Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 119 – Kristi Zuhlke, CEO of KnowledgeHound

Today, my guest is Kristi Zuhlke, CEO & founder of KnowledgeHound. KnowledgeHound is a search driven analytics platform that enables anyone to find answers and tell stories with their customer survey data.

Prior to KnowledgeHound, Kristi worked on the Tampax and Always brands at Procter and Gamble, as well as developed retail strategy.


Twitter: @zulk10

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kristizuhlke/ https://www.knowledgehound.com/



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Twitter: @happymrxp

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


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Kristi Zuhlke, CEO and founder of KnowledgeHound. KnowledgeHound is a search-driven analytics platform that enables users to find answers and tell stories with their customer survey data. Prior to KnowledgeHound, Kristi worked on the Tampax and Always brands at Procter & Gamble, as well as developed the retail strategy. Kristi, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thanks. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.


I like jumping right into – it’s hard for me to postpone the getting to KnowledgeHound piece, but our audience has found it particularly interesting learning about the backgrounds of our guests, and then ultimately what wound up leading them into their current careers.


No problem.


Would you tell us a little bit about your parents, what they do and how that informed what you’re doing today?


Sure. So my mother was a part time nurse and full time mother growing up. And at one point she even though retired from nursing and started her own retail, online retail store. It was interesting. She – it was right during the dot-com boom. And so she was always a very cold person, and so she always wanted hats and scarves and mittens. So she created an online retailer that sold warm clothing to women. And of course when that bust happened, that didn’t work out, but very entrepreneurial journey for her, and I watched her go through that. And then my father, he grew up on a farm, which is probably one of the most entrepreneurial things you can do. And he really wanted to be a farmer, but his parents said, hey, you know what, we’re really poor, and we do not want you to be poor as well, so don’t be a farmer. So he instead went and started working for a utility company in Wisconsin, and worked his way up from picking rocks in the field to being the executive that ran their wind energy business, so very entrepreneurial in thinking as well.


God, I love that story about both of your parents. As you know, I went through that whole dot-com phase. Started – Jamie [ph] and I started Decipher along with Evan Andreas [ph] in 2000, and then lost 93% of our business in a three hour period during that dot-com bust. So it was a little bit white knuckle ride there for a year. So I respect tremendously what your parents went through. Your dad is super interesting. So coming from humble beginnings, hard work, sounds like it was part of your culture, core values.


Yes, absolutely. We always were taught hard work. Also, my dad still owns the farm that he grew up on, and so we still go up to Wisconsin and plant trees and do all kinds of work on the farm as well.


How big is the farm?


So it’s over 400 acres of land, and it – we don’t have any animals on it now. We mostly grow trees and make it a place that deer and turkeys and all these things that we want to hunt will come and live, so that we can live off that land.


I am an avid – my father’s from Arkansas, and so we’ll go back once every other year or so and do a bow hunt.


Oh, yeah.


And I’ve tried wild turkey a few times. Unfortunately, always come up with a big zero on that one. But –


Because it’s not easy, not easy.


No it’s not, and it’s certainly not in my natural skill either, unfortunately. I wish it was. It’s a fun process though, the whole camouflage part of it, and the –


Oh yeah, calling them in, and any – it’s definitely a good way to get back to our roots as humans, in my opinion. It’s a – you really have to know the land. You have to think like an animal. You have to think about what they love to eat, and how you can sit near something that they would love to eat. It really kind of puts you in touch with nature, and goes – kind of goes back to our roots and how we used to think as humans thousands of years ago.


Such an important point, an opportunity for people to connect with nature. And if hunting isn’t the thing, I think about fishing frequently. Fly fishing, you don’t actually have to use a fly rod for it, but you can use flies, and as – you need to pay attention to what things, what insects are hatching at that particular point in time in that particular location so that you can make sure you have the right flies that are in line with where nature is at that point. And then – so it’s a – I love that educational component, and really connecting, as you said, with what’s going on around us.




Felix [ph] – it’s a company you started at Xavier about – and you ran it for, gosh, seven years? Is that right?


So I actually ran it – so the way that it worked was, it was – so it was a movie rental store, which makes me feel really old. There was a gap – I noticed – I realized there was a gap on our campus for people to have a way to rent movies, and so I went out and created a movie rental store. It was called FliX [ph] with a capital X, because obviously, Xavier and Flix, whatever. Anyway, so I went and got a loan from the student government, and they gave me a very low interest rate on the loan, and started the first student run and owned business on the campus. And then the idea with that, we would get interns, and “we” meaning myself, and there were two other guys who worked with me. And we would get ourselves interns, and then we would prep them and groom them to then own the store, so we would pass it on to generations after us. And then it was also set up as a nonprofit, so that when we did have profits, they would go back to the scholarship fund for the university.


So key lessons there, when you think about the transference of knowledge from – you said generation, right? It’s that class cohort.




There’s a lot of learning involved in what’s in – what that means. How do you actually do that?


Oh, I had no idea what I was doing in general, so that was – there was so much learning from both the legal side, and I [INAUDIBLE] up to, how do you do that? How do you manage people, and how do you give them so much responsibility that they want to take over something after your time at the university is over?


I wish that universities did a better job of – across the board of creating that entrepreneurial opportunity at an earlier stage in people’s careers, maybe even at the high school level. I feel like the lessons that we learn when it’s our vision are so much greater than when we just plug into the workforce post-graduation. It allows us to see really the whole thing, and then also learn how we can fill the gaps ourselves.


Oh, absolutely. And I think that the hard part is, when you learn by owning something or leading something, it’s some – it can be very painful. And so I think academia can sometimes protect us from the pain, which is great because as humans, we’re naturally wanting to avoid painful circumstances. But at the same time, we won’t learn as much. So it’s maybe an easier route to go, but it’s certainly not the way at least that I learn the most.


So on the subject of being a student – and then post-graduation, of course everyone’s looking for a job, they want to put that knowledge to work – if you were a recent graduate or someone interested in entering into the insights arena from a career perspective, what advice would you give them in terms of how they can get a job?


So I found my job at Procter & Gamble, and the way that I found it was through my network. And so when I was at Xavier, I – because I started FliX, I sat at on the board of entrepreneurship for the university representing the student body. And there was a woman who also sat on the board of entrepreneurship at Xavier who was a director of insights at P&G. And she – that’s how we met; she was on the board representing entrepreneurship. And so she was like, what are you going to do when you graduate? I was like, I’m not really sure yet. She’s like, why don’t you come to P&G and we’ll teach you how to grow a billion dollar brand and how to be a leader, and then someday you can go start your own business again? And I was like, that sounds like a great idea. So it was really through my network that I found a job in marketing and insights, but I – the reason why P&G hired me was because of my leadership. So they really looked at – and they hire – so P&G is unique in that they don’t necessarily look at what degree you have. They hire a lot of people who have Spanish degrees or English degrees, history, political science. It’s very interesting. But what they look at most is what leadership positions you had. Did you start a company? Did you – were you a leader in a club? Were you leading a movement on your campus? What are those – can you be a leader? And they – their philosophy is, they can teach you the skills that you need to know. They will – that – they’re just looking for someone who’s ambitious and a leader. Now, I don’t think that’s most cases for most companies, so I think really it’s about networking with people early on in this field that you want to be in, and figuring out what it takes to get hired at their organization, what skill sets are they looking for. But I would bet that most of them would say leadership is key. So think about how many things can you be involved in and take a leadership role in as well.


Insight nation, this point that Kristi just made is huge. Two things stand out. One is the importance of developing your personal network. You can do that best in person where you are among your classmates and among your professors. The quote that comes to my mind is what Yoda said: Do or do not, there is no try. And it’s all about starting. You want to start – if you’re going to be a researcher or aspire to be a researcher, do research projects. It doesn’t even matter what they’re on; you can go to a small – local small business. It could be the bookstore on campus. Do a customer satisfaction, or intercept at the doors where you talk to people – how was your experience? What could the bookstore do better? Put that on your resume. It is a big differentiator from the people that have just spent time in the classrooms and focusing on grades.


I totally agree.


So what are the three characteristics of an all-star employee? And I’d like you to reflect on that in terms of both in the corporate environment, but then also as a startup.


So I think the number one thing of the employees that I am just over the moon about at KnowledgeHound, and with a consistent quality at P&G when I worked there, was that when you give them a problem to solve, they not only solve the problem, but they came back with two more additional solutions. So it was kind of like when you give someone one thing and they give you back three. And it’s this way that people see a bigger picture. They don’t just execute; they go above and beyond. So I think that is the number one thing that you can do to be the most productive employee for a company. I think the number two thing is really about being passionate about what you’re doing, and that means learning in the office and outside the office. So what are you doing in the evenings? You’re networking, reading a book. There’s extroverts – get a lot out of networking and learn a lot that way. Introverts get a lot out of reading. So whatever matches your style – you – it doesn’t mean you have to go to all these networking events. You can match it to your personal style. And then the third thing I would say is that really, it’s being proactive. So even when I don’t present you a problem and say, hey, come back and give me something, it’s being proactive and saying, hey, there’s actually a problem over here and I’m going to go solve it, and here’s the solution. I love that. That is the best thing an employee can do, is say, I see an opportunity, and let me go fix it.


Lifelong learner – I love that point. Recently I hired three staff; the people that I wound up hiring were – for example, we have a vlogger. It was – she actually had an active vlog on YouTube, was working on [INAUDIBLE sounds like: SEO], paying attention to how – the content that she was going to provide, how it related to current events to ultimately drive her viewership, her subscribers, level of engagement. All that activity, she was doing before she started working for me, so I knew she had a body of knowledge that she could transfer. But the thing that excited me the most about her was she had the capacity to figure out how to get stuff done. And that’s one of the reasons that I encourage all my employees, if they want to have side hustles or whatever, that – go ahead and pursue those things, because it’ll only make you a better employee and provide more value along the whole value chain. I think a lot of times people, especially right out of school, get locked into, this is my part of the process. But as you said, the people that are really valuable, they extend up and down that process chain so that the more comprehensive view they take, ultimately the better value they’ll add, because they’re identifying areas of inefficiency, etc.




So while you were at Procter & Gamble, I’m really curious, how does Procter & Gamble process, use insights to make business decisions?


Well, what do you mean by process and use? I guess that’s – there’s –


Where’s the inception point of, we need to do a research project now?


Oh. Well, so everything is led by a business problem. So – and this isn’t exactly how it works, but let’s say in a bubble, you start at the beginning of your fiscal year, and you go, what are all – what are the key things that we need to achieve this year? We need to grow share on – I’m making this up, but we need to grow share on Tide. So we know that’s the big broad question. We do some analysis on – some internal analysis on what core consumers we want to focus on. We probably have a segmentation that we use, and so we know that we have a huge share opportunity with a specific type of consumer. And so that’s where everything stems from at that point. Then we go through, here’s all of our hypotheses; now let’s go bust those. And we make a list of all the research that we need to do in order to achieve those objectives. And what I loved about P&G is they really taught me how to think about research that delivers an ROI back to the business. I think there’s oftentimes – now in the position I’m in at KnowledgeHound, I see a lot of insights functions where they don’t do a great job at explaining to the organization the ROI that they’re delivering. And I – and P&G would even say that they’re not – they have opportunity area here as well. But it’s – the key here is that, how do you make sure that you’re not viewed as a cost on the P&L, but rather a revenue driver? And the way to do that is to deliver research that drives – has a direct link to driving revenue. And what P&G did that was a really good practice I thought was, whenever they would do a study, there was always success criteria afterwards. And that success criteria – and before, we – when we were setting up the research, that success criteria was aligned to, decided upon, and everyone [INAUDIBLE] like, that means success for this. And that success criteria would be based on how it was going to drive revenue. And I think that’s really important to understand as an insight person, is that you’re not there to drive insights. You’re there to drive revenue, and your way of doing that is through insight. But at the end of the day, the business cares about revenue, and I don’t think I ever grasped that when I was at P&G. I think the first time I really got that was when I became a CEO of a company.


Oh my gosh. Probably my favorite quote I’ve heard so far interviewing everybody.




I love that. Listen, it’s not my job to deliver insights; it’s my job to deliver revenue. That puts such a profound focus on how I spend my time and what I need to deliver to the organization that moves the organization’s revenue numbers. It’s all about that.


That’s right. And I think especially when we get inside these large companies, the revenue, it becomes a magical number. It’s just like a number that shows up. Your salary shows up in your checking account magically, and you forget how that got there, and you forget that, oh, I actually needed to sell X many number of [INAUDIBLE] at Walmart to make that happen. But because you just start in a large organization and the money shows up automatically in your checking account, you forget that you’re actually directly linked to that. And until you really start your own business, or at least until I started my own business, did I realize, oh, every single thing I do on a daily basis is reflected in what happens with my checking account at the end of the month.


It’s huge. It’s a huge point; it’s on point. Thank you for that. So when you think about the impact of an ROI view on insights, do you think that’s part of what’s fueling the shift [INAUDIBLE sounds like: and spin] in our industry with a transition away from these long, large trackers, and more towards nimble, ad hoc based work?


Absolutely. I think there is – I think the pressure is becoming great – I think two things are happening. One is, the pressure is getting greater on companies to move faster. And so it’s like, we need to drive revenue faster, so how do we make decisions faster? And so what that is resulting in is that they’re either going – they’re just either going to make their decision without the insights, or when the insight’s conveniently there, they’ll make it with it. And so we are being forced in the insight function to go fast. The [INAUDIBLE] happening is that millennials are growing up inside these organizations, and millennials are used to getting things instantly. They have – they’ve all grown up with Google; they’ve all grown up with an iPhone. They’ve all – everything is instant gratification, and so they have no patience for the long cycle of going, here’s my business question, now let’s wait four weeks until we get the answer. That’s unacceptable to a millennial, and they will get scrappy and figure out how to get that answer, regardless if it comes from insights or not. And so as the insight function, we absolutely need to adopt these new technologies and embrace these new technologies so that we can be agile and make sure we stay relevant, because we will become obsolete in my opinion if we don’t – if we aren’t agile enough.


The shift in the generational focus to scrappiness, as you say, is on point also. I see that a lot with young researchers who haven’t been steeped in my two decades of, well, this is how a survey question needs to be asked; these are the three questions that always have to be at the beginning of my screening criteria. The fact that they’re starting with a speed to insight mentality is really driving significant behavior shifts in our space, and I think for the better, to be honest.


I agree. I think also there’s – a shift that’s also happening is, it’s good enough, versus, the data have to be absolutely perfect and pure. And that’s a really hard shift for many of our friends who have been in the – who are the purest market researchers who’ve been in the industry for 20-plus years. And there is unfortunately – with moving fast, there is a bit of a compromise. And so we, as insight professionals, need to get better at triangulating three different data points that may not be perfect, but being – saying, this is good enough to make – and the risk is this low that we can just go forward. And that’s a different mentality than what we’ve had in the past.


It’s interesting. I love this point. The – having started my career doing in – mall intercepts, doing telephone based surveys, I am – there’s probably not a lot of people that know how dirty the data really is, or was, I should say, in those golden years. But I take your point entirely and agree with it. So you’re at Procter & Gamble; obviously you recognize there’s an opportunity. What was that opportunity, that white space, to propel KnowledgeHound?


So I think it’s actually very similar to what we have been talking about, which is agility. So the story that I tell often is that I was in a meeting; our GM of male grooming at the time, Chip, turned to me and he’s like, Kristi, what percent of men shave in the shower? And I was like, I’m sure we know that. And I was actually thinking in my head about the banner tables that we get back from our suppliers, and I’m like, I’m sure it’s on tab 200-and-something on some banner table somewhere. And –


It’s 55% though I think. I just saw it on the Web site. Sorry, go ahead.


And in – so that’s where the genesis of KnowledgeHound came from, which I was like, hey, this is silly that I can’t just have a Google-like experience with my data. And so I set out to create the Google of market research data. Now, that’s ebbed and flowed throughout the past five years. That’s exactly what we are, and the market’s taken us one direction, and now we’re coming back to another. But it’s been really interesting in solving this problem for the insights world, because it was one that was felt and is still being felt today, and by many, many insights functions.


So the tension being, there’s this vast amount of data that exists inside of people’s inboxes at large corporations, and even inside of research management tools. But being able to find that data in an easy way is very, very difficult, and then being able to incorporate that in a broader view is difficult. How has the market created a pivot for you?


So it was interesting. When we started the company, the – we – I was like, here’s this amazing tool where you can search any data that you want. And they said, oh, this is great, but you know what, I just need to search my PowerPoints and my Word documents first; I can’t even get that done. And I wasn’t really excited about doing that piece, and – but in order to close deals, that’s what we needed to do. So we really kind of – the market brought us back, in my opinion brought us back, to square one, which was, hey, you’re at the one phase; we’re at the crawl phase, so come back and help us index our PowerPoints, and then we’ll get to the data later. And so we spent a couple years trying to go back a bit, and now we’re back on, now let’s think about data. And finally the market’s catching up with us on this whole data piece.


Because the structure of the data is the issue, right?




How do you identify and pull out survey based data, which all has – wrapped up in meta, so you understand this is a multi or single or open end or whatever data structure. But how do you make sense of that and then make sure that it matches other stuff? So if it’s a gender or age question, it’s a little bit easier mapping that across other projects. Is – has the problem been the metadata issue inside of the different survey platforms? Or –


Yeah, so I think the – for our clients, it was really – it was more so – they just were so lost in curating their own knowledge. So for them, the problem was, hey, I can’t get to my PowerPoints and my Word documents. But for us, from a data standpoint, we are – we’re more so like, well, how do we take the brain out of getting you a data point? So for us, it’s actually been less about the data structure. It’s been more about the user experience, and how do you get someone who’s never done analytics, never done a cross-tab before, never done a filter on data, to understand how to do that, or even eliminate that step so that when they ask a question, they can get right to the data point that they want, versus having to layer on top a filter, having to create a cross-tab?


So it’s a lot like Statistica for research.


Yeah, exactly.


The – I want to hone in on this Statistica connection. Has the organizational adoption been a barrier? In other words, they already have a way of getting, quote-unquote, their insight, whether it’s just some manual digging, and they’re used to that and they’re just unwilling to start in an unstructured way, like a Google search.


So the adoption actually hasn’t – so we’ve got a full – so on the adoption piece, it’s really about, how do you get into someone else’s work flow? How do you work your way into their day so that they need – they think, oh, first I use KnowledgeHound, then I use this tool, then I use that tool? And it really is fitting in part of their day to drive adoption, whereas – and so we have a whole client success team that helps people do this, because habit change is really, really hard. And so really, it’s about staying top of mind for them, how to get into a work flow that they currently have. And that’s what’s really important about driving adoption, is making sure we’re there at that point when they need us, and we’re top of mind for them.


What is KnowledgeHound offering right now that’s getting the most purchase in the market?


So we – it is our data offering, which is the ability to search across every single consumer survey platform you’ve ever done and generate charts on the fly. So a company like a P&G could go in and be like, percent of people that – I’m making this up, but percent of people that shave in the shower. There you go, example from before. They can go in now and type that in and get their data point instantly. So really we are serving a data management, helping people think about, how do I manage all this data that I have? We are that solution for them, and that’s what’s getting the most traction today.


Last question. Really want to crack into your entrepreneurial roots here. What is the one secret that you have – I can’t believe I’m asking; this is awesome. What is the one secret that you have that drives either profitability, growth, or overall success for a startup?


Oh my gosh. There isn’t just one thing. And I don’t even know if it’s a secret, but you know –