Staying Ahead of the Game in 2020: Insights from Five Highly Successful Research Business Owners

By Roben Allong, CEO, Lightbeam Communications Corp., New York, NY, robena@lightbeamnyc.com

Welcome to the new decade—the 2020s!

As the new year approached, I wondered just what it would bring for quallies, for our businesses, and for the research industry in general. To be honest, I hadn’t the faintest idea. So, as a true researcher, I did some exploratory in-depth interviews (IDIs) to get some answers. I asked colleagues, clients, other small business owners, friends, and family members what they foresee; of course, everyone had a different opinion about what we can look forward to at the start of this new decade and subsequent years. That confusion didn’t deter me though—I pressed on. To uncover deeper, more meaningful insights, I narrowed my respondent pool to five successful qual and quant business owners who have built and maintained thriving research businesses and who were willing to share their thoughts and lead the conversation on how to stay ahead as we enter into this new decade.

The tech age, in the market research industry, has been around for a while now and the changes that have come along with it are sweeping. Let’s be honest, though, about its impact on the qualitative research industry. While we’ve seen an emergence of interesting new data collection and analysis tools, it’s barely scratched the surface on how to deliver on emerging client needs. Clients seem to be all about warp-speed insights delivered in less than twenty-one days and not the traditional eight weeks and at scale. If you’re a Star Trek fan like I am, the term “hyper acceleration” will not be new to you. The episode, “Wink of an Eye,” introduces a race of beings, Scalosians, who move through time at a rate so fast that they’re all but undetectable.

Quallies are human, not Scalosian, as QRCA’s 2020 Annual Conference reminded us. We’re technically not designed to obtain and deliver insights at hyper speeds like Scalosians, nor scale exponentially, at least not at this time. Our brains need time to think, process, pattern, and resolve. However, since the proverbial client qual goal posts are moving, I foresee a quandary approaching fast on the horizon. How do we achieve and maintain success given today’s need for speed and scale? Should your practice be broad and cover all things for all people—or should it stay in one lane to deliver faster, more nuanced insights based on category expertise? And how does one now scale the analysis framework process? In other words, is it better to be a specialist or generalist?

Here’s what those five research business owners said in their own words.

Rob Volpe, Owner/Founder, Ignite 360
I believe it’s all about your perspective in thinking about generalist or specialist. You can specialize in a tactic, or be general about tactics and specialize in a topic or audience area—or generalize in tactics, topics, and audiences but specialize in a deliverable.

I see tools, topics, and audiences as somewhat fluid for a great researcher. Select the right tool that will yield the best answers to the questions at hand. Clients may find comfort in specialists in their field, or they may find comfort in a particular partner who they know will do great work but may need a little education to get up to speed. My approach has been to know what my superpower is—and then own that. At Ignite 360, we’ve identified storytelling as one of our signature differences. It’s something we are known for and clients have told us we do it better than most. We are generalists in terms of the research methods we use and even the types of business challenges—innovation, shopper insights, brand strategy—but we do specialize. Our specialization is in the ways that we deliver the answer to the question “why” and the recommendations that follow.

As for the macro forces changing our culture and the work we do—consider which of these are tactical tools and which ones are topics or audience considerations. Stay abreast of the tech innovations that enable new methodologies, yet understand how that new methodology fits into the broader toolkit. There’s a time and a place for every methodology. Our job is to know that. Also, own up to when assistance is needed. Lean on and learn from everyone at QRCA. Among the membership are people with greater degrees of experience in certain tools, topics, and audiences. Collaboration could lead to an even stronger outcome for a project, and for the generalist, expand the knowledge base a little more.

Naomi Henderson, Founder/Owner, RIVA Market Research and RIVA Training Institute
As a seasoned veteran business owner in qualitative research, I have a long view of what contributed to my success. I remember asking two specific questions as I drew up my first Articles of Incorporation in 1978.

  1. Should I offer both qual and quant services or only one?
  2. Should I specialize in a few categories [niche] or be a generalist?

The first question took barely fifteen seconds to decide—I had already put quant in my rear view mirror once I saw the opportunities for more creative questions in qual research. The second question took a little more time because it would be the fork in the road for me and RIVA.

One of the appealing factors of being a generalist tied in with a teenage wish to have a career that “differed every day.” For sure, work as a moderator who could say “Yes” to dog food packaging on Monday, anti-depressant meds on Wednesday, and listen to complaints about American health care on Friday, definitely met the standard of “work that differs daily.”

As I look back on more than 40 years of qual projects, I know I made the right decision for myself and for RIVA so we could have a creative environment doing work that we love. We’ve weathered the politics of eight different presidents, two recessions, 9/11, major changes in technology and research methodologies, and an aging society. I’ve reinvented my thinking to match what the world is asking for while staying true to what I know to be “best practices.” Those include: get everything in writing; provide the clients with solutions, not more problems; write a unique universal guide for every project; hold the flag for what is right, not what is easy; and always avoid asking “why” as a probe!

How have I made being a generalist work over nearly four decades? Over the years there have been many opportunities to rethink my early questions, and each time I’m faced with “Should we take on that request to do quant?” or “Should I pass on that focus group project on a topic that is not familiar?” It is easy to abide by original choices: say “no” to quant and “yes” to all qual even if it means having to become a topic expert in forty-eight hours!

Charles Young, Founder/Owner, Ameritest
In our increasingly complicated, data-rich but meaning-challenged world there will be a greater need for both generalist and specialist research practitioners. A good analogy would be the medical profession, where frontline general practitioners refer patients to many kinds of specialists. The growing complexity of information flowing through the marketing function will increase demand for specialists who can dive deep into data to find an insight, or who know a particular business category very well. As counterpoint, this also increases the demand for generalists who can refer you to the right specialists, and who can translate and integrate what the specialist finds out into a wholistic picture for a client.

The two business models, however, are very different. The specialist must know a subject deeply and will be used on an infrequent basis. The specialist will churn through clients more quickly, with peaks and valleys in demand, but can charge higher prices. The generalist must know a little about a lot of research types, and also have a network of specialists for referrals. The business model of the generalist is relationship driven, not knowledge-driven like the specialist, and requires high empathy and emotional intelligence. As with general practitioners in medicine, I expect research generalists will evolve in research into concierge services for high-value clients, where they can charge higher prices for their services.

Tony Cheevers, Customer Success Officer, Researchscape International
From my perspective, the keys to getting ahead in business today are agility and automation. We strive to maintain an agile mindset where we review our processes and projects on an ongoing basis to determine how we can improve, including examining which of the tasks we do are most time consuming. We ask our clients for feedback on current work as well as suggestions for features and services. The information from our process improvement and client conversations drives our automation roadmap. To improve staff productivity, we are constantly expanding the tasks that we automate. All in all, we need to be generalists as we intake client feedback on process improvements, while at the same time we specialize, or have a specialist focus on process management.

Todd J. Biederman, CEO and Founder, Advanced Focus
With qualitative research in the twenty-first century constantly evolving, the one thing that stays the same is the facility. Or does it? At Advanced Focus, we strive to keep up with all the technological advances that seem to come out every day. We are in a constant cycle of replacing equipment such as computers, audio, video, usability, web streaming, etc. As well, with all of the traffic a busy focus group facility gets, we are in a constant state of remodeling, which means every year a fresh coat of paint, chairs that need to be replaced, carpets that need to be cleaned and/or replaced, etc.—all to keep the facility looking fresh. This is a never-ending cycle and as we have scaled up and grown from a one-facility company to a five-facility company, keeping up is quite the task.

This is in addition to the most important aspect of a focus group facility, which is the database of respondents and our recruiting, which is monitored and strictly supervised by our team of project directors and database directors. With all this new technology, Advanced Focus is in the process of upgrading to yet another software program designed by industry professionals that are the cream of the crop. This will be our fifth database software change in 17 years. There are many moving parts to running a successful facility and keeping up to the standards our clients have come to expect from us. This way we can grow with our clients and their ever-changing needs, so that we are always ahead of the curve and not behind it.


So what is the answer? What does it really take to remain in and stay ahead of the game? If you’ve been a qual practitioner and/or research business owner for more than 5 years, it might be time to re-examine your business’ “raison d’etre.” It does not mean you have to change it, but perhaps a modification is in order. Definitely re-examine if/how you meet the needs of current clients as well as potential clients. Explore new tools to help you and ways in which you can speed up deliverables. Dust off your superpower and spruce up your strategy, as Todd Biederman suggests, to meet clients where they are today—whether that means remaining a generalist or identifying a specialty that distinguishes you in the competitive landscape. UX anyone? Collaborations, according to Rob Volpe, can open the door to new answers and opportunities that would otherwise not be apparent. And, as an obvious endnote, the faster you embrace change and adapt, most likely the easier it will be to meet emerging business challenges head on to achieve and stay ahead of the game.

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