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.
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Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted. Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Baillie Buchanan, CRO of Research for Good. Research for Good is a sample and fieldworks solutions provider dedicated to delivering high quality data in 13 countries. They’re unique in the industry in that they also make a corporate donation to charities for every survey that is completed. Prior to founding Research for Good, Baillie has spent over a decade in the marketing research industry. Baillie, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Thanks so much for having me, Jamin.
You know our signature question is tell us what your parents did and how that’s affected your career.
I love this question. I had to do a little bit of self-reflection. It made me think. So, my parents both grew up and started their careers outside of the U.S. My mom is from Scotland and worked as part of the administrative staff at NATO headquarters in Belgium before meeting my dad and moving with my father to Canada and then eventually to the U.S. where she finished her career working for travel agencies focused on international travel. And my dad’s career started in Canada. He specialized in international finance throughout his career, met my mom in Belgium, moved several more times, including all of us as a family moved to Holland for a year when I was a child. And then we finally settled in Seattle, and he finished his career in treasury for the Savers, also known as Value Village Organization. Interestingly, that company is a for-profit organization, working as a fund-raising engine for non-profits, which is a business philosophy not unlike that which I’m running now. So, looking back, I can say certainly having a two-career, parent household had a lot of impact on me as well as moving a few times, especially internationally. And their guidance, it really led me to become quite independent at an early age, learn how to be adaptable to new situations and new people, which I think drives a real desire to understand people and really an almost perverse compulsion to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I just can’t stop doing it. [laughs]
I love that. And there’s a lot to unpack here. The 13 countries that you’re currently serving… It sounds like, given your background of starting outside of the U.S., and then really mom NATO, coming in from Canada, etc…. All of that helped inform probably a global view as opposed to more of a national U.S., North America centric, or U.K. centric or wherever most of us have spent our early years.
Yeah, absolutely, it has really colored my perception. We traveled a lot when I was young as well, having family that lives in countries outside of the U.S. It does definitely color the lens by which you look at both what’s happening here domestically and what’s happening outside of our borders.
So, is part of that lens the discrepancy in the quality of life based on geography?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think so. I’m always open to… I’m always trying to life hack, right, and figure out what’s best. Where’s the best place to be? Where should we be positioning ourselves? Actually, as a company, we have several teams that are international. And so, we work as a virtually run company. And that has been an interesting perspective and kind of brings together that kind of global perspective on things.
I think the… So, tell me a little about some of the… You know you’ve got this – I’ll call it a double bottom line. (I’m not sure if that’s completely accurate.) But you have, obviously… You’re a for-profit entity, correct?
We are, yes, for profit.
So you have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders, but then at the same time you also have an element of your net profits that are going to support social good, right? So, in that framework, tell us a little bit about how you are making a difference as a company. Are you donating to a specific organization or set of organizations?
So, we have a one-for-one model where for every survey that one of our respondents completes, they receive a personal reward and then, on top of that, we make a donation to our charity partner. And, for the last several years, we’ve had just one charity partner and that’s Action Against Hunger. They’re a global organization working to solve the problem of hunger globally, and they look at hunger very holistically. So it’s not just feeding someone, but it’s looking at education and infrastructure and clean water. So beyond just emergency relief and famine relief, they’re looking at hunger very broadly and doing a lot of really great work. So we’re pleased to be partnered with them; we’re partnering again with them next year. So, all of our donations go to that organization. And what’s unique about the way we’ve structured it is that this is baked into the DNA of our company from day 1 from survey complete number 1. We have always made a donation with every complete. Even before we were profitable as a company, we were making these donations. So it’s really fundamental to the DNA and the value system of how we built the business.
I just tweeted yesterday, “Karma always wins.” And I believe I’m living proof of that in some aspects – both positive and negative. [laughter] I have seen where people are minded beyond just the bottom line, that those corporations tend to do better in the long haul, right? The tension though is always how do I manage those shareholder expectations. And I like how you’re doing it very systematically where just have a one-to-one ratio. And that’s just the non-negotiable. But part of my question I guess is really why hunger. Now hunger is a material problem; I’m not trying to demean it. But there’s lots of different charities that you could be looking at. Did you have some experience with that or views into that early on?
It is a problem that has been close to our hearts. And the reason we chose hunger is that… We’re a four-founder team and all of us have young kids. (Some of them are older now as the business has grown.) We looked at what were we driven to make better in the world. And the thought of children anywhere going hungry was gut-wrenching to us. And so we sought out a charitable partner who was working on that core issue. And we wanted to choose a partner that was being very smart about the work that they were doing, responsible with the money they were taking on and using and spending that in a way that we felt that we could get behind. It’s always been a passion choice for us. Although this year we did open… So, we worked with Action Against Hunger for several years. This year we allowed the industry to vote. We thought it may be time to… You know we’ve done a lot of good for that organization. Maybe we can share what we’re doing with other organizations working on other problems because there are so many. But, actually, through the voting process, the industry spoke and told us that they loved our partnership with Action Against Hunger. So we were really happy to make the decision to stick with them again for another year. So that’s super exciting. And I think that it has had a couple of maybe some unintended benefits: it’s a cause that everyone can get behind; so, both our customers and our clients as well as the respondents can all kind of rally behind what we’re doing, and it’s a real call to action that resonates with everyone.
Yeah, I like that a lot. Personally, so I’m a member of the board of directors for a local Boys and Girls Club. We have 19 chapters in the central valley of California. This goes back years – like 2007 when I joined originally. Through the interview process, I was taking a walk around one of the clubs, and the young woman who was giving me the tour said… She was very sharp, and I knew she was paid minimum wage, which kind of surprised me. There was just like delta between what her capacity was and what her compensation was. And I asked her why she was working in the job. Not in a bad way, you know what I mean, but was it a higher calling or what? And she goes… When she did her first tour walking around and she saw some kids in the back of the campus where the after-school program was happening and so she went back there and kind of pseudo was going to reprimand them and when she kind of uncovered what they were doing, they were literally trying to get food for dinner out of the trash cans. For her this, as you said, this gut-wrenching point of reference where “Wow, there’s this massive need here that is worthy of some hard work and sacrifice for us.” For her personally. Obviously, as a society, we need to pay attention to that. I think it’s – to your point – not a politically contentious issue at all, and it is certainly one that… If you can address hunger, you start addressing a lot of other issues. So it’s almost this meta topic I think in a lot of ways.
Absolutely, and it’s a solvable problem too. You know there’s the global goals initiative, which says that hunger is a solvable problem and a problem that can be solved in our lifetime. So there are great organizations working toward really solving that problem because, as you said, it can solve a lot of other problems too. If you’re not hunger, you can further your education. You can go to school, pay better attention in school, further yourself, you know, rise out of other situations that are unfavorable. Really, it’s the root of a lot that can be better about the world today.
Yeah, exactly. You open up a lot of doors when you get those… (It’s been a while since I’ve said the word. Milo, is that right? The hierarchy of needs. Maslow, Maslow – the hierarchy of needs, right?) The benefit is just multifaceted at the human level even down to how parents can feel about their parenting skills, right?… ability to be able to provide. And that has a whole subsequent warm glow or halo effect over self-confidence inside of the home and etc. etc. Important issue. It’s encouraging to see you guys pioneer this – I’ll again call it double bottom line approach. Do you feel like it functions as a hindrance in some ways though? Being competitive in the market place or do you feel like it actually maybe goes the other way and is – because you have this social good element – it functions as opening more doors or what have you.
Yeah, I think it’s certainly a balance, but we find that it has more of a positive effect than perhaps a negative effect of taking funds and donating them to a charity versus reinvesting them in the business. For example, when we started the company and started to grow, we realized very quickly that in order to sustain a model of being able to allocate funds towards donations, we had to build a platform for our sampling that was highly scalable and super-efficient so that we could sustain that model through our growth. The technology that we’ve had to put in place and build has been home grown with this model in mind to be scalable and allow us the ability to be uber-efficient. And we have to be uber-efficient in everything that we’re doing. There’s no room for waste in our organization. So, that’s one impact. Additionally, it’s been good at keeping us very in touch with the human element of sampling. I think, especially as you start to move beyond panel and into the real-time sampling and the recruiting of respondents through multivariant sources, you move away from seeing the respondent as a human and into the realm of this… (hate calling it a commodity, but it’s a transaction, right?) But, because there’s such a human element to what we’re doing, we’ve had to really stay laser-focused on the respondent and their engagement, and valuing the respondent so that they continue to participate in market research surveys because, without their participation, none of this is possible. None of the donations that we’re making is possible and, obviously, the clients don’t get the insights that they need. And it has always been, and continues to be, really a motivator for us as a founding team and everyone who works with us. It’s great to come to work every day and work for a corporation and drive revenue and grow a company and that’s great. But, when there’s this additional value-add of a cause that’s greater than the corporate organization, it gives that little extra boost to the motivation to just drive excellence every day and make sure… It makes coming to work feel good and means something more than just your paycheck at the end of the day.
100%. This whole social good narrative is, I believe, going to continue to be an important differentiator for companies. In our space, we’ve been a little bit slow to adopt. Are you seeing other companies start picking up on this theme, granted not at a dollar-per-dollar basis but maybe in some other aspects?
We’ve certainly seen… I think it’s not unusual for a sample or panel company to offer respondents the opportunity to donate their incentives. Several other companies have that type of model. I think what’s unique in our model and I’m not aware of anyone else doing is that we don’t actually ask the respondent to make that donation or make the choice to give up what is theirs to the cause. They get their full reward. A full incentive is paid to the respondent or shared with the respondent, and we’re making that donation from our end of the transaction. And I think that’s unique. And I think the industry is a little bit at a crisis point around respondent participation and really getting back to respecting the respondents as human beings with lives and valuable time. And this is a model that, in our opinion, values that respondent transaction just that much more. We’re not asking them to give up anything. The donation piece is a value-add to their participation with us.
Yeah, respondents are not renewable resources. There’s a ton of data that illustrates that. After a few bad experiences, you’re going to lose that respondent for their in perpetuity, and back-filling is just tough. [laughter] Bad model. I would say that, in general, I think that research companies or panel companies, more specifically, are becoming more aware of the cost. And that’s why you do see such a non-linear increase in price based on length of interview. But it’s an interesting model that you have My hunch – and I don’t have the data – but my hunch is that increased buy-in with employees; increased attention to operating margin, that is, efficiency; and then increased buy-in from respondents probably drives a very favorable outcome for you inside of the market. And me, personally, whenever I see a press release of a partnership with you and somebody else, I literally would take the time to process that as opposed to go, “Oh, another press release,” right? And the reason why is I’m a little bit envious (This is the truth.) I’m a little bit envious of that partnership, right, because I feel like there’s this halo of good that is associated with your partnership network. And I DO believe that has material impact on what you guys are doing in the space.
Yeah, absolutely. One of our favorite things to do is at the end of the month we send emails out to all of our clients that specifically outline the impact that our work together that month had. So, at a client level, we can say because we ran x number of projects together, we donated x amount of meals or amount of money. And we get to share that back with our clients. The response from the clients is very positive, but it also just feels great to us that we get to share back with the corporate researchers the social good that they’re doing as well. Just by choosing us to be their partner – all other things being equal in service levels and data quality in everything else – there is a little bit of an extra feel-good factor there that I HOPE our clients enjoy from working with us.
Yeah, absolutely. So, let’s shift gears a little bit and dive into your background. We started with your parents, international-based experience. You know you had Peanut Labs on your resume, which is really impressive. But what were you doing before Peanut Labs?
So, I started my career at GMI before it was part of Lightspeed. I started right at the bottom: sales assistant and kind of worked my way up. I actually had the opportunity to be transferred to… (I was working in Seattle.) … had the opportunity to be transferred to their London office for a year to start up the inside sales function over there. So I did that for a year, and then when I decided that it was time to come back, that’s when I made the jump over to Peanut Labs.
And then from Peanut Labs, of course, you had a successful transition. You guys were acquired, correct?
Yes. So Peanut Labs was acquired by Research Now. I had been working in business development, a little bit of marketing, and really focus on educating the market place about what was then a new platform for sampling in social media. Peanut Labs was all social media sampling at that time. So, we were really helping researchers to understand that way of recruiting and engaging respondents and kind of educating them that this was a methodology that had merit, could be representative, and wasn’t just a fad. That was a bit of an uphill battle, but eight or more years later wherever we are now, it’s kind of standard operating procedure. So that’s been a fun evolution to be part of.
Of course, about two billion people now on social media. It’s definitely going to be around for a while.
Yes, it’s no passing fad. [laughs]
So, what was the impetus moving out of that corporate successful environment and then starting your own company?
So, I think that what we loved about Peanut Labs was driving the growth and the entrepreneurial spirit of a young and small organization. So, it became pretty clear when the transaction with Research Now went through that that wouldn’t necessarily be the case, that there wouldn’t be that opportunity to be as entrepreneurial within that larger organization. Wanting to continue building and growing an early-stage company, we were actually inspired by the ideas of a friend in the industry who was using donations to non-profit organizations and I think church groups as well as a way to recruit for in-person focus groups. So we decided to kind of repurpose that idea, take a slightly different approach and apply that to online quantitative sample. And that’s how we got to our methodology.
I like that, but there’s a big bridge between understanding what the methodology is and then just like stepping into the abyss of entrepreneurship, right? [laughter] …especially when you have a tech-heavy offering, which I imagine you did in the early days. What was one of the biggest challenges you and your team faced in starting Research for Good?
Ah, where do I begin? I think growing a sample company is an interesting challenge because it’s very much a chicken-and-egg problem where you can’t drive respondent growth, access to respondents without having survey inventory. And you can’t have survey inventory without having a pool of available respondents. So how do you grow the two simultaneously in a way that, you know? A researcher wants to come to you and say, “I need a thousand of this type of person.” And you got to deliver. As you’re growing, these needs are not always exactly lined up with each other, so it’s a big challenge to try to figure out how to deliver and how to grow both of those pieces at the same time. It’s a huge challenge; it continues to be a challenge. We are continually rocking back and forth on that seesaw: respondent growth and demand growth.
Yeah, the utilization of the respondents or the panelists, you know… You got to have enough inventory for them to participate in so that you maintain the engagement, of course, and you maintain the income.
Right. Yeah, a sample buyer doesn’t want to buy a portion of the completes from you, generally. So you’ve got to be able to deliver full projects to continue to engage with the clients as well and the researchers who just need to get their project done.
Then in those early days, going forward with the unique double-bottom line company has its own fundraising challenges I would imagine; I’ve never gone through that.
Yes, so we primarily have bootstrapped the company. It hasn’t been as much of a fundraising challenge for us because we’ve grown the company in a way that we, you know… Talk about uber-efficiency: we’re not only making donations but we’re reinvesting in our own business to fund our own growth.
I love that. It’s so rare. You know we did the same thing in Decipher. It’s so rare for entrepreneurs to start at that level, mentality-wise. I don’t know if it’s always doable by the way. So, if you can find a path to not having an outside investor from Day 1, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache down the road and maintain a lot of autonomy in terms of how YOU want to spend the net profits that you hopefully achieve one day.
So as a successful founder, driving a very unique company in a highly competitive market, what do you see as one of the secrets that drives either growth, profitability, or success?
I think for us… We talked a lot about the mission. That is truly the core of what makes this business work. The mission is the core tenant of our company; it’s the rallying cry; it’s the driving force; and it’s what drives each person in the organization to pursue excellence. There’s no room for mediocrity when we’re trying to do what we’re doing. So, that starts at the top with our four-founder team. We make strategic decisions together; we live and die by those decisions together. It’s not to say that sometimes, you know… It gets a bit messy. We don’t always come up with the right answer the first time. But, by keeping the mission at the forefront of everything we do, it drives all of us. It keeps us on the right path forward. And I think that’s so crucial in maintaining a core focus as a business because it’s so easy… (And we’re guilty of this ourselves.) …it’s so easy to get distracted by, you know, shiny-object syndrome and what’s this great idea over here. And there are SO many great ideas, and we want to be able to do them all but, by maintaining this focus on mission and efficiency and excellence, we have had to drive and deep dive onto what we do well and do it exceptionally well to continue that forward momentum.
So, as your business has been growing, of course you’ve been adding head count, what do you see as three characteristics for an all-start employee?
Yeah, I love this question because I’ve obviously been a listener of your podcast as well and there are definitely some themes you see emerging and that are kind of getting repeated because they’re just so important. So I would say that for our organization – I love alliteration – so we talk about a good employee is someone who is humble, hungry, and high energy. And it’s the unique combination of all three that I think is actually a rare find and a rare gem. The energy of each member of the team impacts the whole team. Similar to what Dyna at Survata mentioned in one of your recent episodes, its all about a positive attitude and a willingness to just make stuff happen whether it’s technically your job or not. We look for people who are hungry for growth opportunities: that could be simply they just want to drive, drive, drive on their job or they’re hungry to learn a new skill or anything that an employee is proactive about working on to always be improving. And a humble attitude – and what I mean by humble is someone who is willing to learn, willing to bring forth ideas even when they may be canned or won’t be implemented or we have to shelf them for later or we have to poke holes in it to see if it’s the right ideas for us at the right time; someone who is willing to kind of change with the ever pivoting needs of a small nimble organization and who doesn’t have ego about it. So humble, hungry, and high-energy that’s kind of the trio that I think makes a rock-start employee.
I love that you really nailed it in terms of to the Dyna interview talking about the energy vampire, right? That’s the opposite of what we want; we want the people that are injecting energy in the meetings on Monday morning when they come in. Gosh, that humble piece: that is a consistent element in almost every single one of the interviews said in different words, of course; the ability to have a strong point of view or an idea, be able to bring it to the table, and then let other people pick it apart and not feel like you have to defend it. Being willing to be wrong either wholly or partly and then reembrace whatever is left is just a critical part throughout the organization.
And I think a fallacy in some organizations, looking from the outside in, is that all the ideas come from the top, and I think that that’s absolutely not the case. Maybe the initial idea came from the top, and that’s what initiated the business. But the day-to-day ideas that come from the people directly liaising with the clients, directly on the ground floor doing the work are some of the best ideas to continue to grow and scale that business. Team members who are willing to bring forth ideas is (And sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.) but that’s key. The other thing too, especially energy when you were talking about that just now, reminded me that we’re running an organization that’s primarily virtual. All of us founders work from home, and we have remote employees, and so bringing that energy to the table in a remote environment is that much more difficult and that much more important when I compare that to previous jobs where I’ve worked in an office environment with other team members. The ability to maintain high energy, enthusiasm, open lines of communication through email and Slack and Zoom video calls is so key to building a culture in a remote workforce.
An entirely remote workforce is super interesting. There’s lots of challenges with having remote employees. I’ve managed quite a few obviously. At FocusVision, 13 offices globally and then, of course, we had remote workers as well. How have you dealt with the accountability element associated with the remote employee?
That’s a great question. We’re very metrics-focused and goal-oriented in the way that we manage the team. So, to the extent possible, everything is managed to goal outcomes. And we, having a founder mentality that we’ve hired adults, and we expect you to do your job; we can see that you’re doing your job by hitting your goals and, if that’s not happening, then there are issues that will be addressed. Maintaining visibility and metrics… Now we’re not asking people for timesheets and things like that. In our environment, it’s: get your job done whatever time of day that may be or however many hours that means you put in that day and less the next day or whatnot. We’re not micromanaging it, but I think when you set expected goals and productivity outcomes and then measure against those to make sure they’re being hit, you can ensure that you are getting the work product you need out of a team even though you’re not sitting next to them in the office. But it is certainly a challenge.
And the nice part about that too is you’re able to get a sense of velocity so you can understand what that person is capable of and then reward accordingly and then also monitor how they’re improving. So, getting down to the other point that you had made about innovation really needs to happen from within as opposed to top down, that is so 100% accurate, right? So, I think about gross margin: the improvement on operational efficiency is… It can be done by “I’m going to fire 10% of staff.” Clearly, that’s a possibility. But another way of tackling that is to put the challenge out there to the organization and have internal innovation competitions and identify “Hey, if I get my work formatted in this different format, then it’ll save me whatever, two hours per project.” When you multiply that three projects a week, all of a sudden, you’ve got a material savings, right? I think this metric-focused, goal-oriented approach has short-term and long-term benefits for managing employees. And, obviously, it’s a discipline that I think most organizations that I’ve been exposed to don’t have. Hard to implement, of course, and keep, but once it’s in place, seems like it’d be a very, very powerful tool.
Yeah. I would not claim to be perfect at it. We have to challenge ourselves to continue to stay this razor-focused, but the benefits pay off. And we’ve actually had the experience of our team members and our project managers taking this mentality and applying it to our clients’ projects and actually going to clients and saying, “If you changed operationally the way you run this tracker, over time it could make the sampling for this project x amount more efficient and save you significant amount of money in your sampling costs.” And that’s huge value-add for a client for a fieldwork partner to say, “If you thought about your survey in this slightly different way, we could save you money.” That’s huge and that’s because that’s the mentality within our organization that then they naturally apply to looking at all aspects of the business.
Yeah, it’s interesting how the mission just continues to inform every part of the work delivery. So, what is Research for Good offering right now that is finding purchase among your customers?
Ooh, excellent question. So, our customer, for the most part, is a market research firm or agency. And our specialty is two-fold: it’s number one – sampling the human component of data collection and two – it’s fieldwork, ensuring that projects run and are optimized to meet budgets and timeframes and deliver that actionable data that is so necessary. The value that this adds is that it frees up our clients, the true research and insights professionals, to spend more time delivering what brings value to their clients – the brands. And that’s the insights, the answers to the business problem and, ultimately, driving revenue for that brand or client as Kristi Zuhlke mentioned from Knowledge Hound in her talk. At the end of the day, what researchers need to do is really start to tie the insights that they’re delivering to revenue growth and the bottom line of the organization to become not just an expense-line item but actually a value-add. And I think that’s so important. So where we excel and our wheelhouse is that middle part, that delivery engine so that our clients can spend less time thinking about, “Where am I going to get the next 300 people I need for this project?” and “Is it going to close on time?” and “Are my quotas filling appropriately?” and on and on and on. We take care of all of that so that they can think about the true insights and deliver that value.
So, very much white glove, customer-centric delivery.
My guest today has been Baillie Buchanan, CRO of Research for Good. Baillie, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast.
Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, Sima Vasa, entrepreneur, advisor, accelerator, investor, and podcast hostess with the mostest. Tune in. It’s going to be awesome.