Betty Adamou of Research Through Gaming, Richard Owen of Crowdlab and Steve August of Revelation each started their own businesses developing technology products for market research. Tim Macer speaks to them about about what it is like being a technology entrepreneur within the market research industry.
Tim Macer: What do you think makes you an entrepreneur?
Betty Adamou: I think it starts with an idea you really believe in and a feeling of perseverance: you’re not really doing it for the money, but more for the love of it. You want to sweep people off their feet with the idea you’ve had.
Tim: I think people would be surprised that it isn’t about money.
Betty: No, that really is not a motivator. I’m probably poorer now than I’ve ever been, but I don’t care, because I’m happier with what I’m doing.
Richard Owen: I think there’s a feeling of bloody-mindedness, especially if you have been working in a large organisation, as I was. You have a creative moment when you believe this idea is just right, but you don’t want to compromise. You are the evangelist, and you know no-one else in the organisation is going to evangelise it with the same passion as you. There is a monetary incentive – you believe the idea will pay off eventually, but it does not drive your overall thinking.
Steve August: I think what you are seeing is that when you get to the point where the idea you want to pursue is so powerful it does not feel risky, it feels more risky not to do it. You have no idea if it’s really going to fly, but it’s a creative moment. It’s where art and business intersect. At some point, thinking about the money does kick in – and you start behaving like a real company.
Tim: Why did you choose market research as your focus?
Steve: I think it’s because qualitative research is what I had been immersed in. I saw a new possibility, and realised nobody else had seen it quite the way I saw it.
Betty: I think it was out of frustration. I view the MR industry as my dad – I love my dad, he’s getting on in years, he’s full of amazing stories, but he won’t get in touch with the modern world and move with the times.
Richard: I also saw the ‘my dad’ scenario: the industry doesn’t really get technology, and when it tries to it comes off very awkwardly. Plus, when technology people have good ideas and encroach on the research space, they start doing very bad research.
Tim: Are research firms aware that they need to catch up with the kinds of innovative research technologies you are all offering?
Steve: Everyone says they want something new – they want innovation, but they don’t want the risk associated with it. We do a lot of evangelism about new stuff, and some of our research partners evangelise too. There are the visionaries, and then the early adopters are a little behind them, and then there is this chasm before the early mainstream. On the other side of the chasm are those who need to see everyone else doing it before they jump in.
Betty: Incredibly, we have had clients who see what we do, then ask: “what will this do to a tracker?” And while we think our gamified trackers can give better results, switching methodologies halfway through your research will obviously skew your data.
Richard: We sell our products through agencies. You learn quite quickly where the most innovative agencies are, because they tend to be at the front of that chasm. They all want us to help them write their proposals. But they also have to win the proposals. So they take up a lot of your time on a continual basis with the promise of work. But there are some that seem better at convincing their clients that the technology, though new, is worth working with. It’s as if their reputation for innovation helps convince the client to take the risk. If you look at the agencies winning awards for innovation – these tend to be the firms we are likely to be working with.
Betty: We had a lot of people who wanted to talk – who want to pick our brains for free. We now charge for this consultation by the hour.
Steve: We assess the initial conversation, in terms of how two-sided it is. If they won’t volunteer stuff, or even share the timing or the budget, then we are not going to give them as much energy. We have to focus on people who are open to a two-way conversation. You need to know if they are going to be a good customer, or are they going to treat us like a facility.
Betty: We see nothing wrong with that transparency. Holding on to all the information is archaic behaviour.
Steve: Also, most research companies are trying to imply that their technology is unique to them. It is not the technology – it is the mixing of technology and methodology that matters. You can take the best technology and still do really bad research.
Betty: There are imaginative technologies being harnessed. People want to be on board with the new, but perhaps they just don’t know how. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but unfortunately the survey with radio buttons is what we are being packaged in.
Tim: Is a recession a good or a bad time to start a new business?
Steve: Entrepreneurs don’t care. It’s all about the idea and making it happen.
Betty: If you have an idea, it does not really matter if it’s a time when other people are losing their jobs, or there is less money in the world – if anything, it might be more beneficial, because there might be more talent available to you.
Richard: Personally, I don’t know how it works when you are not in a recession. The only tangible thing that has frustrated me is that the banks aren’t lending. We did not want loads of investment – we just want some grace with cash flow, but they would not even do that. So it really teaches you to get stuff done when you have no cash flow.
Steve: I think you end up with leaner applications too. All the technologies we have been working with are disruptive. But you never have enough resources to do everything you see, no matter how big you are.
Tim: For all of you, your work has obviously become a very important part of your life. But how do you stop it from taking over the whole of your life?
Richard: Someone said to me, it’s not about work/life balance; it’s really about work/life integration.
Betty: That’s absolutely true.
Richard: Unless you believe you can do this 24/7, you have to have some rules. It’s hard when it’s just you; but when you’ve got a couple of employees it gets a bit easier.
Steve: It feels like you are doing so much for the business, but at some time the business takes on a life of its own, and at some point you are asked – ‘what’s the business doing for you?’ And you have to think – well, I created this thing, what do I want it to do? Provide a creative outlet, a place where I want to be, a livelihood? The business has to work for me too.
Betty: I think the reality is that you never switch off. As long as you can accept that, then you’ll be all right. I’ve not had a complete weekend off yet, but at this stage I don’t mind. I’m at home during the day; I can take the dogs for a walk whenever I want.
Richard: What I’ve tried to do better is to filter – come 7 o’clock at night, I look at which things really have to be done and which things will still be there in the morning. It never goes away, so you have to learn to put it away. I don’t resent that, because although you are under stress, it’s stress of your own making. It’s what you want to do, not what someone else is telling you to do.
Tim Macer is Managing Director of Meaning Ltd in the UK, and writes about research technology. Betty Adamou is the founder of Research Through Gaming in the UK. Richard Owen is the founder of Crowdlab in the UK. Steve August is the founder of Revelation in the USA.