – that is going to be the title for this episode, I think.  I love that framing. When you strip away the expectations from others and even the expectations that we put on ourselves, then it starts opening up a whole different…  Like I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me and said, “Jamin, when are you going to do the next big thing?” And I’m just completely blind to trying to compare what I’ve done in the past to what I’m doing now or what I’ll do in the future.  I could just give two bad words to that expectations that other people might… As soon as you can step into that view of “Yeah, why not? Who cares?”… Listen, I lived through that whole 2001 dot com crash as a business owner and then 2007 and 2008 as well in the U.S. economy.  In both instances, I had to move to an apartment from a house because my personal income was basically non-existent during those years, right? And I just didn’t care. [laughter] And it’s so liberating. So, that’s my rant.

[11:08]  

It is!  No, you’re totally right.  It is. It’s freeing to just go like “OK, I’m going to try this.  Let’s see, you know, what’s going to happen.” What’s the worst thing that could happen?

[11:18]

Totally, and you know what?  I’ve already done that: I’ve lived hand-to-mouth.  Who cares? We can always survive. My wife has that same sort of view.  She lived in Spain right after college for several years and has that free spirit.  It helped that she’s fluent in Spanish. It’s nice you find your soul mate if you can both be aligned with that expectation of “Yeah, you know what?  It’s not the things that we have or living up to the expectations of others; as long as we’re providing enough, then everything is going to be OK. That’s a really dynamic, powerful combination.

[12:04]

I totally agree; I totally agree 100%.  Call me crazy but I think the universe gives you what you need.  

[12:12]

Hmm, 100%.

[12:13]

You can say it’s a higher power; you can say it’s your guardian angel.  But I know there were times in my life when I was like, “Oh, man. This bad.  How am I ever going to get out from under this?” And something would happen, some little thing, some event, some random distribution check from an old stock that I inherited would come in the mail.  It was like, “OK, alright, we’re still moving. Let’s go; let’s keep on. Just get up – Dust off and – Move forward.”

[12:40]

I totally love that.  And then on the flip side when you think about the upside opportunities that we’ve missed…  One example for me is I bought Yahoo when it IPOed.

[12:53]

Oh, wow.

[12:54]

Yeah, yeah, I was very excited.  And the stock actually didn’t do anything for about four to five months.  Wall Street just didn’t know what to do with the internet, with the dot com. Finally, I sold the shares.  Well, I swear it was like set on a trigger. As soon as Jamin sells the shares, let’s start skyrocketing. [laughter]  So, my stupid brother-in-law at the time would at Christmas time every year, he would calculate how much those were worth, right?  It was like some obscene amount of money. But I think to myself, if that would have hit, it would have completely dictated a different direction for my life.  And I’m just so thankful with where I am right now. In the way that sometimes bad things happen and in the way that sometimes good things happen in our lives or even misses…  Not judging them but just reacting to them and living the life that we want to live…

[13:52]   

Definitely, definitely.  I always call that the sliding-door perspective:  you go through one side you end up somewhere totally different.  And the other side, you end up on the path you’re on right now.

[14:02]

Well said.  Alright, so let’s talk a little bit about New York City, get a job in a translation company, in those early days.  Did you know that you were going to be a business owner straight away?

[14:16]

You know what?  No, I didn’t. I was in this job and working pretty happily for a very large translation company.  I think you’ve all probably heard of it – Transperfect. It’s funny because I’m one of those people who needs a lot of change to keep excited about something.  So I started in one role and then I’m like, “Let me go to another role. Let me go to another role.” And I ended up working hand-in-hand with the CEO there and learning a lot about the business.  And it was really interesting and exciting, and I watched it grow. And it was very cool, but at that time I wasn’t ready yet to do anything on my own. So I decided to switch to a smaller company to see how that worked.  Had left there, gone to a smaller agency and that’s where I learned about market research. And at that agency, I started working in the research space, and I met all these people. And the company was kind of a shotgun-approach style, like they did work for every different kind of segment.  It wasn’t just research: it was like pharma; it was like big brands, internet companies. You name it, and they translated it.

But these researchers really struck a chord with me.  I remember going to this conference in Texas, and it was for medical devices.  And the girl I had gone with to the conference knew Jami Pulley. And she said, “Hey, let’s go have dinner with this girl.  You know she’s really cool. She’s a market researcher.” I’m like, “Oh, I’ve been working with this a little bit.” And I met her, and she was just so cool and so sweet, and I started to get to know more people in the industry.  And I said, “You know this is a totally different language.” What they’re doing… they’re not just translating into words. It’s not a manual; it’s not a how-to; it’s not like a website. It’s really looking at people’s emotions and trying to get a feel for why they make these decisions to buy this or to vote for that.  It came to me that this is something that is not really super-well serviced. At another conference with a bunch of boring medical device people again, who were not nearly as fun or interesting as the researchers, I was talking to John Labati about this. I was like, “You know it would be so cool to have a company that just did research ‘cause look at us we’re standing here for a week.  Not one person has visited our booth. These medical device people don’t care about us. They don’t want to talk to us. Why are we spinning our wheels with this? Why are we trying to do everything and be everything to everybody when we could be just the best thing for one group?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s really cool, you know. We should talk more.” And over the course of that week, we formed the idea to do G3 and it was then a matter of putting together a business plan and putting together some numbers and finding some partners to invest in us.  And that’s kind of how it was born.

[17:23]

This key of focus, I think, is so important.  A lot of entrepreneurs will, myself included, spend a lot of time, chasing whatever is right in front of us.  I don’t exactly know what the motivators are there, but the more we hunker down and focus and really nail the niche, then I’ve seen a correlation with that to success.       

[17:48]

Definitely, definitely.  Well, back then there weren’t a lot of niche agencies:  everybody was doing everything. And it’s like, “Why?” “Why do you want to be OK at a little bit of everything instead of being an expert at one thing?”  And now, obviously, things have shifted; the paradigms have changed. And a lot of different agencies are kind of going that route. But back then, it was either you were a single language vendor and specialized in that language or you were a multi-language vendor, and you did everything for everybody.  I think it’s not just about speaking the foreign language: it’s about speaking the lingo. There’s a language to what you do; there’s a language to the research; there’s a language to the data collection that isn’t necessarily intuitive.

[18:35]

Yeah, 100%.  It’s such a great point.  Even though we speak English, even if you’re in marketing, if you move into market research, there is definitely a nomenclature, the way things are framed, etc. that exists.  But then a level under that is the treatment of data whether you’re qualitative or quantitative, right? There’s nuances (I would say more than nuances; there’s just like complete frameworks) that have to be understood if you’re going to operate in those areas successfully.  And that’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered with translation… is we’ll ask a question, and it gets translated in 19 languages or whatever. And the translation to the other languages often times isn’t back translated. When we skip that step, we have wound up in trouble, especially if the client has offices in that area and there are native speakers that wind up reading the questions.  Thinking about one specific project that I had with BRS out of Menlo Park. (This goes way back.) And we didn’t back translate, and it was in Japanese. Oh, my gosh, it was just catastrophic! Anyways, are companies spending the time on the back-translation still or is that a step that is starting to move away?

[20:02]

It depends on the company; it depends on their internal processes.  I find a lot of companies don’t have time to backtranslate, and it’s OK.  The way we do things at our company is we do a three-step process: so we’re translating; we’re editing; and we’re proofreading.  So we already have three sets of eyes looking at it. By the time it’s got through that third set of eyes, it should be pretty perfect.  And then, if a client reviewer comes on line and decides, “OK, we want to change it because this is our internal language or this is how we want to say this,” that’s a collaborative effort, and it works pretty well.  But you mentioned Japan specifically. And that’s funny because we like to get the buy-in from the very beginning on Japanese. It’s a cultural thing. In Japan, if I asked you, “Jamin, I need you to look at this. Can you tell me what you think?”  If you didn’t give me that document back with a lot of red lines, I would feel like you didn’t do your job, then you would lose face.

[20:58]

Right.

[21:00]

So what we do for that is we try to get those reviewers on with the translators, do a little sample in the beginning, have them chat it out, talk to each other.  Then you find a lot less red lines in the back end when they’re reviewing it after all the translations are done.

[21:15]

Where was that gem 20 years ago?  Now that you say that it’s like a veil has been lifted up.  [laughter] It makes perfect sense. That’s so funny. Anyway, that was probably one of the hardest projects I ever worked on.  In fact, it was so bad I drove four hours to meet with the client and we had two days, literally two days, where we shipped in food and worked just straight – 16 plus hours a day with their constituents in Japan.  Boy, [laughter] it was such a problem, but culturally you’re right. So, that’s the other piece of it super interesting. Language is, by definition, culture and so you’re setting that framework for… they’re just words, but the reality is there’s a lot of like how I interact with the language that can be, depending on the culture obviously, be considered.

[22:19]

Definitely, definitely.  How we process things is very different across cultures.  We’re all just people. A lot of people just make the assumption, well, we live in a western society; the French live in a western society as do the Germans and the Brits.  But the way we look at things, the way we rate things is very, very different. In one culture – and hopefully I’m not wrong here, I’m sure I’ll get a lot of comments – but I believe it’s in Spain where they tend to be a little nicer and rate things higher (maybe it was Brazil) just because that’s their positive spin on life.  On a scale of 1 – 5, they’re going to choose the 5 much more often than a German who might actually think it’s a great product but they’re just going really “Oh, well, there’s one little thing, so I’m going to give it a 4.” It’s funny: we do, we see the world in a different way. Even though we may feel similarly, the way that we express it, it’s going to be different if that makes any sense.  

[23:24]

Yeah, it makes perfect sense.  One of the co-founders of Decipher, Irving Andreasen, we went to this nice restaurant.  He said, he tells me, “The soup is the best soup I’ve ever had in my entire life.” And he’s a bit of a foodie.  And the waiter came over with traditional American, right? and says, “How’s your food?” And he looked at him and goes, “It’s satisfactory.”  [laughter] And, so he didn’t mean it like in a bad way. The waiter was literally trying to decide, “Should I discount the meals or…?” For him, it was this insult.         

[24:03]

Yeah, totally.

[24:04]

Completely lost in translation as it were.  

[24:07]

It’s so true.  It’s so true. It’s so funny how that works.  I remember moving when I was a kid and living there in university.  Yeah, I made quite a few cultural snafus with my American ways. Yeah, I just didn’t get it at the time, and it took me a while to learn the culture.  And I think, again, like with the translation element, you have to understand the culture and who you’re talking to because there is a very different way of communicating.  I lived in northern Germany, and they tend to be a little bit colder and more standoffish. I hate to stereotype, but stereotypes are there for a reason…sometimes. I remember the first six months, going to school, nobody talked to me.  They didn’t know who I was, and they didn’t know I was a foreigner because I was scared to open my mouth and sound stupid because my German was mediocre. Then I busted out of my shell one day and was this gregarious like, “Oh, I love…  This is so great. Blah, blah, blah” “Oh, my God, you’re an American!” [laughter]

[25:16]

You’ve been an American – a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

[25:20]

“Look at this girl!  She just crazy; she’s just so… very vociferous!  Not reserved.” It was pretty funny. Once did make some friends and they opened up, I found them to be the warmest people, the most loyal people in the world.  I know I could call on any single one of them for anything at any time. And it’s funny, but looking from outside, I thought, “Oh, man, these people are cold. They hate me; they’re never going to like me.”  And now, after time, it’s just a matter of them warming up to you and you understanding how they communicate. I feel pretty confident now when I go to Germany. It’s all good. [laughter]

[26:05]   

That’s awesome.  So, as a seasoned entrepreneur, we know that sometimes the roller coaster goes up, and sometimes it goes down.  What has been one of your biggest challenges that you’ve faced?

[26:16]

For us at G3, one of the biggest challenges is talent.  As a small company, it’s hard like when you’re first starting out, people are like, “Oh, they’re just starting out.  They might not be here. We don’t want to work there. They might shut their doors like in a minute.” So getting those first project managers on board, to trust, to know that we’re good and that we’re going to be here and they’re not going to be out of a job next day was hard.  And then again because again we’re a small business, every time a team member would get on board, we’d be like rolling and everything is great and we’re like, “This is the best team ever. We’ve got this awesome balance.” “Oh, well, I’m going to go back to school.” or “Oh, I want to move back to France.”  or “I want to get married and not work anymore.” Oh, man, that was always so, so painful trying to fill those gaps once you had it built. It feels like we’re constantly upgrading and updating. And that to me is challenging because, as much as I like to make changes and decisions on the turn of a dime, I also can be very much routine in my day-to-day.  And getting new people in and getting to know them, I find that challenging. Getting them up to speed on what we do and how we do it and why we do it… So, that’s been tough: like finding the right people and getting them into the team and then rolling with the punches when they decide to do something new.   

[27:45]

My view on business is that the team is the most important asset of an organization, and it’s interesting how we treat it (and we have to, I realize that) but we treat it like a cost center as it relates with the financial view of the business.  And it does cost money; so, I’m obviously not an idiot. But it’s the asset; I mean it’s the thing that enables us to… It’s the part of the company that enables us to be able to consistently deliver excellent experiences for customers.

[28:16]

Definitely, definitely.

[28:18]

Like you’re saying, the seeding of that team and then the ongoing maintenance of it, growth, etc. that happens at a personal level and at a company level is something that takes a ton of intentionality.  And, as there’s transitions, it can be… it can really set you back as a business owner.

[28:40]

Definitely, definitely.  In the very beginning, we had a team of three people and then me and John; so, we were five.  One decided to go back to college. I’m like, “Oh, my God, we’re never going to survive this. What are we going to do?”  ‘Cause everybody was friends; we all got along. Going out to happy hour after work was definitely a thing. And then all of a sudden, our family was like breaking up.  It was really heartbreaking and hard. But we learned from it and we grew. It was fine in the end, but you become attached to these people in your life. And I think it’s important to have those interpersonal relationships on your team because you’re spending so much of your day with them.  So much of your life is spent in the office or at work or talking on the phone to these people. And, if you don’t like them, then what are you doing? Something’s wrong. I think having a strong team is really, really important. And having the right personalities…

[29:44]

So, what do you see as core characteristics of all-star employees?

[29:50]

Well, let’s see, it depends on the business, but for our business, I think most important is having that cultural experience in life and understanding that the small town that you grew up in is not the end-all, be-all of society.  But, also being a team player is also really important to us. I know that sounds cliché, but we all wear so many hats and play so many different roles. Because we’re a small business, we have to be able to do a lot of different things and to help each other out and to fill in the gaps where one person is not able to do something, the other person can jump in and help out.  So, that team-player like “we’re all here in this together” thing is really important. I think the lone-wolf type on our team wouldn’t work because it’s a very collaborative thing, what we’re doing here. And having the feedback and the passing of the knowledge and the training each other is really key so that we can all be well-rounded and give our clients what they need and meet all the demands because it is a very demanding business.  Research is very fast paced, and you can’t afford to fall down. You have to keep going, and having your team have your back is what makes that possible. So I think those are the two things that are most important to our company.

[31:23]

There’s been a ton of investment by the large internet companies – Google, AWS, Amazon, services and others – in the area of both transcription and translation.  I remember when the iPhone launched visual voicemail; I had no idea of what to expect. And then – boom… there is it. How are you seeing those… Are you seeing those as complementary or competitive to your business?  And what do you think the next couple of years holds as it relates with translation and transcription?

[32:01]

As far as translation goes, I think it’s super exciting.  I remember sitting in a room years and years ago with a group that focuses on the automation of translation and the different types of forms in which it has evolved from.  I think that the use of the neural networks and AI is going to definitely be a big game changer probably not even five years out, probably less. I know Amazon (or maybe it was Google) had claimed parity with Chinese to English, which is pretty amazing, but for some reason, Chinese works really, really well with those networks as far as translating pretty accurately.  For what we do in particular, I think it’s complementary because again research language isn’t a manual; it’s not a legal contract: it’s something that’s looking for emotion. And as close as these artificially intelligent machines may be to understanding and mimicking emotion, they don’t feel, at least not yet. And I don’t know that they’ll ever feel the same way that we do.  So, I think that, while it will help speed up the process by providing initial translations, we’re always going to have to have someone reading it for culture, reading it for nuance, reading for the subtext, the feeling, that’s underneath the underlying words and editing that. So, are we going to be out of business? No. Are the companies who translate the documentation for Ford cars?  Maybe. But I think for what we do, it’s an exciting, innovative way of getting things done quicker, probably cheaper, and just complementary to what we already do.

And the same for transcription:  they’re always going to need a little bit of massaging here and there, I think.  But the transcriptions are pretty scary. [laughter] On the translation side, I’m more confident; on the transcription side, it’s pretty scary how accurate it can be.  But I think right now it’s not there yet; in a couple of years, it may well be pretty darn close, but I think the human touch is still going to be needed.

[34:17]

So, we had a couple of questions on Linkin I just wanted to ask.  

[34:22]

Sure.

[34:22]

One is how is your API integration coming along?  This is from Erinn Taylor, the CPO of Critical Mix.   

[34:30]

Oh, I know Erinn.  He’s great. Our API…  So, we have two different types of API that we offer to our clients.  Obviously, they’re just connectors; so, it’s a plug, and it has to be customized for the end user.  We have that ready. If he wants to talk to me, tell him to give me a call about it. [laughter] We have that, and we also have a portal that a lot of our clients prefer because they don’t want to do the customization work for the API.  So they log into our portal, submit, and track stuff, and do billing and all that through there. So we have a couple of different paths that you can take to reach us with your needs.

[35:10]

You also had a couple of shout-outs.  Bailey Buchanan, a few others: “Really excited about this interview dropping.”  You have to check out that LinkedIn thread.

[35:21]

Definitely, definitely.  Bailey’s awesome. She is this amazing supporter of Women in Research, which I also support and love.  I think it’s a super great organization, helping women to help each other out in this industry. It’s not applicable to you but to all the girl listeners out there, they should definitely look into it.  It’s a great, great group of people.

[35:42]

Well, I will say when Kristin Luck started Women in Research, she did that inside of Decipher.  Jamie Plunkett and myself were big advocates of that specific initiative. So, both in terms of supporting it financially as well as from an infrastructure perspective…

[36:59]   

Nice.

[36:00]

So, yeah, we’re 100% on that.  Diversity is this interesting….  So we’re calendarizing our podcast drops going into 2019.  I don’t know what the themes are going to be. Anyway, as we’re going through that process, all of a sudden, things like Black History month…  I’m thinking, “Gosh, that’s interesting.” When I think about the African American leaders in America in market research and incorporating their voice intentionally because one of things that I’ve learned from Kristin is the importance of diversity for improving financial outcomes, right?…   No matter what your lenses is, just operate there at a baseline and improve your outcomes by having a more full view of the market and the competitive set and where you’re winning and where you’re struggling. That’s just key.

[37:00]

Absolutely, absolutely.  Not to be too competitive with the other guys out there, but I think about a year ago, there was an article saying that women CEOs are more profitable than their male counterparts, like the businesses are more profitable since they take things from a different perspective.  

[37:19]

Yeah, totally.  I mean I haven’t seen the statistics.  I have heard them. I haven’t done validation against them, but just across the board, there’s so much benefit among women-run organizations.  And, of course, we can point to other ones as well. But the broader point, I think, is so important, which is we need to have an attitude of inclusion – intentional inclusion ‘cause sometimes that’s hard because the benches aren’t particularly deep for whatever reason.  And what’s interesting about market research is actually minorities and women specifically are so dominant. From a numbers perspective… Think about the org chart where most of the people are sitting but, as you go up the org chart, there does seem to be lack of women leadership in those veins.  But the work that you’re doing with Women in Research and, obviously, being a successful entrepreneur, is certainly helping solve that problem.

[38:21]

Here’s hoping, definitely.  Thank you.

[38:22]

So, what are you guys offering right now at G3 Translate that Insights Nation can take advantage of?

[38:29]

So, Insights Nation, we have some introductory offers if you would like to work with us.  Send us over your information and what you’re looking for, and we will give you a special discount.

[38:42]

That’s huge!

[38:43]

We’ll definitely take some off for you to give back a little bit to the listeners.  

[38:48]

Love it!  So, Insights Nation, this is a great opportunity for you to experience some value as a listener of Happy Market Research.  I’m going to start using the show, trying to be a little bit more intentional. I’ve been surprised that people haven’t been a little bit more intentional that have been on the show.  I think there’s always fear of asking, but we are in business after all, right? And this is a great platform for you to be able to take advantage of offering value to the audience. So thank you for that.  If people do, Nancy, want to get in contact with you, to hear more about the special offer, how would they do that?

[39:29]

They can either contact me at nancy@g3translate.com or just visit our website G3Translate.com or link with me on LinkedIn, Nancy Hernon.  Those are my main methods of contact.

[39:47]

My guest today has been Nancy Hernon, CEO and co-founder of G3 Translate.  Nancy, thank you so much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast.

[39:55]

Thank you, Jamin.  It was a pleasure.

[39:57]

And thank you, everyone who has listening.  As always, greatly appreciate the reviews on Apple iTunes and Google Play specifically, oh as well as Spotify.  That audience is growing as well. So keep those coming. It helps other people like you find value and improve market research.  Have a great day!

Ep. 139 – Shelly Bouren – Detroit Pistons – Bridging The Gap Between Technology And Market Research

Today, my guest is Shelly Bouren, Research Manager at Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons are an American professional basketball team based in Detroit, Michigan.

Prior to the Detroit Pistons, Shelly worked in the financial sector for several institutions including Crestmark Bank as a Vice President, Marketing Analyst and Chrysler Financial as a Sr. Project Manager.

FIND SHELLY ONLINE:

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shelly-bouren-ms-prc-8b39b47/

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Social Media: @happymrxp

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


[00:30]

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 Shelley Bouren, Research Manager at the Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons are an American professional basketball team based in Detroit, Michigan. Prior to the Detroit Pistons, Shelley worked in the financial sector for several institutions, including Crestmark Bank and Chrysler Financial. Shelley, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.

[1:15]

Thank you, Jamin. It is such a pleasure to be here.

[1:20]

So Shelley, maybe you could tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how your parents have influenced your career.

[1:24]

So I grew up here, in Michigan. If you are generous, you could call it “the very Northern most suburb of Detroit”. It’s really a small country town, here in Michigan. We were close enough to the “city”, in air quotes, to find shopping and entertainment and stuff like that but far enough way that it was still a comfortable enough small town to grow up in. My father was a programmer, a computer programmer and systems analyst before computers were cool. So I guess the contribution he most made to my career was comfort with technology. That is, not being afraid from computers when so many of my generation coming up through high school and into college had that a little bit of nervousness about what computers brought or how easy it could be to mess something up. I had a comfort level and knowledge about that. My mom was an administrative assistant who worked very hard in setting an example for us of putting family first. So she helped me to see how to be a hard worker but not at the expense of the family and the flexibility that you needed to support them.

[2:33]

Did you find your literacy with computers to be helpful through your educational process as well as your entire career?

[2:40]

Yeah, actually, initially when I went into college I wanted to be a programmer, and I wanted to work in information systems. The university I was at told me I had to pick one or the other. They did not fit together as easily as I wanted them to. So I just kind of shelved that and went into advertising and marketing instead. But always with that, like I mentioned, the comfort with technology and then, as I went back in to get my Master’s recently in business analytics, it was the melding of those worlds had finally happened. So it was using the information systems and the programming together, so it kind of, my career came full circle. But it started with that early comfort level.

[3:25]

Yes, totally. And in fact, now we see technology just being ubiquitous in every job function. It seems that the higher you get, the more familiar you have to be with things like dashboards and PowerPoint, and other things. It is just basic table stakes nowadays relative to when I started my career twenty years ago… I would say that… technology… when I first started my career, I was comfortable in coding and Basic and back early days, C++. That always felt like it gave me an edge because it was more like the fear factor of technology had been removed as opposed to there is actually something that I could do that it would be different or unique.

[4:14]

Well, I know that because I came in with that technological comfort level… one of the biggest benefits that came from that was my peers were always afraid to touch this button or that button because something was going to blow up or you did not counter the blue screen of that. I had more knowledge about what it really took to break things so I was not so afraid to try things. And I think that has led to a confidence and a curiosity throughout my career where there is got to be more to learn, there is got to be more to try if you are not afraid to mess things up. I know that one big narrative now is the not having a fear of failure in taking risks because that’s where you grow, and I think that is where that fits for me.

[5:04]

Yes, that’s an interesting topic. I did not think of it exactly in this way before but it’s almost like you remove the “I don’t know how” excuse from the arsenal of things that holds you back from doing something. The reality is that being able to create something in code, even if it is as simple as printing “hello, world”, it empowers you in a unique way so that you have the confidence to, I think, branch out and try new stuff and then understand that the underpinnings of the new sectors –like between financial services and market research, you can start understanding the systems that support both of those and the overall commonality between them as well as leverage the differences between. I know it’s a far reach but I really do think installing the command line or the creation of software is a really good way to help build confidence at the individual level.

[6:09]

It really is. Any time you can put something in and know whether it is going to work or not work right away. That was one of the things that I loved about technology is it’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s either going to work or it’s not. And you just have to dig into the details and figure out why it’s not working, and fix it.

[6:31]

Totally. It’s an accelerated version of starting a company or starting anything new in life because you are able to quickly iterate, discover your problem and then move on from there. So I would like to talk a little about this major shift that I think you have gone through. You spent much of your earlier career in the financial sector, how did you wind up finding yourself in market research?

[6:59]

Well, initially… like anybody… Many people who start their careers in the Detroit area, they start out with something automotive. And my automotive early experience was in marketing and advertising for some of the automotive advertising agencies, and some of them were nice big full-service agencies where I got a lot of experience in project managing traditional advertising and reproduction and even dabbled a little bit in construction design and the logistics of putting on training events on a large scale. What was great about that for me is it really supported flexibility in the gig economy, and through the connections you make throughout your career, opportunities opened up. That allowed me to put my family first for that period of my life. Really, the requirements that I had for taking a position in that timeframe was that it be flexible and allowed me to do that “family first” focus, and that it would use my degree and help me to build my resume, even in this time when I was not a 100% full-time worker. And through that you kind of follow where the connections lead you. So I have made it from automotive advertising into automotive financial services into commercial lender at Crestmark, where I was the Vice President in Marketing. So that was the career evolution up to that point. Once I was at Crestmark, I started taking on more responsibility, and it led to more hours and less flexibility. And when I stepped back and realized that I am now in a full-time job, and my requirements for the job now that it’ss taking full-time are a little different than they were before, so I wanted to make sure that it allowed me to grow and some things that I was really passionate about and interested in and so I started looking around and thinking what did that mean for me. And at Crestmark, once of the things that I was able to dabble in a little bit on was Google Analytics. You realize when you are in marketing and advertising there is really little that is really measureable. A lot of decisions are made on gut instincts and “I think this looks good, and it’s probably going to reach the people we wanted to reach” but not really measureable KPIs. So Google Analytics kind of opened my eyes to this new world of being able to pinpoint how many people are seeing this, who is reaching and some of the audience demographics around that. I also stepped back and looked at other organizations and how they do things, and one of I have always been a huge fan of Disney, for example. And of the things I love about the Disney experience is that you go, I take my family and we go and we have a good time. And things run smoothly. And we home with a great experience. And we go however it is and we get there again in a later trip, and it is even smoother and even more fun and they found the snags along the way that you did not even realize were there but they found them and they fixed them, and so your next trip is even better. I wanted to find a way to live in that space: the finding, gathering the information to find the issues and then being able to communicate the issues and fix them. So the combination of the two of those led me to getting comfortable with data, and going to get my Master’s in Data Analytics, not knowing where that was going to take me but knowing that it might satisfy both of those curiosities. And hopefully something would open up. Through the time I was getting my degree, I met through a mutual contact the Vice President of Data Analytics here at the Pistons. Through building that relationship I found out that they were thinking of re-opening a research position that had been closed for probably about a year due to someone leaving and not being replaced. And I decided to give that a try

[11:05]

Super interesting! So you literally just stepped out and invested in yourself to learn Data Analytics prior to having that job lined up.

[11:18]

Yeah, and it was a really intensive one-year-degree program where my husband was a single father for most of the year because I was at work at my previous role, going from there to class, going from there to go home to do homework till the middle of the night, getting up the next day to go to work because my employer at that time was not aware or supportive of the degree I was getting because I was really working towards that degree to be able to find new opportunities. I did not know what that new opportunity was going to be but we all kind of did it to help me get through that.

[11:47]

So what has been one of your largest challenges for someone that is relatively new to the market research space?

[11:56]

Coming into this world with not much knowledge of what market research actually was, my challenge was learning. Because the role had been vacant, there was not a lot of information left behind for me to pick up and move forward and learn from the previous person in this role. So sitting in my office, there was not anybody who I could walk across the room or across the department and say: “Hey, can you tell me how this should be done?”  There was a lot of trial and error and just research on my own part that kind of made me comfortable with the fact that I was in the right place because the research, to learn research, was fun – read all the white papers I could get my hands on, listen to podcasts, watch webinars and try to fill in the blanks of knowledge. So that is what my challenge was, and how I tried to mitigate it.

[12:44]

I really think that this is an interesting point. Do you remember the first research project you did? Was it an online survey? Or was it focus groups?

[12:55]

It was an online survey.

We have a DIY survey portal here so a lot of the things that I am still currently working on, I inherited from a research plan they had that walks through some surveys that are conducted through the NBA that many teams participate in, that we project manage them here at the team level to distribute them through our e-marketing team to our fans, mostly people we already have in our database. So part of my first experience for doing the project management on some of those to dig into third-party data providers that we have, like Scarborough Research, to do demographic-type research to support our corporate partnerships team to find which partners would be the best fit for us based on the demographics of our fan base. And that was fun because that was more of a technology thing, right? That was a tool that you could use to do things with technology. So figuring out how to do that and how to use our DIY survey portal… those were like our new toys for me. It was really fun to dig in. And I think I have squeezed as much functionality out of those tools as anybody possibly could through my learning, just digging into the little corners of the functionality to see what it does, how we could use it here, how this fits with what we are already doing and enhance what we are already doing.

[14:22]

I get so excited around the actual operational consideration of research, which makes me weird. The block and tackling of the consumer insight, how you gather that information in a useful way and then analyze it for really fast business decisions. For me, it’s really exciting stuff. You found that your velocity or speed to get to the insights has been improving over time or has it hit a ceiling?

[14:51]

I think the velocity is increasing, and I think that as it is more well accepted and more received throughout the organization, they are realizing what research can bring to help with business decisions, and I am being able to be more and more busy with requests. The research plan that I inherited when I started was, like I said, a serious of projects that were encouraged by the NBA as well as some profile updates that we did through Scarborough Research and some other information that we obtained through our CRM data. It was a full calendar throughout the year but nothing really tied it together. So one of the things that I was really excited to do when I got here was to pull it together in a cohesive way so we could figure out what questions we were answering with the research. So I just recently developed what I call “my own brochure”. I put together a customer insights process that is the umbrella for all of the research that we are doing and answering about six questions with these twenty something projects that we do. So we are figuring out who our customers are, both our fans and are our partners –corporate partners, through some of the research projects that we do. We are looking at how are we reaching them, and with that I get access to TV and radio ratings and social media measures, what their experience is here, what do they think of us. We do some brand health studies, some post-event surveys, fan loyalty tracker that we send to our members to take the temperature of what they are thinking of us. Do our sponsorships benefit them? So we do some studies specifically around how our sponsors are benefiting from reaching our fans, with the exposure that they are getting, they value they are getting, the actual data value they are getting back from that sponsorship and then recapping for them at the end of the year as well as reaching out to our fans and saying: “What do you think of these sponsors?” “Are you benefiting from the Pistons having sponsorships?” And then, “how can we grow?” So how can I support the ticket sales team even with prospecting surveys or campaign support and working with the marketing and communications group to the effectiveness of some of their communication?  And I have also gotten involved with “So what is our culture?” that is the last question that I have got in my brochure. I have gotten involved with the employee survey annually and then poll surveys we put together throughout the year to take the temperature as we make changes internally. So to be able to pull all of that together has only created, I think, more interest in what research and insights can be provided by our group.

[17:48]

Okay, that is super powerful! I mean, creating this really clear view of the brand through the eyes of the customer leveraging market research is such a hole in one! And piggybacking on what you said before, as you educate the executive staff on how market research can be employed for better decision making, I am remembering my conversation with Lori Iventosch of GoDaddy. She said: “The executive is going to make a decision anyway. I sure as hell better deliver the insights so it is the right one!”

[18:27]

Yeah, it’s been great that as we go into some business planning even for next season, I have been invited to participate in more of those discussions as they are really looking to have some data-driven decisions about how to approach our season ticket members who we would like to help them stay in the membership or how to reach new people to have them come join the team as single-game buyers or season ticket numbers

[18:58]

The scorecard, I am going to call it that because you are in sports, that you have got for the brand… When you think about feeding back the data to sponsors and customers, where you talked about recapping and what were the benefits, did they find them useful, etc., have you seen an improved lift or improved buy-in from those sponsors? And I am actually thinking of something you referenced early on, your experience at Disney. You know, how you would go their campus and have a really nice time, and then you would come back and it is even better somehow, right? The little hiccups or what have you had been solved that you did not even recognize, which of course, reinforces that brand. Have you seen that kind of behavior manifest itself?

[19:53]

Yes, our sponsors have definitely seen a benefit and a lift from being involved with the Pistons. I work with the account team, the partnership team to identify which sponsors to focus on for each season. That information gets reported back many times to the partner, and I have gotten to be part of those conversations and to share the information myself, which was another learning growing experience that I really enjoy to share not only the industry wide statistics that says “here is how you are going to benefit from being part of a sponsorship” but also the specifics our fans are telling us in this specific study that they are more likely to engage with your brand because you are associated with the team.

[20:43]

So about what proportion of your research work is done internally versus through partners externally?

[20:49]

With my learning curve in market research, I have been kind of selfish with a lot of the things that we do. If there was not already a partnership in place to conduct the study, I really tried to, at this point since I am a market research department of one, do it myself so that I can get comfortable with the technology, the reasons behind the research instead of just jumping in to having the partners support me in it. So a lot of the NBA studies that we do were already on the books. We work with tight partners on those, and those are building great relationships with those vendors, and it’s been really enjoyable for me. But as business questions come up internally, I always take a stab at it first, and I know that as the need for internal research grows, I will eventually run out of knowledge and time to do it all myself but at this point, I really enjoy learning and trying and doing and finding the insights. It’s great that my newness to this world is not a secret. So I came in with a lot of background in business and a degree in analytics, but research was something I was learning. So it’s been great that if a business question comes up, I have been given the freedom to learn the common methodologies, figure out if my tools are capable of doing that, and then conduct the study myself, and provide the information at the management or executive level to help answer those questions. And I have not had to dedicate so much time to the learning that has stalled the decision making. I think that having to go outside and teach a vendor what our problem was and what we were looking to get out of it, the timeframe would have probably been similar.

[22:56]

I was just speaking with Stacy Walker, at Adobe, and she was talking to me after the interview about sort of the same issue. For her, it is more useful having somebody internally managing the research just because they are already up to speed on the actual implication, and if they are the ones executing against the research, they can better understand the story-telling aspects, or apply the story-telling to the stakeholders internally for a faster adoption of the insights. There are clear efficiency gains by having, by doing the research internally, and I am seeing more brands look to move staff from external vendors to internal vendors just because it helps control and improve velocity, which means they are adopting tools to get work done faster or whatever. Do you have a research mentor, somebody you have cultivated a relationship with? Or you ask them for recommendations whether it is on methodologies or vendors?

[24:08]

Not at this point, no. That is one of the things I have been trying to build. But I am finding that most people when they look at someone in my stage in their career, they expect them to already have some good experience in research. The narrative I see around mentoring these days, and looking to find one, is people at this stage in their career think: We have been in market research a long time, and there is a lot changes happening so we are going to look to support these new kids that are coming out of school with these new degrees that are being offered at the universities in market research and mentor them on the new technology so they can use that knowledge and the new technology and new ideas but gain some of our experience. So it has been hard for me, and I do not know if it is because I am not generally a comfortable question asker, to connect with somebody who is a good resource. In the last month, I have been doing much better at it, I found some great resources through some of the conferences I have been at so I am building that network now. But typically I have done all of my research online through the white papers and webinars, and podcasts, and I have gotten some digital mentors like you and some other people in the field that I have been following, like Kristen Luck and Ray Poynter, and others that every time that name comes up I feel like “that’s really good information, and I should pay attention and try to learn from that”. So that’s mostly how my learning has gone, mentor-wise.

[25:52]

What shows did you attend in 2018?

[25:55]

The big one I was able to get away and go to was the Corporate Researchers Conference for the Insights Association and then locally, the Detroit Chapter and Market Research Association had a market research arm that has smaller meetings as well, and I was able to attend a few of them as well, and make some great contacts there.

[26:18]

Yes, local chapters are goldmine. I think they are often times overlooked by researchers, especially young researchers. I tell you what, it is such a great place meet up-and-coming researchers as well as seasoned vets who can help answer questions even that I have. I often times use it as a reference point when things come up.

[26:40]

Yeah, it’s great. One of the things that I have found is often difficult is that this role is not always called the same thing, right?, in different organizations. So as you are looking for someone to help with research, you do not know who to reach out to, who to look up in Linked in. I think that my role is not necessarily unique, even on the NBA team, because they all participate in research but I do not know that many of them have one point person to support the ticket sales and the guest experience operations group and marketing and communications, and everybody all under one umbrella. So even within the NBA, I am not really sure who to reach out to in another team even for advice.

[27:30]

Right. Makes sense. There is a local company here in central California called Ruiz Foods. Their head of research… She is a… It is a one woman shop in this case but it is a billion dollar company, right? So it is a really large company, and she spends a lot of money on research. I put “a lot” in quotation marks because it is all relative but she is the one that is actually executing the projects, and she will use vendors for specialty things like turf analysis or a conjoint study or whatever, but generally speaking, she is the one conducting the research and very successfully as well. And it is empowering this brand, like I said; it is growing significantly, double digits, and massive! And it is interesting to me that you do have that consolidation into a single-person team, whereas most companies that are that large would have potentially multiple people fulfilling that function.

[28:33]

Right. Or the being able to have access to all of it. So when a conversation happens in the guest experience space, I am aware of a study that was done over in the marketing group on the brand health to see how we are perceived so that I can pull that information together and help both parties. One of the things that I did early on when I was here was realize that most of our research was happening among people who were already in our database, already buying tickets from us. Without knowing what I was really thinking, what the panels really consisted of, I reached out to people who already are season ticket members, people who are single-game buyers, people who received our newsletter and then were social media followers, and I said: “Hey! Would you guys agree to participate in research at an ongoing basis as needed?” And I got a significant amount of people who raised their hand and said: “Yeah!” But it is different with a sports team because people just want to be part of it, right? And want to be able to have input and feel connected to the team. Being able to read all the different groups in the organization, if someone had a quick turnaround need, I can send that question out to what we call our “Pistons fan farm”, get the feedback they respond right away through a what you could call ”panel” that I manage.

[29:57]

Do you have a specific technology that you employ to handle this custom panel?

[30:09]

Within our DIY survey platform, I found some functionality that helps manage the panel. And it records that information and with the surveys that I conduct through there we send out through our e-marketing platform.

[30:19]

What is one gap that you see in the market that you wish either market research technology or a service provider would solve?

[30:22]

There are so many vendors doing such great things out there. I do not know that I would be able to specifically identify a gap because I am still learning what is needed, the pieces of the puzzle that I do not already have answers to. But I do think some of the solutions could be there could be a standard communication about what problems they are hoping to solve in the organization. It is not a technology question as much as it is a communication question. Because I do have a lot people calling me many times offering their services to me but I am not really sure how they fit as a solution to my problem.

[31:38]

Yeah, Got it. That makes sense. It is almost like the lack of social validation is not quite there in some early stage companies. And of course, the actual application to your problems. That is where I think that market research really needs to be good at listening, employing our core IP, which is exactly listening, consuming that consumer view point and understanding what is intended, what the application is. That would help us a lot in formulating exactly how are we applicable? How can we solve the add value for the specific end user?

So we have a couple of people that have posed questions on LinkedIn when I posted a few moments ago about my interview with you. Is it all right if I read a couple of them

[32:15]

Sure.

[32:17]

All right, so the first one is from Mario: “How are the Detroit Pistons adjusting their marketing strategies given the rapidly changing demographic make-up of Detroit?”

[32:26]

We have even a greater change in demographic not only in that Detroit is going through a fantastic renaissance right now, becoming an exciting place to go and live much more than it has been over the previous decade. So along with the fact that it is changing and growing, and it is becoming more probably, as a residence base, more millennial, we also moved our team, right? So we used to play out in the Northern suburbs of Detroit and with the last year, this is our second season playing in downtown Detroit. So we have had to make some adjustments as far as who we have in our season ticket base. Because we have got some fans who have not followed us down there because they are not able to move. I think it is a 45 minute longer drive for people who are coming from the Northern suburb area. But also being able to reach new people downtown who were not willing to make the drive out. So it has been a great change for us in that we have been able to pick up a lot of excitement, and be a part of what has being going on down there. Our marketing and advertising really centers around the excitement of being at a game and the excitement of following the team. It is interesting I find in sports where you have a fan base, and your fan base is going to be your fan base, and they really want to come and enjoy the team but we are also coming out in the new arena to communicate the benefit and the excitement of the state of art arena we are now playing in.

[34:18]

Awesome. And this question is from Erin Walten: “I am curious if your team was involved at all in measuring Drummond’s free throw statistics in practice or personal workouts? He has gone from 35% to over 60% in just two to three years.”

[34:39

It has been an amazing improvement and it has been fun to watch. But my research is more on the business of basketball instead of the actual athlete on the team. But we in Detroit have appreciated Andre’s free throws improvement.

[34:54]

Ha! That’s awesome! My guest today has been Shelley Bouren, Research Manager at the Detroit Pistons. Shelley, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast!

[35:02]

Thank you so much for having me, Jamin.

[35:05]

And thank you everyone who has been listening on iTunes and Google Play as well as Spotify. Of course, your feedback and reviews on these platforms enables us to grow. It is our oxygen. Please keep it coming! Have a wonderful day!

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.

FIND MARC ONLINE:

https://automatedinsights.com/

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

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Social Media: @happymrxp

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


[00:40]

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.

[1:34]

Thank you, and I am delighted to be here.

[1:36]

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.

[1:38]

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.

[3:39]

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”.

[4:12]

By all means.

[4:13]

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?

[4:23]

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.

[5:46]

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.

[7:00]

I absolutely agree with you.

[7:02]

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.

[7:12]

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.”

[9:42]

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?

[9:57]

Yes.

[9:58]

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?

[10:32]

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.

[13:07]

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?

[14:42]

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.

[15:48]

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?

[16:09]

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.

[17:58]

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?

[19:04]

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.

[23:58]

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?

[25:00]

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.

[25:56]

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?

[26:22]

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.

[27:24]

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

[27:34]

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.

[27:48]

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

[27:54]

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.

[29:43]

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?

[30:10]

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.

[32:07]

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?

[32:17]

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?

[35:04]

I am going to go with three weeks.

[35:05]

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.

[36:18]

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

[36:21]

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.

[38:47]

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

[38:48]

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.

[39:02]

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?

[39:19]

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.

[39:36]

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

[39:43]

Thank you!

[39:44]

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!

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:

LinkedIn


[00:44]

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.

[01:49]

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

[01:52]

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

[01:58]

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.

[02:40]

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

[02:43]

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.

[03:13]

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

[03:23]

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

[03:27]

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.

[04:43]

Yeah, yeah, it was.

[04:45]

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?

[05:06]

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.

[05:23]

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]

[06:36]

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

[06:40]

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.

[06:55]

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.

[07:22]

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.

[07:38]

It’s really great to hear that.

[07:39]

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?

[08:19]

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.

[09:12]

Totally, totally.

[09:14]

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.

[09:35]

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.     

[10:37]

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.

[10:54]

100%

[10:54]

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…

[11:15]

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

[11:22]

Not exactly bubble territory, but it’s frothy.

[11:25]

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.

[12:20]

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.

[12:50]

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…     

[12:55]

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.

[13:14]

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]

[13:29]

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.

[14:09]

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

[14:14]

Yeah.

[14:15]

And all Adobe employees?

[14:16]

They were all Adobe employees.

[14:18]

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

[14:22]

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.

[14:50]

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?

[16:10]

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

[16:14]

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.

[16:49]

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

[16:54]

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

[17:00]

This is probably less time-consuming.

[17:02]

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.

[17:49]

This is a tough one.

[17:51]

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

[17:59]

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

[18:06]

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

[18:14]

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

[18:24]

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.     

[18:46]

It was.

[18:47]

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?    

[18:59]

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.

[20:14]

Totally.

[20:15]

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

[20:22]

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.

[22:03]

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.

[23:16]

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?      

[23:56]

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?”

[25:18]

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?

[25:31]

Inside of the data ecosystem’s sphere?

[25:34]

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

[25:36]

[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.

[26:14]

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

[26:20]

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.

[26:37]

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

[26:49]

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

[26:52]

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

[26:55]

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

[27:59]

You have to be.

[27:00]

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.

[27:12]

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

[27:21]

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.

[27:47]

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

[27:56]

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.

[28:19]

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

[28:39

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

[28:44]

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?

[29:01]

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.

[29:17]

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?     

[29:45

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.

[30:30]

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

[30:37]

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.

[31:00]

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.  

[32:03]

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.

[32:15]

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…

[32:36]

I have.

[32:37]

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?

[32:49

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.

[33:43]

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

[33:50]

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.

[34:22]

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?

[34:40]

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.

[36:14]

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

[36:24]

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.

[36:42]

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.

[36:52]

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

[37:02]

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]

[37:21]

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.

[37:46]

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.  

[38:03]

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.

[38:18]

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

[38:23]

Thank you.

[38:24]

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.

[38:42]

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.

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.

FIND ROBERT ONLINE:

http://www.researchamericainc.com/

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

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Social Media: @happymrxp

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


[0:00]

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.

[00:30]

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.

[01:14]

Thank you for having me.

[01:16]

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.  

[01:21]

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. 

[02:55]

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?

[03:23]

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.  

[05:14]   

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?

[06:17]

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.”

[07:11]

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

[07:19]

Oh, congratulations!  That’s a big one!

[07:21]

It is a big one.  No kidding.

[07:22]

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

[07:26]

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.

[08:24]

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.   

[08:40]

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

[08:44]  

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.

[12:23]

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?   

[13:03]

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.   

[13:30]

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?   

[13:49]

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.    

[14:24]

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.

[14:33]

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.

[14:56]

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

[15:02]   

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.

[16:37]

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?

[17:42]

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.

[18:46]

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

[18:51]

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.

[21:28]

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?   

[21:41]

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.

[23:08]

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.

[23:52]

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.

[24:16]

Does it have reach to the customer as well?  

[24:18]

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.

[24:53]

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?

[25:00]

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.    

[26:40]

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

[26:46]

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.

[26:55]

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.

[27:12]    

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.

[27:32]

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.

[27:55]

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.

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.

FIND SIMA ONLINE:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/simavasa/

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/happymrxp

Twitter: @happymrxp

Instagram: @happymrxp

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


[00:50]

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.

[01:37]

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

[01:40]

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?

[02:00]

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.

[02:31]

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

[02:35]

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.  

[02:49]   

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.

[03:15]

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.

[03:55]

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

[04:02]

About 13.  

[04:04]

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?

[04:17]

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.   

[04:54]

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]

[05:34]

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.        

[05:54]

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

[06:05]  

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

[06:12]

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.

[06:29]

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.

[07:28]

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?

[07:47]

They were based in Austin, Texas.

[07:49]

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.

[08:02]

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

[08:06]   

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

[08:16]

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.

[08:46]

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!  

[08:54]

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

[08:56]

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?

[09:37]

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.    

[10:32]

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

[10:39]

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.

[11:53]

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?

[12:59]

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.

[14:36]

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?     

[15:26]

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.

[16:03]

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.

[16:52]

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.

[17:07]

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?

[17:21]

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.

[18:59]

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?     

[20:57]   

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.

[21:52]

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?

[22:27]

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.

[23:05]

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.

[23:20]

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.  

[23:57]

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.

[24:11]

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.

[24:59]

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?

[26:12]

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.  

[27:09]

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.  

[27:37]

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

[27:42]

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.

[28:24]

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.

[28:50]

Totally.  It’s so powerful.

[28:53]

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.    

[29:10]

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.

[29:49]

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

[27:54]   

Oh, Gaby.  Wasn’t that great?

[29:55]

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.

[30:08]

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.

[30:26]

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.

[30:33]

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…

[30:43]

I’m going to buy one.

[30:43]

[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.

[30:52]

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

[30:55]

Totally, and we could co-promote our podcasts.

[30:57]

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

[31:00]

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?

[31:16]

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.

[31:43]

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?  

[31:55]

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.

[32:44]

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.

[33:19]

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.

[33:58]

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?

[34:22]

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

[35:05]

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

[35:14]

OK, [laughs] yes.  

[35:16]

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

[35:26]

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.   

[35:37]

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.

[36:21]

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.    

[36:32]

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.

[37:04]

So true.  

[37:05]

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.  

[37:10]

We’ll figure it out.  

[37:11]

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?

[37:33]

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.

[38:49]

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.

[39:39]

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.     

[40:02]

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

[40:10]

I listened to some of it.  

[40:11]

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?

[41:25]

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.     

[42:19]

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.  

[42:29]

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

[42:32]

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.

[42:41]

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

[42:44]

I can’t wait too.  

[42:48]

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.

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.

FIND BAILLIE ONLINE:

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

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Social Media: @happymrxp

LinkedIn


[00:55]

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.   

[01:56]

Thanks so much for having me, Jamin.

[01:58]

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

[02:04]

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]

[03:45]

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.    

[04:16]

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.      

[04:36]   

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

[04:45]

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.       

[05:27]

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?

[05:41]

We are, yes, for profit.

[05:43]

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?

[06:08]

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.

[07:30]

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?

[08:33]

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.

[10:35]

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.      

[12:26]

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.

[13:09]

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.

[14:20]

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.   

[17:26]

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?   

[17:56]

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.

[19:15]

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.

[20:54]

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.

[22:01]

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?

[22:16]   

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.     

[22:52]

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

[23:04]

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.

[23:53]

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

[24:01]

Yes, it’s no passing fad. [laughs]

[24:04]

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

[24:11]

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.

[25:12]

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?

[25:39]

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.

[26:51]

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.  

[27:06]

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.   

[27:25]

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.  

[27:36]

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.

[28:00]

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.

[28:30]

Right, yep.

[28:33]

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?  

[28:48]

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.

[30:24]

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?

[30:33]   

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.

[32:26]

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.

[33:19]

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.

[35:01]

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?

[35:30]

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.

[36:48]

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.     

[38:14]

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.

[39:20]

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?

[39:31]

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.

[41:14]

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

[41:17]

Yeah.

[41:17]

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.  

[41:24]

Thank you.  It’s been my pleasure.  

[41:28]

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.

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.

FIND JOHN ONLINE:

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

FIND US ONLINE:

www.happymr.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/happymrxp

Twitter: @happymrxp

Instagram: @happymrxp

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


[00:01:08]

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.

[00:02:01]

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

[00:02:04]

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.

[00:02:12]

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.

[00:04:18]

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?

[00:04:55]

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

[00:05:02]

Interesting. Then what brought you out of Greece?

[00:05:08]

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.

[00:05:33]

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?

[00:05:45]

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.

[00:06:46]

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?

[00:07:08]

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.

[00:07:58]

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.

[00:08:30]

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.

[00:08:53]

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?

[00:09:01]

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.

[00:11:26]

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

[00:11:30]

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

[00:11:36]

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

[00:11:45]

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.

[00:13:00]

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?

[00:13:29]

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.

[00:14:43]

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

[00:14:49]

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.

[00:14:45]

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?

[00:16:21]

Right, but if they make the right choice.

[00:16:25]

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.

[00:16:36]

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.

[00:17:07]

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.

[00:17:52]

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.

[00:18:12]

You had a company before you started Pollfish, correct?

[00:18:16]

Correct, yes.

[00:18:17]

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

[00:18:21]

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

[00:18:24]

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

[00:18:29]

Right.

[00:18:30]

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

[00:18:37]

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.

[00:19:49]

What was one of your key takeaways in starting Pollfish?

[00:19:53]

From the previous business?

[00:19:54]

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

[00:20:04]

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.

[00:20:21]

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?

[00:20:36]

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.

[00:21:14]

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

[00:21:21]

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.

[00:23:06]

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?

[00:23:39]

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.

[00:25:00]

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.

[00:25:19]

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.

[00:25:53]

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?

[00:26:49]

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.

[00:27:18]

Got it.

[00:27:19]

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.

[00:28:11]

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.

[00:29:15]

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.

[00:30:01]

I agree.

[00:30:03]

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.

[00:30:48]

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.

[00:31:16]

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?

[00:32:03]

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.

[00:34:55]

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”.

[00:35:38]

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.

[00:35:53]

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

[00:36:00]

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.

[00:37:34]

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

[00:37:41]

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.

[00:38:22]

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

[00:38:29]

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

[00:38:33]

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

[00:38:40]

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