Why Startups don’t do market research (but should)

Startups are great at coming up with innovative ideas, but why don’t they ever do market research?

“A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”, said Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. Extreme uncertainty is a defining feature of the startup experience. Uncertainty about the product, the supply chain, the customer, the business model. Two key success factors are experimentation and customer orientation. They enable the startup to achieve product-market fit and to creative a product that can eventually be commercialized.

Getting input from target customers is essential in developing a great offering. Yet, when I talk to startups about conducting market research, many dismiss the idea.

Often, startup founders believe market research is only for large multi-nationals, or that it comes later in the evolution of a company, when a company is established and has multiple successful product lines. Some think it is too expensive or they don’t fully understand the ROI. In addition, many founders tell me that they already have all the customer information that they want.

Let’s look at how startups typically gain information about their market, and what they are missing out on by not conducting market research:

1. At the early stage, founders’ market research typically consists of talking to ‘friendly individuals’ who are willing to give some feedback on the startup idea. The problem here is that the selection of individuals is very likely biased towards people who have a positive affinity to the founder and/or to the product to begin with. It is simply easiest to reach out to your existing network. How objective is the feedback of these individuals going to be?

In addition, we tend to connect with people who are similar to us – similar in age, in gender, in ethnic background, in social status – as it lets us stay in our social comfort zone. How representative are these people for potential users of your product? Particularly if a startup is developing a health-related product or service, potential users are likely very different from the twenty-something healthy males who tend to populate the startup community.

Plus, the ecosystem within which founders operate tends to be highly tech savvy. Getting feedback only within their own ecosystem gives founders a rather poor idea of how regular people would see their product. Granted, tech savviness is going to increase in the future. But do you really have enough time (and cash reserves) to wait for fifteen or twenty years until the majority of the population has caught up with you?

Opportunity missed: Conducting market research early on may help a startup discard an idea more quickly that won’t be popular outside their immediate circle of friends and like-minded acquaintances (‘fail early, fail fast’). Real market research means soliciting feedback from individuals that are not personally connected to you, and who belong to the intended market segment for your product.

Many startups use Kickstarter/Indiegogo as a means to assess if there is really a market out there for their product. While it is comforting to know that two thousand people are backing your campaign and are willing to pay good money now for something great to materialize in the future, this is not enough to build a successful company on. Also, let me tell you a little secret as a market researcher and anthropologist who is in touch with the ‘common man/woman’: Many people have never heard of Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

2. As startups mature, products typically go through many iterations and user experience is incorporated in a continuous feedback loop in the product development process. The UX lead will bring in users, expose them to the latest version of the product and propose adjustments accordingly. In addition, the product itself, assuming that it has a digital component, sends back usage data, which allows the startup to assess how well certain features are performing and conduct A/B tests.

Having a mountain of data that streams back through the device or app makes founders confident in their ability to optimize the product. While this is certainly the case, at times it is hard to ‘see the forest for the trees’. As startup guru Steve Blank said, you need to ‘get out of the building’ to understand your potential market and to learn about your potential customers.

Usability research and user experience research are essential for product development from a technical standpoint and from a design standpoint. In contrast, market research helps you understand the broader picture, beyond your immediate product to prospective customers and their evolving needs and pain points for which your product (along with many others) may provide a solution.

Some methods employed for market research are similar to user research, and some are different. Market research consists of the full gamut of large-scale, quantitative surveys, mobile quick check-ins, trade-off exercises, ad tests, focus groups, location-based research, ethnography, online discussion boards, co-creation labs, in-depth one-on-one interviews and many more.

Opportunity missed: User research looks at, well, users. Market research looks beyond. Only input from a wider target audience will help your startup understand where your product is missing the mark in a fundamental way.

You should also engage in market research as a ‘disaster check’ before going to market. While your product may be delightful and great in terms of functionality, perhaps you are not communicating something that you think is trivial, but that consumers want to know. Safety in wearable devices is a good example. It may be obvious to you that devices have to undergo rigorous safety testing before you are allowed to sell them to people, but the regular person may not be aware of this. If you launch a new wearable without a footnote on safety in your communications, you may be impacting your sales in a significant way. While safety may not be the reason people want to buy your device (unless it is a safety device) they want to be reassured that it is not going to harm them.

Then, after a successful product launch, your startup will only be able to continue expanding its market if you find out what non-users need and want, and if you understand their perceptions of the competition. A successful product fulfills a need better than other products. To find out what target customers need and how your product stacks up against others in addressing that need, you have to engage in market research.

Market research enables startups to step out of their comfort zone, go beyond speaking to the ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘evangelists’ and build an offering that resonates with a larger audience. Do not miss out on this opportunity to critically examine the appeal of your idea and to lay the foundation for exponential growth.

Market research for startups has clear ROI in the following areas:

  • Establish the size of your potential market (ROI: A key talking point when you approach investors at your next funding round)
  • Determine size of different segments within your market and prioritize them in terms of their potential for your product (ROI: Don’t waste money and effort on marketing to a segment that you have personal affinity to but that is tiny or less likely to buy your product)
  • Uncover needs and pain points of potential customers (ROI: Allows you to pivot early, and conserve precious early funding, if your product misses the mark)
  • Validate and refine user personas (ROI: Supports better product-market fit and sets you on a growth trajectory beyond current users to potential future users)
  • Optimize marketing and communications to focus on the product benefits that potential customers most care about (ROI: More bang for your advertising buck)
  • Get an understanding of competitive offerings, how your product stacks up and how to position your product for success (ROI: Stay ahead of the competition and get a bigger share of the pie)
  • …and last but not least: Obtain unbiased feedback on what people really think about your product (priceless 🙂 )

Some questions that startups may have about market research: Is it expensive? Can I do it myself? How do I go about it? There are many reasonably priced ways to conduct market research. Some components can easily be done by the startup itself. However, it is important to get expert advice on methodology and on the design of the research questions, to ensure your research is representative and unbiased.

If you’d like to get more information on what market research can do for your startup, please contact me. I am happy to give you an initial consultation free of charge. You can reach me at: barbara@creativeresearchdesigns.com

Also published on Medium

Doing Business on a Global Scale

Today, it was reported that “Chinese court finds GlaxoSmithKline guilty of bribery”. This raises the question: Is the Chinese government really cleaning up? Or did they just not bribe the right people? Why is GSK in the spotlight and not others?

Having lived and worked in Russia, and frequently discussing their country’s state of affairs with friends from Columbia, Iran, China and India*, bribery and favouritism seems to be a fact of life in a number of countries including BRIC and the Middle East.

Most people here in Canada and presumably also in the US would agree that bribery is bad. In fact, the US has very strict laws forbidding US businesses to engage in such practices abroad. I agree that one should uphold one’s moral standards in contexts which challenge them.

But I’d like to add a word or two to explain why bribery is so rampant in some countries. It is not a lack of business ethics, as one might suspect, but rather a reaction to the conditions under which businesses have to operate in these countries. What is really lacking there is the rule of law.

For someone who has lived in the ‘West’ all their lives, it is difficult to image what the absence of rule of law looks like, and what it does to you. Imagine business where you sign contracts but you cannot enforce them. Where you accumulate wealth, but where it can be taken from you at any time. Where you apply to the authorities – police, judges, lawmakers – for help, but they do not serve you. All and everything you do, your success and failure is dependent upon knowing the right people, forging the right alliances, and often money changes hands. If you run a profitable business, others want a piece of the pie, or they won’t let you do your work.

If you make the wrong move, if you get in the way of someone more powerful than you, then you go down – accused of bribery, tax fraud, unsanitary working conditions etc. etc. Maybe you are guilty, maybe you are not. If you are lucky, you can pay your way out of it. Otherwise, you may end up in jail like Mr. Khodorkovsky, or worse.

Yes, people pay bribes and they should not be doing that. Yes, people defraud on their taxes and they should not be doing that. Yes, people let their employees work in unhealthy and unsafe conditions and they should not be doing that.

However, those that get singled out and publicly blamed for their wrongdoing are not necessarily the worst culprits. They are simply the ones who did not play their cards right, who ticked someone off. So how did Glaxo get into this mess?

* Thanks to Toronto’s multicultural community!

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Old World, New World

This is not about market research. When I woke up last night I had a vivid memory of standing outside a door in an apartment building in Germany. There was the door, thickly painted wood, and the doorbell that I was about to ring. The stone floor cold under my feet, grayish-white speckled, sort of like marble, but definitely much harder than marble. Quiet, cool air in the house, and faint noises from playing children in the courtyard. A few steps down, a landing with an old double window. The window sill about 50 centimetres wide, it had some potted plants of the durable, all-season nature.

So many times I have been to places like this, stood outside of apartment doors, slightly apprehensive. The setting evokes a range of associations. The building as a microcosm. People have lived together for many years. Someone lovingly waters those plants, and dusts them off every once in a while. The floor is kept spotless, and I am sure there is a schedule posted somewhere, that tells which party is responsible for cleaning which week.

Corridor German House

A place of comfort. A place of confinement. Long-standing relationships, set ways, ancient enemies. There probably is a lady on the third floor who bangs a broomstick against her ceiling every time the family above her is audible. The couple on the ground floor always gripes about people not cleaning off their shoes properly and trudging dirt through the house. When kids talk loudly on the steps, someone will stick their head out their door with a disapproving look.

 

Fast forward to Toronto, Canada. First of all, a lot of people here own their own home. And not just rich people. Many single-family dwellings are not more than ten, twenty years old. My house was built in the 1940ies and is considered ‘old’. Having your own house means a lot of things. It means making as much noise (inside) as you want. Children jumping down the stairs, jelling, turning your music up. There are no rules to follow (well, very few), no customs to adhere to. Wear what you want, talk however you want, cook whatever you want. You are free to strike new relationships, don’t have to follow ‘what is proper’. What is proper and acceptable is negotiated every single day as people of different cultural backgrounds mingle and co-exist. Make no assumptions about others – speak to them and see what they are all about.

Townhouse Canada

This place is new, feels new. The depth is lacking, the ties woven through centuries (unless you go into small towns and more traditional parts of the country). It is a country full of opportunities. You have a good idea, you can get things done, we can benefit from it, you’re in. Don’t worry if your email contains grammatical errors, if you speak with an accent. Here in Toronto, most people are from somewhere else.

Your house is a blank slate. Make of it what you want.

Disclaimer:

I realize that I am writing this from a particular vantage point (as one usually does!). In Canada, there are many people who do not have the same opportunities as they have been open to me. If you arrive without language skills (English / French), without family connections and without financial backing, getting a foothold and making use of opportunities can be tough. However, I argue that the opportunities here are still greater than if you were to arrive in Germany with the same skill set and resources.

Conclusion:

Germany and Canada, both sets of circumstances can breed great things. Born out of the freedom to dream large or out of the necessity to come up with creative solutions in confined circumstances. Good luck to you all!