IIeX North America 2019 Podcast Series

IIeX NA 2019 Conference Series – Manish Mittal – Course5

Welcome to the 2019 IIEX North America Conference Series. Recorded live in Austin, this series is bringing interviews straight to you from exhibitors and speakers at this year’s event. In this interview, host Jamin Brazil interviews Manish Mittal, Senior Vice President – Business Head at Course5.

Contact Manish Online:




Manish Mittal and I basically grew up together in the market research space.  He started a company called Cross-Tab way back when. It’s now been rebranded into Course5.  He’s going to talk about the three pillars of Course5 and the evolution and how he has been able and his team has been able to drive successfully year-over-year growth.  They’re are now over 1,000 people, continue to make pivots and major changes, and continue to be disruptive and add a lot of value to market research professionals. Enjoy.   


So, my guest today is Manish with Course5, course5i.com, if you’re looking for them.  Tell me a little bit about your business.


Right, I think we have a slightly diverse kind of a business, if I have to bracket it into three parts of that business.  So, one is what we call a market research AI business. I lead that business. Then there is a digital analytics business.  And then we have what we call as market intelligence business. Those are the three businesses. We started with a company called Cross-Tab, which was more of a market research operations.  Then we also delved into this more of a market intelligence kind of a business by the name Blueocean Market Intelligence. Recently, a year back, we merged the two businesses and we called it Course5i.  And the whole idea of naming this as Course5 is the fifth course, which is the future is what we’re trying to help the clients with.


I think that’s really clever.  I was checking out your website earlier today.  And Cross-Tab, I was actually a fan of back in the early days.  You guys started (I might be misremembering) but I want to say it was around like 2004 or 2003, maybe even.


Yeah, I think 2001, 2002 when we started.  You’re two off.


Then I remember you guys in the trade show circuits, of course.  It was a very interesting value prop. And I think it’s really smart how you have evolved your business to accommodate the changes in the market research space, which a lot of firms don’t actually successfully navigate those pivots.  Talk to me about from Cross-Tab to now Course5, where you’re plotting the future. I mean that’s a BIG difference, right? What is one of the big challenges that the company has faced going through that transition?


I think one of the biggest challenges has been about the change itself.  We are almost 1,000 people employed in the company. And I think there is a huge amount of inertia.  You have been doing a certain way all these years, and now the change you want to bring in. So when we are trying to move in that direction, maybe you want to bring in that digital transformation in any piece of our business and also in the research piece of business.  So, the biggest, the hardest of the change are both internal as well as external. The team itself, while they’re excited, but at the same time, there is a question in terms of, “Is it going to be the next thing?”, “Is it the right approach?” And the same with the clients were used to a certain style of dealing with the organization.  And they’re feeling that kind of a change. In many cases, they are very welcoming; they’re very excited but, I think, as an industry, the market research industry, if you look at the genesis of this industry, it has been pretty slow in terms of adoption of that kind of a change. I think that’s what we are seeing, but I think we are not losing out.  I think we believe that’s the future. And we are hanging on to that, and I think it’s just a matter of time and people will start appreciating and accepting it.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.  Well, congratulations on your success.  A thousand: that’s a big number; that’s a huge number.  How have you guys maintained growth over the decades?


I think two things.  One, of course, in the same set of business, one we call scaling and one we call growth.  How we have scaled in the same piece of business is just one way to look at it. And we have never been too hungry in terms of adding too many clients to the portfolio.  Can we go deep into the same set of? So that’s more scaling. And growth has been in terms of extension of our business. We are not really wanting to diversify from a research to something very random and something which is off-beat.  But in the same space can we identify “spaces,” which we think are niche, as well there is a humongous amount of opportunity. And we want to bring in that growth from that perspective. So, I think that those are the two things which we have done, I believe, successfully.  There have been failures in the past, but I think we have learned from those failures. And we have been also smart in cutting down our losses. It’s not that we invest something and we want to unnecessarily stick with that. If we realize that it’s not the great thing we want to really pursue any further, we’ll cut down on that and focus on areas where we think that kind of growth and scaling happen.      


Got it.  That makes a lot of sense.  So, your sales force, about how big is it?  


We kind of define our sales force as hunters and farmers.  The farmers are more classified as account managers, and the hunters are more classified as the sales.  In U.S. itself we will have more than 15 people in the sales team and across the globe put together around 30 of them.  So that’s the size of the sales team. And, of course, I’m not counting myself as a sales person but I’m also playing that kind of a role.     


What advice would…  ‘cause you have a lot of early stage zero to maybe a million dollars of revenue on the floor right now, like a lot.  What advice would you give those entrepreneurs?


If I’m getting it correct, I find a lot of startups that I’m seeing is a startups which are trying to bring in newer spaces, getting into the newer spaces and bringing in the semblance of technology or the artificial intelligence or those kinds of things.  And we ourselves are trying to dive into that space fairly, fairly aggressively. I have been in the research industry for many, many years. And, as an industry, we’ve taken a lot of pride in terms of providing that consultancy, understanding of that domain, really making sense out of that kind of data to our customers.  And when we’re trying to make that big change by bringing in those new technology interventions, I think we have to understand two or three things: One – not everything can be replaced by technology. So we need to really pick out our battle where see that AI or technology can really make that kind of difference.

Secondly, there has to be a balance of people:  the real world, the people, and the technology part of it.  We should not really push to replace everything with technology because there will be humongous amount of resistance to that because the research world has dealt very differently than maybe the analytics world or the other kind of world.  So I think those are the two or three pieces of advice I would give. Pick your battle and don’t try and replace everything and too fast because there’s a higher chance of you being pushed back than you being accepted in the marketplace.   


This is a really important point that I think the audience needs to tune in to.  I heard this from a number of interviews at the brand level. And what they’re not looking for is a new technology.  What they’re really looking for is a new partner that can help solve their business problems and then, in that partnership, it isn’t just about like a one-trick pony where you meet some niche need.  It’s really about having a depth of connection to that business so that when you deliver an insight or empower an insight, there’s an overall context to that insight, to the problems of the business is facing also at that point in time so that you can really frame the answer, the insight in a way that’s meaningful and will drive change in the organization.  


Absolutely.  And, in fact, if I talk very briefly about some of the things which we are trying to do…


That’d be great.


For example, on the very operations sides of things, we realized over the years, it’s extremely a cost factor.  The entire operations is a cost to the organization. There’s no greater value from an organization. And it has been a lot driven by how cheaper can you get, how faster can you get.  And through a normal intervention, you’ll hit the ceiling; you can’t go any further. And that’s where we’re trying to bring the power of AI. Can we really use that power of AI to make that huge change.  By any stretch of imagination, the entire market research operation, barring the sample collection, is an 8 to 10-billion-dollar industry. That’s humongous. If I’m able to bring in a cost efficiency of even 10%, that’s a lot of money on the table.       


Lot of money.


And that only adds to your bottom line and the speed to market.  Because there is better speed to market, now the entire corporation world is comparing your delivery to the alternative world.  “They can deliver in two-days’ time; you still take two weeks of time.” If I can really cut down on that time as well as other costs, that will give a new life to the entire MR world.  And that is one of the interventions that we are doing.   

Second intervention is I believe the primary research world is all about the perishable things.  You consume and then you throw that data. Can we use all of that knowledge which we have kind of accumulated over the years and make a far superior use of that?  For example, we launched [unclear] optimization, which is using a lot of your past creative and the consumer data, do a meta-analysis to say how you can be smarter and better in the future.  So I think you have to again identify those areas where you can make a real change. And again, the change is not replacing the existing one but kind of enhancing to that particular set.


Love that.  Super interesting.  Yeah, kind of going all the back to the beginning of our conversation…  When I think about growth, I think about like corporate growth; I think about building a bridge of “I’m here, and I want to be there.”  And there are six pillars that I use to achieve growth, two of which are new customer acquisition, which from a blank perspective, should be about 10%, maybe 20%.  But your existing customer base should represent a material gain for about 80% of that growth. And so, I think that… I was just talking with another CEO earlier (I won’t mention their name because this is your episode) but I thought it was really interesting that their seeing a tremendous tick-up in their current customer base.  And I think that goes to your strengths. If you can just deliver value to the customer in the context of their business problems, whether it’s budgetary constraints or timing constraints or quality constraints or innovation constraints, then you’re going to win in the long term.


Absolutely, absolutely.  And again I think, as I started by saying that we have to pick our battle.  We cannot be best in everything. What is our strength? How can we augment that with some kind of emerging possibilities?  And some of the niche areas where we can really play and add value.


Do you use or leverage other partners like maybe even some of the smaller companies here for your customers or do you usually build up the tech yourselves?


Not really.  So again, again, the whole idea is we don’t want to be the tech giants of the technical… call it as a horizontal versus vertical.  Verticals are the business problems you’re trying to solve, and the horizontals are those tech you trying to [unclear]. We are actually using a lot of those tech companies who have built sophisticated engines, but we are there to solve the business problem.  We use the technology, add to the business relevance, and then place it in the marketplace. Some of the technology, we, of course, build in-house, but not everything and anything.


Got it.  So, if a company like brand or agency has particular technology that they like a lot, they could leverage you guys to partner with them?


Oh, absolutely.  That’s the whole idea.  


Got it, got it.  Manish, thanks for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.  If somebody wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that?


They can reach out to me on my mail ID which is manish.mittal@course5i.com.  I think that’s the best way; I’m always available on that.


Perfect, and that’ll be in the show notes as well.  


Awesome.  Thanks, Jamin.  Thanks for your lovely discussion.


Enjoy the rest of the show.  Thanks so much.


Thanks, Jamin.