Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 225 – Jenny Karubian – Hacks for Building a Successful Market Research Agency

My guest today is Jenny Karubian, Founder and CEO of Ready to Launch. Founded in 2014, Ready to Launch is a consultancy based in LA that helps firms launch new ideas, products, and technologies that better serve their customers. Jenny has extensive experience as an ethnographic researcher and is a professor of anthropology, sociology and gender studies.

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Website: https://readytolaunchresearch.com

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Social Media: @happymrxp


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This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


On Episode 225, I’m interviewing Jenny Karubian, founder and CEO of Ready to Launch, but first a word from sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com


My guest today is Jenny Karubian, founder and CEO of Ready to Launch.  Founded in 2014, Ready to Launch is a consultancy based in L.A. that helps firms launch new ideas, products, and technologies that better serve their customers.  Jenny has extensive experience as an ethnographer researcher and is a professor of anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. Jenny, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.   


Thanks for having me, Jamin.


So, you started an agency 2014.  I’ve just got to start the conversation with, “Why in the world did you start an agency?”  Obviously, I’ve started a couple of companies. It’s really hard to start a company. An agency is like, for me, would be considered one of the really hard, hard things because you got to be hunter and you’ve also got to be a farmer and you’ve got to be invoicing and the whole rest of it as well.     


So I think some hybrid of “I’m a glutton for punishment” but “I’m also very dedicated” probably why I started the agency.  But, also, really, I’m very much in love with the research process, and I also enjoy working with clients. I enjoy so many aspects of working in the research industry that working for a much larger agency doesn’t give the opportunity to work on projects from end to end the way that it does in an ownership and leadership position.  So I think that that motivated a lot of the reasons why I wanted to start my own business.  


So I get the “why” you’d want to start it maybe, but there’s risk when you start a business, right?  Not only is it a time thing there’s a lot of money there. What gave you that courage to be able to step out and do it yourself?


Initially, it was out of necessity.  So, when I finished school, I got out of school right in the middle of the financial crisis.  And, at that time, while recovery was just starting to happen, there really weren’t any jobs for recent graduates.  And what I found is that companies were willing to give me project work, which now everyone calls the “gig economy.”  Nobody called it the gig economy at that point; they just called it, “We’ll take you on as a contractor but we won’t give you a full-time job.”  And so, at the time, I needed work, and I started picking up contracts as much as I could and networking and trying to work in market research on just a contract basis.                    

And I didn’t realize that I had started my own company until I was actually chatting with one of my clients, and my client was complaining that he had to go to an all-day meeting.  And I said, “Oh, I don’t have to do those.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why you own your own business.” And I thought, “Oh, I own my own business! Look at that.” I hadn’t really thought about it that way:  It never came across in my mind as “This is a risk” or weighing it against other options. I just was very focused on that I wanted to work in research because I loved doing research, and I was going to do it however I needed to.  And then, after doing that for five years just as a freelancer, then I started an agency but, at that point, I was so comfortable with it that that kind of fear and anxiety that you’re describing just wasn’t there at point.    


Yeah, there is something about like when I started Decipher, almost I just didn’t care about it not working.  I mean I wanted it to work a lot. But it was worst case scenario is I’m going to get another job. Fear didn’t really enter into the equation.  Whereas, conversely, I’m starting a new business, which will be announced relatively soon… I have a lot more sort of like… You know life has a way of educating you on how terrifying it can be.  Oh, my gosh. All on a sudden, you hear a stat like, I don’t know, 8 out of 10 startups fail or whatever, and it starts informing that fear factor, which, to you point, I think, if it doesn’t exist, in a lot of ways, ignorance can be bliss.    


Right, right.  And I really like doing my own thing.  I don’t answer well to authority, just to be honest.  I do much better kind of running my own show. And so, just getting a little taste of freelancing at the very beginning set me off on this path to want to do my own thing so much so it’s scarier…  The idea of going and working for someone else from 9 to 5 is much more frightening than having a business that may or may not stay afloat. It’s scarier giving up my freedom.  


Interesting.  Which is funny, right, because you think about how much time you spend inside of the business and it’s probably a lot more than you’d spend working for somebody else.


Oh, absolutely.  I wouldn’t work crazy hours for somebody else that I work for myself.  Absolutely not. But, when it’s for myself, it’s much more fulfilling, and it gives me a sense of purpose whereas I don’t know if I would have…  I feel that if I were working at two o’clock in the morning on some company initiative for someone else that I would feel pretty resentful versus working on it for myself.  Then, there’s that rush of adrenalin of “Hey, this could work” or the satisfaction of working on something that I think could be really successful.     


I heard a podcast recently, and they were talking about entrepreneurship and what really makes entrepreneurs versus people that excel inside of established businesses like iconic firms like Google or Facebook or whatever agencies.  And they actually boiled it down to really grades in high school and college. And they said that people that get straight A’s or excel in grades in academia are oftentimes really more bent on refining and improving current processes whereas people that tend maybe not do as well in academia will be a little bit more in the rebellious or like “I don’t want to spend my time here.  I want to spend it where I want to spend it” sort of framework. So, you’re kind of interesting in that, obviously, you’re a professor of anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. So I have to believe that you have a stellar track record in academia.  


High school, not so much.  




I’ve had some theories about this.  I believe that, once people go into the higher levels of academia…  So, I was ABD when I left graduate school, which translates to All But Dissertation.  So, I spend six years doing graduate training, essentially. At those levels, there’s very little that’s translatable to working on teams and doing things that are in the work place because at that level it’s all about training, individual work and individual thought.  At that point, there’s no group projects; there’s really no working with other people; the focus is only on the individual mind. And so, I think that coming out of that, the idea of going and working on teams and working in big companies really wasn’t part of my mindset because I’d been trained as an individual for such a long time.  Although it might be a little bit different in the lower levels of college, but once the Master degrees are completed and you get into those higher levels, it changes quite a bit.


Interesting.  So, a successful founder, congratulations. 




What advice would you give somebody who is starting a business in this space today?  


I think that I know a lot of people like myself who started as moderators and worked, have started agencies as a result or people who are moderating and are thinking about growing.  And one of the key pieces of advice is that, if moderating is all that they want to be doing or reporting or analyzing (kind of the research process), if that’s the only piece they want to be doing, then I wouldn’t recommend starting an agency because really they should only be doing it if they’re OK with doing all of the other business processes ‘cause I think that’s something I didn’t really expect.  I came to this as a moderator/researcher and, all of a sudden, I’m spending very little of my time doing that work anymore. I do a portion of it, but so much of my time is spent running the business. And so, I think that would be the advice: is be ready to be doing not just the research skills but also a whole lot of operations and management and invoicing and things like that that are more on the business end they need to be prepared for.       


Yeah, a lot of people, I think, have this misnomer where it’s “I’m going to spend my time doing the stuff I love and I’m really good at.”  Maybe if you’re technically inclined, that might be coding or, if you’re in sales, it might be sales or whatever project delivery, project delivery.  But the reality is you actually spend a lot less time in that space and wind up having to hire out that sort of expertise so that you can focus on the actual business function and making sure that the wheels don’t fall off the bus.    


Absolutely.  I feel as though I’m spending a lot of time making up for the MBA that I never got and reading a lot of books ‘cause I never went to business school.  I’ve never even taken a business class, but yet I’ve owned a business for five years. So I do read quite a bit to try and fill in that gap. So maybe that would be a secondary piece of advice for the entrepreneur that wants to start in this:  if you don’t have a business background, you should probably get to reading as many business books as you can to make up for it.  


So have you surrounded yourself with some people in your network that you use as kind of references that might have that business expertise?


Yes, and I’ve hired my team also.  I have some people on my team that are much more on the business side than on the research side, and that’s been very, very helpful.  So, a couple of my research team, they all have backgrounds similar to me, but then I have some people on marketing and project management that much more on the business side and the technology side, and that’s been very helpful.   


So, I combed through your website yesterday in preparation for this.  I, actually, found something very interesting, at least to me, and unique inside of the market research space as it relates to a consultancy.  So, what you’ve done is you’ve got a recommended set of methodologies that are set by specific verticals or industries such as beauty, tobacco/cannabis, alcohol, food and beverage, health care and pharma.  The reason I think that is so unique… And just to describe it to the users, you would select what your industry is and then it’ll come up with a set of (I’ll call it four, but it is a different number) of standardized approaches, methodologies like ad testing or whatever, A&U or what have you, that would be utilized in that specific industry.  So I was curious what’s the strategy around that. Is it more of proof of expertise or is it you like guiding the user in terms of where your area of specialty is?   


So, that has a couple of objectives.  No. 1 – We attract a lot of startups to our agency.  I think part of it is because the name Ready to Launch is just a little bit sticky and appeals to the startup community.  So a lot of folks who call are startups. A lot of them have never done research before, and they’re calling us and they’re looking for a little bit of education.  So that piece was to give a little bit of client education so that, if they can find an industry that is relevant to them, then they can get an idea of what kind of research they might want to do.  Most of time when I have clients who call that have not done research before, typically they say they want either a focus group or a survey. You and I know that there are a variety of different methods that be used but, for folks who are new to this game, they are not aware.  So they usually use one of those two words. That was part of the motivation for having these recommended approaches by industry was to show what we can do. And those are based off of past projects that we had that have been very successful. So those methodologies, that wasn’t just something that we made up; that was based off of past projects that we’ve done and just to give them an idea of what they might want to be doing if they really haven’t thought through it yet.               


That’s actually really powerful when you think about it because it immediately…  As a lead comes in, then it immediately frames for you how you need to talk to them and what specifically about.  I think, at minimum, it creates a shortcut in the relationship as to is it fit or not fit and also it creates a ton of social trust because you’re referencing a white paper or previous experiences that have had successful outcomes, I guess I should say.  That’s a really interesting and cool hack that you’ve applied. It almost felt like one of those self-serve kinds of options but, obviously, it’s not. It kind of like funnels down, but it’s a really cool hack.     


Thank you, and I feel that it’s been pretty effective ‘cause a lot of times when clients call, they’ve looked at that and they’ve gone through it before they’ve even gotten on the phone with me, which is wonderful.  That was kind of the point of it so that they can get a little bit of education before they get on the phone and they can have an idea of what kinds of ways we might approach their category and also let them know that we have expertise in that category.  Oftentimes, one of the questions people ask is, “Well, what do you research?” The truth is we research everything, but that’s a little bit nebulous for people who aren’t familiar with how market research works. So that’s why we have it broken down industry by industry so that people can see things that are relevant to them, projects that we might have done in the past that could be relevant to the kind of work they’re trying to do.     


Of all the people I’ve interviewed, you have the most extensive experience in ethnographic research.  How does ethnography fit into your approach?


To begin with, ethnography is my training and my background.  That’s how I came into the industry initially from anthropology.  So really informs the kind of work. It informs all of our in-person approaches. Most of the researchers on my team were also trained academically.  So, a lot of it is a viewpoint, and that viewpoint is that in order to really understand, our consumers is we have to know them as people. And in order to get to know people as people, we need to sit with them and talk with them and see what their lives are like and understand their context and understand them as whole people:  people that have families and homes and messy lives and things like that. So, I think that the approach, even though every project isn’t ethnographic, the ethnographic viewpoint informs all of the research that we’re doing in terms of understanding consumers at that very human level.      


You think about some of the big projects, big breakthrough projects that have happened inside of the industry.  One of my favorite examples is the refrigerator box that I think it was Coke came up with (maybe, it was Pepsi).  Anyway, basically they take, I think, it’s 18 cans and it fits nicely inside of your refrigerator, right? You, of course, I’m sure remember the story.  So, the ethnographers would live with the families. They identified that the families would go to Costco; they would buy these big things of Coke or Pepsi, so soda, and they would then, because they’re so big, they didn’t fit in the refrigerator, and then they would put it inside of their garage where it would sit ‘cause they’re never cold and they’re out of reach when it’s time to drink.  A by-product of that ethnography was to create this nifty, little (it’s even used for beer now, right?) box that you could basically just prop up. It’s fits really tightly in your refrigerator. So, it’s nice. Are you doing that level of ethnography for some of your clients?        


Sure.  Yeah, we certainly do.  And then we’ve done a lot of things that are really foundational.  So, we did a study. It was very high-profile. So I can talk about it because it’s been published and presented many, many times (this isn’t confidential) that we did run for the boating industry a couple of years back.  There’s an agency that handles all the marketing for the boating industry, and they had a big research initiative to find out who are their consumers. They had an idea in their minds of who their consumers were, but they realized that that may not actually be true.  And so, we went all over the country, and we met people who were looking to buy boats. And we talked to people about all the things that they do for fun and how they spend their leisure time, how they spend time with their families, what did they do before they had families.  And what we came up with was this very interesting portrait of potential boat owners that was very different from what the assumption was in terms of their target consumers. So, their target consumers up until that point were essentially middle-aged men who were in the kind of affluent class.  And what we found, especially in more coastal states, is that a lot of young families wanted to have boats. And the reason why was because most of them had traveled quite extensively and had very adventurous lives before they settled down and had kids. And so, having a boat was something they aspired to because it was a way to have adventures on a much more local basis without having to put their whole family on a plane or do something like that, and it was something they could do to have a daytime adventure without having to run and backpack in Europe or something like that.  And we found a lot of different segments, a lot of different nuances. And, essentially, it’s completely transformed the way that the boating industry is marketing as well as who they’re marketing to and taking into account this much younger consumer and what that looks like.


What kind of timeframe is around a project like that?  To your point, it’s such a foundational piece of knowledge that would really inform the whole thing, right? 


It took a year; that took a solid year.  


OK, yeah.


‘Cause we had to do some segmentation work at the beginning even to understand who they were.  Once that was done, then we could do the ethnography. And then we did a follow-up study to that at the other end, talking to people who had gotten rid of their boats and why because part of the goal is to get people to buy boats but then the other part was getting them to keep them.  And so, that was the other challenge. Once we added on that additional piece, that took two years. So these ethnographic studies are much lengthier, especially when we’re doing a lot of travel around the country and multi-market and multi-segment, things like that. They are a much bigger time commitment, and they tend to be a little bit higher profile.  


So, kind of on the flip side, we’ve seen a rise in market research technology firms.  These are usually more like quick-hit-type insight framework – some of them, not all of them, but some of them.  Many of them are focused on qualitative solutions at quantitative base sizes. What are you seeing that you think is interesting from a marketing research technology perspective that’s kind of up and coming in our space?   


So, what you said about using a qualitative approach with quantitative sizes makes me think of Remesh specifically.  That’s a really interesting tool to use when we have… Sometimes, clients will come to us with… They want qualitative work but we can tell that they are very quant-minded.  And so, when we have quant-minded clients who… They want to do a focus group but they want… Sometimes, they’ll say, “Oh, well, maybe we can have 100 consumers, and we can just do 15 or 20 focus groups or something that,” which isn’t very efficient or cost-effective.  That’s when we really recommend using these kinds of tools that are hybrid with qual and quant because we can get that qual nuance but then we have the quant numbers to back it up. So, that’s, I think, really interesting, and I’ve found that clients really like that. Conversely, the other approach is, obviously, to do qualitative and then do a more traditional survey or something like that afterward to validate the results.  So it’s collapsing these two phases into one. So that’s interesting and exciting, and I’m finding clients like that quite a bit. And then, I’m also seeing a lot of tools for doing agile work, which is great. I’ve done a lot of work with Discuss.io in the past where we’re doing kind of agile insights. I presented with some people from their team about some methodologies we’d come up with where we can go from recruit to report in seven days.  That’s some really interesting and fast-moving, fast-paced kind of research that I find really exciting.  


So, Discuss.io, they’ve hit hard, right?  They came out of the Unilever space and then the incubator that Unilever has and then got quickly a global footprint, which I thought was very interesting from a respondent point of view and difficult to do.  It’s hard at a quant basis but it’s even harder at a qualitative basis to do that. Do you see those technologies, whether Remesh or others, as maybe channel partners? Again, this is just me talking: I still think there’s a huge space for agencies to help the brands with even the integration of these tools and utilization of the insights.     


What do you mean by channel partner?  Tell me a little bit more about that.


Sorry, what I mean specifically (and I might have been using the wrong word) but is that… almost like a co-sell opportunity because they have, presumably, large customer bases and broad reach, but they’re not necessarily deep within those relationships.  So, they’re not doing a year-long ethnography; they’re doing these quick-hit insight engagements, which, of course, are SaaS models or whatever. But my point is that they’re hundreds or maybe a few thousand dollars as opposed to what a normal agency would charge for these types of projects.  So, my question is really in line with, “Do you see a partnership opportunity with technologies like this that”, like “Are you looking for a preferred partner to help expand or install the insights in a meaningful way inside of your potentially new customer base?”  


Sure, Discuss.io has leveraged my agency for the last five years.  When Discuss.io was in its infancy, so was my agency. And so, we’ve been partnering on a lot of high-profile projects over time.  Most specifically, there’s a global Mondelez study that they’ve presented with IIeX and a few other conferences. There was a big global initiative, and we partnered with them on that.  And that was run, I think, in 15 different countries. And so, we partnered with them on a variety of different qualitative services, including all of the analysis and a lot of moderating and different things like that.  We’ve done quite a bit with them and also, we partnered with them in terms of… If they want this kind of recruit to report the really quick-turn stuff, our agency is trained and is knowledgeable on how to work that with them and the clients.  So, if clients come to them and they want one of these very quick-turn projects, they’ll leverage our agency on something like that.  

A really good example that we worked on a study for a client.  They had come up with a new food product, and they wanted to know how to position it.  And so, over the course of two days, we did ten interviews in two days, and in between each interview, their design team was working on different kind of design elements for it and product positioning.  And so, we would do an interview; the design team would be listening in. Based off of what came out in the interview in terms of what people were interested in for this food product, they would design a label for that and then we would test it on the next one.  And then, we kept refining it and refining and refining it. By the time we got to interview No. 10, they had assets that they could show for a company-wide meeting that they were going to be doing for presenting their new food product to the whole company. And so, we were able to get through that in just two days in terms of the interviewing and then one more day to turn around the report.  So, it was really efficient, and it was a very good tool for the kinds of things that they needed, but I don’t know how many other… That’s a really specialized kind of approach that we worked on with them.          


Totally.  Those partnerships take a ton of time to develop.  And it’s interesting that you’re experiencing that kind of connection with…   There’s a right place, right time, and then also fit is really important, but the reason I bring it up…  And I wrote a real brief blog post on LinkedIn recently to this point. But I interviewed an insights professional, market research professional at Georgia Pacific recently, and in that interview, she’s telling me about how the face of partnerships has really evolved from a kind of this wholesale outsource model to a “I might do the data collection, but I want somebody to walk alongside me on the analytics and implications to the business.”  So, the size of her engagements, interestingly enough, are about the same, but they’re just choosing to spend a lot less money on the actual operational consideration and a lot more money on the implications side of it.       


Mm, hmm, which is what we’ve done in a lot of ways with Discuss.


Last question and then we’ll get you out of the hotseat.  So, what is the one project, even though we’ve talked about a couple already, that you are most proud of?


So, we’re in an ongoing client relationship with a non-profit organization that’s in the oncology space.  And so, we do a lot of research for them; in fact, I think we’re going to working on, I think, 14 projects this year in 2019.  And so, we do a lot of work in the oncology space, trying to help make patients’ lives better, essentially. And so, there’s a lot of different kinds of materials that we put together with them or assessing their needs.  And this runs across a variety of different oncological spaces. And I think I’m most proud of that because it really feels like we’re making a difference: we’re talking with patients; we’re talking with their caregivers; we’re talking to people who are really at their most vulnerable and looking for ways to make their lives better.  And so, I’d say that’s probably what I’m most proud of at this point just because it feels like it has a real impact on people’s lives.  


Gosh, that’s actually…  That’s pretty meaningful point of view.  I love that, I love that dual purpose. So, my guest today has been Jenny Karubian.  Jenny, if somebody wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that?    


They can either go on the website, which is readytolaunchresearch.com, all spelled out.  Or they can email me at jenny@readytolaunchresearch.com or find me on LinkedIn – Jenny Karubian.


Jenny, thanks so much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thank you.


Everyone else, really appreciate your time.  As always, I hope that you found a ton of value inside of this episode.  Please reach out to Jenny if you have questions about any of this kind of stuff.  I’m going to give you a little spoiler: She has some marketing expertise as well; so, if I were you and I was an agency, I would at least ping her and say, “Jamin mentioned this.  What do you think?” That’s all I got for you guys today. As always, like, share. It goes a long way in helping other people like yourself find these episodes. Have a great rest of your day.  


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com  Have a great rest of your day.