Leadership & the Future of MR: Insights from Melanie Courtright, EVP ResearchNow SSI

Market Research is struggling to find a product-market fit given the way technology rapidly changes the industry landscape. My recent interview with Melanie Courtright gave practical advice to insights professionals as well as tips on how brands and agencies can thrive in today’s data full world.

Characteristics of a Leader

There is a central theme among the industry leaders that I have interviewed for the Happy Market Research Podcast. Leaders are not born but made, and this making starts on day one when they embark on their career.
Similar to the previous insights leaders including Edwin Wong, Merrill Dubrow, and Rogier Verhulst; Melanie Courtright embodies these three characteristics:
  • Diligent: Embracing whatever task they have, they quickly separate from their peers due to their work ethic and willingness to do whatever it takes to get the project done.
  • Knowledge Seekers: Not seeing their job as a list of items to check off, they look at the workflow and see identify opportunities for improvement as well as gain market insights.
  • Humility: Staying close to their roots, they are willing to do the “grunt” work which keeps them close to the end customer.

Melanie started her career translating and transcribing customer and employee open ended responses from around the world.
“I spent years translating, cleaning and coding verbatims. It was at that time that I learned about the needs of employees and consumers. I spent a lot of time getting to know the hearts and minds of people which grew my love of research.”
For those of you who are early in your career, consider apply these principles to your work. It’ll pay off… big time!

How to Advance in Your Career

When coaching young professionals, they often are frustrated with their current job. I always counsel them to beware. This frustration will impact your personal brand. Your peers and supervisors will feel it and it will hold you back.
Melanie offered similar advice to us:
“Act like the role you want to be before you are given the role…Start acting like the role you want in 3 years now. Think big, plan ahead and don’t let people give you any boundaries.”
It is rare to promote someone who isn’t dominating in their current role. The hundreds of people I’ve promoted over the last few decades…
  • First, kicked ass in their current jobs and then
  • Extended their thoughtfulness to the entire delivery process from sales to delivery and back to sales.
Do this and you will be indispensable to your organization.

Lessons from Melanie’s Military Service

Not surprisingly, Melanie brings a wealth of wisdom from her time in the Army. What stood out to me was this quote:
“The art of discipline is about practicing and exercising and honing your talents so that when you are under pressure you can rely on muscle memory.”
We’ve all heard the axiom, “Practice makes perfect.” This is not true. Instead, “Practice makes permanent.” What she is describing here is the importance of doing the right thing in the right way until it is simply automatic. This is more evident the more pressure someone is under to perform. Think about professional sports and esports stars. They are 100% operating on reflex.
  • Recognize the pattern
  • Auto-respond Succeed
My recommendation is that you apply this to kindness. Practice it. Someone cuts you off on the freeway? Shrug it off. Running late and racing for the front door of Starbucks? Hold it open for the person you just barely beat.

Smile more. Grumble less. You’ll find you and the world are much happier. And, when the pressure comes, your headspace will automatically stay positive. ☺

ResearchNow+SSI Trends

Not all respondents are created equal. Near term, Melanie is working with her team to bring a data quality rubric to market.
“You can have a perfect dataset that doesn’t accurately represent any population that you are trying to make a decision about. The market has not yet developed an explicit measure of the accuracy of your data. This is something we are committed to deliver to our clients and will be educating the entire market.”
Over the last decade, the end customer has increasingly lost visibility on sample origination. This is important because origination informs the respondent’s “why”. For example, if a respondent is recruited from an “I love Pepsi” Facebook page to take a Coke survey, there are obvious impacts to the data.

Future Trends

Every interview I’ve done has hit on the central theme that it used to be hard for brands to have a conversation with their consumers so, market research was primarily fulfilling the logistics that facilitated those conversations. Now, brands have access to tools that enable them to easily and cheaply have that conversation without the help of research. Melanie addressed this issue head-on…
“In the next 3 years we will see important progress on the connection of data across the market spectrum from product development to sales activation…. More technology firms will join us from outside our industry.”
Research agencies want to deliver insights that matter and emotionally connect to the brand. Now is the time for us to unite under the banner of “Why” and enable our customers, the brands, to win because of research!
Have a great day! ☺

Edwin Wong, SVP of Research and Insights at Buzzfeed: My Highlights and Takeaways

Today I had the privilege of interviewing Edwin Wong from Buzzfeed. We chatted about how his research background at Yahoo and Pinterest informs Buzzfeed. We also discussed what he looks for in suppliers and his advice for recently minted marketing researchers. 

These notes are just my big takeaways and should not be taken as a complete picture. For that, you’ll need to listen to the interview and come to your own conclusions.
First off, Edwin’s entry into research came from being part of the first few hires at a then small startup, Hall & Partners, which works with top brands to unlock new opportunities to co-invent the future.

Walk alongside your customer and win

Prior to the interview Edwin and I were laughing about a particularly difficult project which required us to work over Christmas break and into New Years.
“There’s no such thing as vendor, client, whatever; it’s really partnerships.”
I still recall the strain of that project. We had screwed something up in the survey programming and the sample simply wasn’t coming in at the rate promised. The customer had to have the data directly after the holiday break so that the company executives could make a strategic shift. Pressure was mounting daily and peoples’ careers were literally on the line.
No matter how late, no matter how early, weekend, holiday, vacation, at the bar with a few drinks in…we picked up the phone if a customer needed us.

This is something that is hard to quantify in collateral, websites and in sales decks. But each of us, yeah, I mean you and me, has a similar war-chest of stories to pull from. When you are talking to prospective customers try telling them the story of how your team came through for another firm when the odds were stacked against you. I promise, the company you are pitching has plenty of examples when a trusted vender didn’t pickup the phone until Monday.
Take the full view
Context is one of the easiest things to loose when doing research. Why? We isolate our data from outside influences such as current events, where the respondents are coming from and their motivations. By incorporating external data such as purchase behavior, macro trends and media consumption we offer a fuller view of what is driving a consumer insight.
Edwin gave us a brilliant quote from Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti:
‘We are data full, not data rich.’
That is exactly correct. Despite the rise in the volume of data, brands simply don’t know how to apply it to self-reported quantitative and qualitative research data. But it can be very easy to apply it…even if you have no technology. For example, if you are using a customer supplied list get a few other relevant variables besides contact information and combine that into your analysis. This extra step will help inform your findings, add value to the study and make you standout from your peers.

Research logistics just doesn’t matter

Today’s technology is making it easier and easier for brands to do research themselves saving time and money without compromising quality. However, pattern recognition continues to be a point of massive value.
“Gaining an understanding of what the consumer is doing is actually quite easy. But the why is what’s important.”
“As we start to look at some of these newer platforms, the reason why I think they’re taking off is because they are aligning the digital experience with what’s core to being human. Part of Buzzfeed’s success is being able to dissect what the experience actually means to the consumer.”
Seeing the same story play out in other clients and in other industries will help you put together a clear view on market trends so that your research findings uncover the why in the numbers.
Story trumps numbers
Long gone are the days where you present a 30 page powerpoint showing charts and tables. Today is the day of the story.
“Numbers matter less than the story. Methodology is absolutely critical, [because] the stories we tell each other are the stories that move the business.”
It isn’t enough to have a data backed position. You have to craft a story which can be discussed at the water cooler. Our research needs to connect to the organization through its employees so they can affect the change necessary to ensure its long-term success.

Advice to young market researchers

I see this a lot with eager researchers. They pop down in a chair next to some company subject matter expert of 20 years and start challenging. The reality is that, as a researcher, we are never as up to date on the business as the executives and we are never as close the the customer as sales. So, listen and then apply the insights in the context that they provide.
“We are hardly ever the smartest person in the room… be the best listener.”
If you are a good listener, you will see how the dots connect into your insights and be able to tell a story that is supported instead of dismissed.

I recall a sales pitch I gave in Seattle about 5 years ago. It was for a very large piece of business. The pitch started with a slide that was titled, “Objectives & Client State”. Then the 2nd slide had in big bold letters, “What’s Changed?”. When the 2nd slide came on the overhead the client burst out laughing and said, “Thank God you asked…” She proceeded to tell me over the last week they were going through a series of layoffs and had completely different buy motivations. If I hadn’t asked she likely would have likely patiently sat through my presentation and then smiled me to the door. Instead, I walked out with a signed contract.

In Conclusion

Happy Market Research exists to facilitate a conversation between insights professionals and the brands they serve. I hope you found this useful and that you’ll keep tuning in. Have a great day! 🙂

Keys to make your partnership thrive [3 of 3]

When Jayme and I decided to start Decipher, 100% of the counsel we received predicted grave outcomes of our partnership. Absolutely no one told us it was a good idea.

2017 with a crazy ass background 🙂

Partnerships can have many issues that may be boiled down (at least in part) into these two themes:

  1. Alignment
  2. Conflict management

By some miracle we had the forethought to address and document both areas at the onset of our business relationship.

Key #1: Get in front of contentious issues

I believe this is the Super Glue of any long-lasting partnership. These are some of the items you’ll want to flush out:

Clearly divide your futuristic fortunes. A way to do this is to create a cap table and run a few waterfall scenarios so that everyone can clearly see how much each person gets.How will debt be distributed? If necessary, who will assume personal guarantees? If things crash around you, who is left holding what accounts payable?Once you are cashflow positive, will you have salaries? If so, how much for each of you?Once you are really cashflow positive, will you do distributions to owners? If so, what proportion will stay in the business?Set a time horizon on your endeavor. If you are willing to give it a try for 2 years and then reassess, make it known and follow through on your commitment.

Just focus on the first point above. Say you have 60% of the shares and your partner has 40%. If you sell the company for $1 million, the $200k difference between you might seem fair. But, what if it is $10 million? That is a $2 million-dollar difference. Is that equitable?

Because you have conversations like the above ahead of time where you are both splitting your hard-earned future treasure, it will be much easier to split the spoils when the time comes and you can mostly avoid the emotional inputs vs outputs.

Key #2: Cultivate self-awareness

Say this out loud 3 times, “It is ok to admit when I am wrong. People will still respect me.” Hopefully you have chosen a partner who has complementary strengths and weaknesses. The more different your partner is from yourself, the more likely you are to have different views. However, the greater your relative differences are, the faster things can get cantankerous. These differences are woven into the fabric of founders who usually have strong personalities, are highly intelligent, and competitive…you can see how your partnership has the ingredients for a major explosion.

To combat this, Jayme and I both start w/the premise that we know we are likely right but the other person has a valid opinion, and we must attempt to incorporate them into the issues, idea, solution, etc. While difficult (see my previous blog post on, Is My Baby Ugly) because we all think our ideas are perfect straight out of the box, the net impact always yields a more comprehensive and positive outcome.

Key #3: Be piggish, not hoggish

This was a key that was given to us by our accountant and has stuck with us through thick and thin. The initial context of “Be piggish, but not hoggish,” was in regard to our tax deductions. Once we started making money we started feeling the sting of taxes. I know, I know…great problem to have. But it still hurt and when it came time to look at our deductions, we were both a bit overzealous. Fortunately, we had a good tax person who kept us on the straight and narrow.

Since those early days we have used this axiom in many of our negotiations including those with venders, staff, clients, and each other. If we start with the premise that everyone needs to make money for a business to be long term successful, then our self-interest takes into consideration other people. This is vital as it has a halo effect across your organization which fosters a culture of trust, transparency and loyalty among employees and customers alike.

By applying the 3 keys above you’ll be equipped to successfully navigate the difficult times in your business partnership. Below is a list of disciplines which will naturally fall out if the above is applied:

  1. Communicate regularly
  2. Know each other’s values
  3. on’t let feelings fester
  4. Identify your strengths and weaknesses
  5. Pick up the phone <- This is IMPORTANT. Never have an argument over email.
  6. Take full responsibility for your actions and their outcomes
  7. Support one another
  8. Discuss your long-term goals
  9. Define your roles explicitly
  10. Remember that no one likes surprises:
  11. Respect one another
  12. Put things in writing


In conclusion, partnerships are powerful mechanisms that I have found improve your startup’s opportunity for success. Working w/someone else is fun. Even treading through fields of manure can be fun if you are both focused on the same thing…

“ACK! This stinks! Let’s get out of here…NOW!”

Have a great day! 🙂

Don’t fly your startup blind, a partnership will increase your field of vision [2 of 3]

Neither staff, board members, nor consultants have sufficient incentive, expertise, or capability to walk alongside you and see the pitfalls lurking in your blind spots. Only a partner can consistently help gather and interpret the disparate data inputs from customers, markets, and employees to ensure your firm minimizes failures.

“The rule for decision making in life and business goes like this: The fewest blind spots wins.” –Paul Singh

Jayme Plunkett talking to a group of young entrepreneurs at FocusVision’s Fresno office, 2016

Upon starting Decipher, Jayme and I chose to bootstrap our company vs find outside funding. By the end of the year we were high-fiving each other and our 6 staff members as we reported over $1m in sales from marquee clients including Intuit and Disney. In our smugness, we hired a consultant to do a strategy retreat mid-January 2001 (9 months after launch). During the 2-hour drive to our retreat destination I fielded calls from all but 2 of our customers and we had just lost 93% of our business.

That Sunday we had one of the most difficult conversations a partnership will ever have,

“Should we shut down Decipher or continue?”

I felt we would be safer getting jobs, but Jayme pressed that this was the time to take advantage of the market shakeup. We left that conversation with the grim determination that we would do whatever we had to do to make Decipher thrive.

The first half of 2001 continued to be highly challenging. We ultimately laid off all but one staff member who was willing to take his pay in room and board. I’d do between 20 and 50 cold calls a day, and Jayme and I would make the drive from Fresno to the Silicon Valley once a week. This was our schedule…

4am, fuel: Coffee, donut and gas4–8am, drive: We used this time to program surveys (the one not driving), discuss customer opportunities, and laugh.

9am, sales meeting

Our narrative was basically, “Do you have any needs?” If yes, we would respond, “Great! We can do that!” We did just about everything over those recovering years from designing and building usability labs for our corporate customers to doing intercept surveys in malls. If it paid, we did it.11am, sales meeting 22pm, sales meeting 34pm, sales meeting 47pm, sales meeting

This was usually more social and hopefully involved a drink.10pm, fuel: Coffee, donut and gas10–1am, drive: Thank you ACDC, kick ass speakers and air conditioning!

Oh yeah, and laughter! Especially laughter.

Because of Jayme’s visibility to see what I could not, we kept our foot on the gas. Finally, in July things started to turn around and we started seeing double-digit month over month growth. For years to come, we religiously would make a trip to the bay area twice monthly. These trips always included 5 sales meetings. In hindsight, it would have been so easy to go Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh Character) but it simply didn’t occur to us. We knew we had to succeed, so we did…and smiled the whole time.

These are the 4 things that, I believe, are the foundation of a successful partnership. These are NOT natural but can be intentionally cultivated.

Transparency: Measure everything. As a leader, the temptation is to measure success by being busy. Life simply doesn’t work like that. You must be intentional. Declare what you will do, when it’ll be done and how it will move the needle. Finally, keep people aware of your progress.
Self-awareness: Take a critical eye towards yourself, your performance, your ideas and your work. This will foster productive conversations, humility and combat singlemindedness (I’m right and you are dumb).
Vulnerable: Don’t just be open to feedback, seek it! Once received, honestly review and apply what fits while discarding what doesn’t.
Smile: This is likely the most important. 100% of the successful business leaders I’ve met will tell you it is about the journey not the destination. Sure, being a millionaire while improving lives is our goal…but in the end, have fun!

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about how to make your partnership thrive.

Have a fun rest of your day! 🙂

Benefits & Pitfalls of a Startup Partnership [1 of 3]

Entrepreneurs across the globe are people trying to achieve their dreams while daily facing destructive market forces. These startup heroes all must make a critical decision, should I form a partnership or do it solo?

@MSU MARKET RESEARCH MASTERS PROGRAM ADVISORY BOARD, Merrill Dubrow, at 8:00 a.m. spent an hour with me prior to our board meeting discussing what’s next.

“You know what I keep coming back to? Your partnership with Jayme. I mean, the fact that you two worked so closely…for 2 decades…and created, Decipher, a leading market research survey tool. That is cool. However, the fact that you still are friends, that is crazy. Very rarely do partnerships go that way. This is really interesting.”

Overall, 70% of partnerships fail. So, why do people try them? Because a partnership significantly increases the probability of success.

The good news is that if you structure your partnership correctly you can dramatically improve your odds of success. In fact, a report released by ASAP claims that only 20% of partnerships that have basic structure fail.

This is a 3-part blog post on…

Partnership multiples your Grit (your ability to keep going)Increased visibility into market, customers and employeesThe 3 keys to partnership success

Part 1 of 3: Grit

Everyone knows that business is hard. Elon Musk did a great job framing it,

“Running a startup is like staring in the abyss while chewing glass.”

Musk explains that the “abyss” is the lack of visibility on what is in front of us and the “chewing glass” is the 90% of the work that the founder must do is focused on the stuff that isn’t working.

Put another way, two significant factors that impact entrepreneurial success are:

Lack of visibility due to blind spots, and showing up day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year even though most the work fully sucks.

In April of 2000 I decided to quit my job in Palo Alto and start Decipher. The first critical question I had to answer was if I needed a business partner. As with most things, it didn’t take me long to answer. After working very closely with Jayme Plunkett for 4 years I was 100% confident we had a better chance of achieving Decipher’s full potential if we did it together. The good news is that I was right. Let me give you an example…

In 2003, we had our first Japanese survey. This was a big problem as we didn’t speak Japanese, there was no Google translate equivalent, we only had 24 hours to turn the project around, and we had gotten the green light on the project just prior to boarding a flight from San Francisco to Chicago. Upon landing, our first order of business was to take our cabby on a book store tour as we hunted for an English to Japanese dictionary.

Once we acquired our prey, we spent the next 12 hours in our shared hotel room (we at least had double beds) and started cracking the code. Around 2am, Jayme got the last of the survey working, QAed and sent to the customer who was completely delighted! To celebrate, Jayme began jumping from bed to bed chanting,

“I know Japanese! I know Japanese!”

If either of us would have done that work alone it would have been a TERRIBLE experience. But together, we made it fun! And when the alarm went off 3 hours later we were still laughing, albeit blurry eyed.

Benefits to Partnership Success:

Increased accountability means you get stuff done that you likely would have postponed or not done at allCo-experiencing means you have an emotional safety valve that shuts down the negative spiral that can happen with our internal dialogueDiffered risk means there is a Plan B if, God forbid, something prevents you from showing up.

Follow up post will be on building the 3-legged stool of a successful partnership.