By Bo Mattsson
In a world that is increasingly becoming more forward-leaning than ever, it feels a bit awkward looking back on things. In addition, I am myself not bent towards thinking too much around what has been, even though I intellectually understand that there is value to that, as well.
Either way, there has been an interest around me trying to share some of the experiences I have gained, as the founder and long-term CEO of Cint, going from absolutely nowhere to one of the few examples of a true global exchange-based platform plays in the sample business. Our bet has always been that faster and less costly supply chains should win the day over time. There are currently different strategies being deployed for different firms within the sector, some are going up-stream, in the process also creating new vertically integrated market research firms.
This is to me very surprising, mostly since the internet is pretty good at un-bundling. Market research companies can be viewed as a bundle of B2B services (no matter whether we are talking about consumer behavior understanding, campaign validation, pricing optimization, new product development, competition analysis, etc. and different methods attached to those) and regardless of what other industries you look at, banking being one of the latest, internet does a great job at unbundling these different services. The key to this development within market research has been the emergence of “neutral” panel providers, which have offered global reach to anyone, something that used to be a specific, semi-oligopolistic, MR domain. As smaller, more agile firms, develop their business within a specific area of these services, it is going to be extremely tough for a market research firm to stay competitive, why it boggles my mind that some firms are deliberately becoming a bundled service offering. They don’t have the old legacy supply chains either, so they start out fresh, with a wholly automated supply chain solution, allowing them to put up to 30% more resources into customer facing activities.
Well, back to experiences. One of the things that I definitely have learned over these 10 years, is how extremely difficult it is to gain interest in a wider area for something that is not end-client facing. I am not a PR savvy person, and so one of the lessons for me has been to be faster at understanding how the world clicks, and get help faster to get noticed in a wider space. The opposite of that, is that if you are good at working with PR, strive to be as close to end-clients or consumers as possible. I guess that doesn’t come as a surprise to no one, but feeble-minded as I am, I had to learn it the hard way.
Just to rattle off the other things that I have learned, I’ll just put my experiences into two different categories, what was easy and what was tough. The list is probably way from complete, but this is what comes to mind:
- Finding great people that are good at what they do, and still are nice to one another (“full” humans – there is a fair amount of the opposite sort around as well, but you will easily spot those (and btw – you have to make sure that they leave the company ASAP)). There seems to be a belief in the marketplace that there is something like a 100% individual, and that’s what people seem to be looking for. There isn’t. it is usually enough to find someone that is “good enough” in as many aspects as possible. Over time, since everyone is equipped with a plastic brain and the potential to change, given the correct conditions, pretty much everyone has the potential to greatly improve.
- Expanding into new markets (the world is way smaller than you think). We never ventured into China or India, why I can’t tell whether they also fall into this category, i.e. it being fairly easy to expand to, but they shouldn’t be all that different. Common wisdom holds that geographical expansion is very tough, but if you start out by hiring nationals of those market, locally, at first, you will find starting up in those markets later, a lot easier.
- Down-sizing when needed regardless of where (except France, which is a nut-case for any entrepreneur)
- Asking questions. If you are not good at this, start practicing. At start you have all the answers, over time you will need to have all the questions (except when you interview – better to ask them to ask you questions, that will tell you more about people than you’d ever imagine).
- Creating a culture that works. This goes back to the first point, because it starts and ends with you finding the right people (including your board). Once you have a culture that you believe works, treat and manage it as if it were a product that you love dearly.
- Being picky with suppliers AND customers. A bad customer will cost a good deal more than a bad supplier. So, bad customers have to go, regardless of how dear that customer is to a specific account manager.
- Trusting people to do what they are hired to do. Better to manage the company as if everyone is great and honest. The rotten apples will show themselves over time anyway, but if you are afraid of the rotten ones, you will end up managing EVERYBODY as a potential rotten apple (many large firms are run in this way, and that’s one of the things that makes them vulnerable, and what also makes them inhospitable for most free-spirited souls). That will cost you way more in the long end (unless you hire masochists, only). It does, however, also mean that you need to be the Sheriff and make sure that you are fast at weeding the bad ones out. The worst combination is probably giving people a lot of trust while wanting to avoid conflicts at the same time (that is a sure recipe for disaster).
- Adding more VCs to the fray and still be able to function on a trust based platform between management and the board. When the trust goes away in a small company, you are in big trouble. Either you shift the individuals with the VCs or you shift the management including yourself, but shift you must.
- Avoiding looking too much at competitors, making you as a company wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what they do and why they do it. The positive side effect of these discussions is that it forces you to re-think your own opinions, which, including some of mine, tend to be embedded in cement, but it easily creates a never-ending chain of comments, one smarter than the other.
- Especially understanding that what works in one market, doesn’t necessarily work in another, at least not yet. Try to figure out beforehand what works and what doesn’t and if the market you are eyeing isn’t mature yet, keep out, instead of trying to re-jig your offering to suit that market. It is like in trading – sitting on your hands from time to time, is the most underestimated action ever. I definitely made this mistake and it cost shareholders time and money.
- Understanding that employee regulations in both the US and UK are way tougher than in most of Europe. Common sense would tell you differently, but for a lot of markets in Europe, including pampered Scandinavia, it doesn’t cost much to ask people with a bad company fit to leave, whereas in the UK and US, it simply costs way more.
- Communicating long-term strategy internally, especially when the market hasn’t evolved yet. Spend hours with someone that is good at this, otherwise you won’t even get your own people to buy into the vision. If they don’t buy into it, why would customers?
I understand that is this subjective, what I find easy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy for you too, but I hope some of this makes sense to the ones that have made it all the way down here. I thank you for your time and hope to see you somewhere soon.