Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted. Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses.
You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is John Papadakis, CEO and founder of Pollfish. Pollfish is a survey platform with a unique approach to sampling, designed to improve data quality and speed to insights. Prior to founding Pollfish, John had worked in technology, developing a platform that made building Android apps easy. John, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.
Thank you so much for your time, and for inviting me.
I’d like to start out with this marquee question of ours: Tell us a little bit about your parents and how they have affected your career.
First, some background: I’m Greek. I was born in Athens, Greece, and then moved to Germany until I was five years old, and then ended up in a small town one hour away from Athens. Both of my parents are retired now, but they were elementary school teachers. So for the first three years of elementary school, they happened to be my teachers as well. Twenty years ago, being a teacher in a small town in Greece was a really respectful role for the local community. So I grew up in an environment where my parents were very respected by the community, and the other way around. Especially my father was very diligent: he would not have any task undone; he was a very responsible person, and still is. So one of the key things I take away from my parents is “being diligent” and “being consistent”. The other thing is that my father was also leading the school, so he was running a small business. I didn’t understand that at the time; but now seeing back—his having a proper P&L, and having employees—maybe some of that background was passed on to me. The most important one is that they were teachers, so one of their main responsibilities was to understand their kids. So I had infinite moral and financial support from them to follow my crazy dreams. Maybe that’s one of the most important things. But I’ll tell you what: there was one thing that I didn’t learn from them, and that was teaching. I’m notoriously bad at teaching, especially people who don’t want to be taught. So I had some takeaways while some others, things and perks, didn’t pass on.
Things sometimes didn’t stick. I think all of us have some of those good and bad characteristics, thankfully, that maybe we didn’t carry over from our childhood. So “supportive”—it seems that was a central theme with your parents. We’re going to get into the details in a minute, but you’ve had a background of entrepreneurship. With respect to your father: Was he a principal? Did he start the school?
He was a principal. He was leading the school in the very last years of his career.
Interesting. Then what brought you out of Greece?
I only recently flew out for the first time to follow my dreams and my career. And that was Pollfish. I flew out of the Greece the second year that Pollfish was founded. Until then, I was in Greece, a Greek-only ecosystem, and doing some technology stuff.
So you recognized that Greece wasn’t the best environment for you to be able to create this technology startup. Did you immediately go to New York?
No. First of all, Greece on its own is not a good ecosystem to grow a business in. You can grow a local business, of course—you have access to the local market and local talent—but in the very early days with Pollfish, all of our clients were especially from the States. The first time I came to the U.S. was 2015, and I flew to San Francisco. I was staying in one of those houses with twenty-five people in one room. I loved it. I stayed there for about probably six months. We didn’t manage to get any investors, any clients, any partnerships, so immediately we knew that San Francisco, or the West Coast, wasn’t suited for us. And then we started to get customers and partners from New York, so gradually I moved to New York as well and brought a big part of the business here.
So technology startups think about Silicon Valley—of course, it’s the “heart” of tech-based startups. I’ve got a lot of experience in that specific ecosystem. Why do you think you found traction inside of New York, with New York investors, versus Silicon Valley?
It’s mostly with New York clients. This is because a lot of research agencies are here, a lot of brands are here; and our product—market research and what we were selling at that time—was really suited to agencies and consumer-facing brands, especially their marketing departments, and there are a lot of those in New York. In San Francisco you have more technology companies—technology consumer-facing companies in the early days—and they might not be doing so much market research in the very early days, or they might rely more on the early adoption data rather than going out to the market to ask people. We just didn’t find a “fit” at that time.
So “Go to where the customers are.” That’s one of my rules in business. You don’t expect customers to come to you; you go to where the customers are in a physical sense, obviously in a digital sense as well. You’ve got a lot of different types of companies, but you’re right: market research is, in a lot of ways, East Coast to West Coast in terms of size, with obviously some outliers in Hollywood et cetera.
I think that as well. And one other key factor is that—although, I’m biased—in New York you find better talent in that specific sector because you have more experience here, more companies are in New York, in the East Coast, or Connecticut. A lot of market research companies are here, and so you have a lot of people with experience in market research as well.
Did you find that your customers in those early days—well, actually, let me back up. How did you wind up getting your customers in the early days?
I can tell you the story of how we started. That’s very well-related with this. Back in 2013 we had a few apps, popular applications for the Android and iOS devices. It was the very early days of mobile apps back then. We had quite a bit of users, but we couldn’t make any money out of the advertising that we chose to monetize our apps with. Back in Greece, as well, there were not many advertisers who wanted to advertise, and the only way to make more money was to include more ads, and we didn’t want to do that. So we thought: What is the best way to get money and monetize our content? And we came up with surveys. That was the origin story. We created a survey platform that we incorporated into our own apps, and we re-launched the app and updated the app. We were running surveys, our own surveys, to see if our users would respond to that, and we were amazed by the response rate. So we took those results and we said, “Hey, we have 300,000 users and we launched a survey and got 3000 responses in two hours”; and we went to a local market research company, and they said, “All right, I’m going to try that.” This is when we actually formed the company; this is when we actually became a company. So a kid that has nothing to do with market research goes to a local market research store and tells them, “Hey, I can do this. Do you want to buy?” That was the very first client and the origin story. After this we went to LinkedIn groups and started creating a buzz around how we do market research and how we collect responses, and clients started to come. From the very beginning, all of our clients were self-served, so we didn’t have any services. It was DIY from the very first day. So we started seeing customers from New York and India, but especially and mostly in the East Coast. They just came in.
So you quickly moved to a digital customer-acquisition model, is that correct?
Right. So the only non-digital acquisition model was the first sale. After that it was all digital.
And that gave you, of course, the market proof that there was a product-market fit in that context.
Right. However, the story is not that smooth. So, very fast, we went into the market research space and started to get clients. Immediately we started to get a lot of interest in our product, but then we saw that our clients were seeing, at that point, that the way we collected data, because we were not operating as a panel, and the way that we collect from the consumer being mobile-only—not mobile-first, mobile-only—they considered Pollfish to be for toy-surveys. So they would be our customers, but not really. We had to spend a lot of time and a lot of years, actually, to come to 2017-18, where mobile and other sampling technologies are becoming the norm. But in the very early days it was extremely difficult. We had the luxury, and we are very happy to have had supportive investors in the very early days that also believed in that vision, otherwise we would not be here. It took us a while to start making money.
Yeah, that’s quite a while, too. It takes a lot of fortitude to stick with a startup for three, four years. Tell me a little bit about your experience, or exposure, to market research. Did you have an understanding of it, or were you more introduced to it as you found your consumers’ interest in taking surveys through your app?
Right. Now we have. In the early days we had no idea about market research. So we were very naïve going into that market; and actually, I believe that it turned out to be a plus and a benefit of doing so. We came with a fresh set of eyes to a world that was very standardized. You had the panels, and you had people to get paid to respond to surveys, and you had surveys with a hundred-and-fifty questions—and if we knew all those things before we started the company, we wouldn’t have started the company; there’s no way we would have started the company. So being naïve, we said, “We know mobile, we know people there and we see that our app is getting downloaded thousands of times a day, so people are in there. We’re going to make an experience work for that and want to put the consumer first. We don’t care about the customers, for now, because they’re going to change their mind.” That’s a very expensive and very luxurious decision to make; and if we didn’t fundraise, we couldn’t make that. But luckily, we were naïve enough and had the support of our investors to do those things and be where we are today.
How did you manage that relationship with your investors? I’d have to believe it was fairly tense in the early days.
Well, not really because, if you think about it, we have a two-sided marketplace. We are providing a way for the publishers to make money, in a very nice way, in a user-engaging way—we take a lot of care about the user experience while doing so. And at the same time, we’re looking for customers to use our services. Luckily, we were extremely successful in the first part, and we managed to train the market, and the market adapted to our mobile-first survey offering for monetization, and the numbers were amazing and the adoption was great. So, to be frank, something was there. Everybody could see that. It just took us a while to go into the market at the right time that the clients will adopt such a solution.
It’s pretty indicative of market research. As you said, we are an industry that is very steeped in tradition and approved methodologies, data-collection approaches et cetera, et cetera. And it is interesting. There is this J-curve effect I’m seeing in the tech-space of the companies that can persist for three to five years. The market hits an inflexion point where, all of a sudden, they become considered norms, and then the adoption just sucks up, right?
Right, but if they make the right choice.
Yeah, you’re right. You have to have the right bet the whole way through, but I think it would be very easy for a lot of companies to pivot as opposed to stay the course in market research.
Right—and I’m sure you know best—but last year market research was extremely different from what it is today, and next year will be also extremely different. So the good thing is that it took a while but now the market is starting to adapt and is starting to try new things and actually acknowledge that there are more things to collect samples, more things to get data, and actually make sense of those all-new technologies.
Right. It’s really an interesting time right now in market research. We’ve got questionable growth, and the majority of that growth is actually coming out of social-based approaches, specifically social-listening. Mobile-first is something that we’ve talked a lot about. I like how you framed it as a “toy”, Certainly in the early days of mobile that was the case, but now that brands are under this tremendous amount of pressure for performance, I know mobile is where the consumers are, and just like you did, they’re modeling their data-collection approaches accordingly.
Right. And looking to the future, maybe the days of mobile phones are numbered. Market research needs to be mobile-agnostic, really. It doesn’t need to marry formats. Just go to where the customers are and everybody will be happy at the end of the day.
You had a company before you started Pollfish, correct?
And that was an app that created apps, if I understand correctly.
Right. Correct. It was an app that created apps.
Which is a freakin’ awesome idea, by the way. I love that, conceptually.
Did you wind up folding that into Pollfish? Or did you close that, and was Pollfish a new initiative?
The second part. Pollfish is a new initiative. However, there was a first company—again, going into the entrepreneurial space without knowing anything about it. We had as a company a lot of great technology, we had great experiences. The company didn’t end up going anywhere, but that was my first MBA, essentially—I haven’t done an MBA. So I think the takeaways from that experience were so big: what is a company, how to create a company, how to communicate with clients. All those things might seem very straight-forward to people that run businesses, but if they take a step back and remember themselves before they did so, it’s a really good school to start a company. So for me it acted like an MBA. It was a great an amazing period of my life. It ended up being a failure as a business, but with a lot of takeaways.
What was one of your key takeaways in starting Pollfish?
From the previous business?
Yeah. In other words, what was one of the key learnings from the previous business that helped you start and, ultimately, scale Pollfish?
Well, it provided a head-start. Instead of learning all those things, you have some experience of how to do the first steps. That was the major one. It would be very hard for me to just name just one.
So you found a lot of value in the starting of the company, in terms of the formation of the entity—really what I consider to be more of the block-and-tackle of managing the bureaucracy. Was that one of the big takeaways?
One of the main key differences in the beginning was that we started the last company without having any clients. We started Pollfish only when we had the clients. Small things, but maybe a change of mindset and experience played a role. And I also think that those experiences play a role today for me. I love when technology enables business, rather than the other way around, but this is not always the case. By looking at our previous experiences, it acts as a reminder as well.
Yeah, absolutely. So what is getting you really excited about the marketing research space right now?
It’s changing, and that’s amazing. I don’t like things that stay still. I like change; I don’t like inertia. To be honest, I’m fascinated to see how this will end up. And when I’m thinking about market research, I always see a lot of similarities with advertising space. Programmatic advertising took 10 years to form the form it has today, and I see that market research lags five to seven years behind advertising. So I’m very curious and excited to see how the market research landscape will evolve; what is the programmatic market research that everybody sees today but nobody really understands what it really is because it’s not defined yet; and how the landscape will be in the next few years. I think that there’s going to be a lot of specialization—not in the use-cases as we have now, when we see companies doing specialization in healthcare or consumer insights, but more specialization in the functions. So we’re going to have companies that are amazing—and they’ve built technology, the best technology they have, with the best people to communicate with the clients—and other companies that have the best flow detection algorithm and the best user experiences, and all those companies working together, and this is when we will truly have a programmatic market research landscape. Right now, we’re having baby-steps, right? We’re at the very early beginnings.
Do you think that’s a framework for Blockchain to thrive in, this research market place? When I think about the disparate pieces of a market research project, specifically, there’s a lot of logistics involved, right? Whether I use Pollfish or, you pick the company, that’s a piece of a piece of a piece. Do you think that a Blockchain-based marketplace would be really the framework where we’ll see that technology thrive in market research?
I don’t think so. At the same time, I own some coins, but I’m no expert in Blockchain and their technology. But if I were to estimate that opportunity, I would take a look again in the advertising industry. Does Blockchain play a role in the advertising agency? Not yet, as far as I know of. I can see some applications regarding transparency and everybody having a ledger of who responded to what survey so we have the best data, but the same thing can happen to the advertising industry, as well, so that the one side knows what the other side is doing in any market place. So to be honest, I do not believe that in the next period we’re going to have blockchain playing a role—not in the advertising space, and especially not in the market research space. If coins become a really cost-effective way to reward people, maybe we will see some applications there, but that also applies to the advertising space as well. You have rewarding solutions and rewarding advertising units. So, again, I would first look in the advertising space before making any bet for the market research one.
I think that’s super interesting: using advertising as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ to dictate where we are going as an industry. And that makes perfect sense given that, obviously, that’s the primary customer of marketing research.
Yeah, I think it makes sense as well. I mean, as you said previously, the other companies are feeling the pressure to go on mobile. Five years ago, they felt the pressure to advertise on mobile. At the end of the day, it’s where they are going to find their consumers and where they’re going to spend their money—here’s where market research goes. But we all know that market research moves slowly, and things need to be proven before we do something, so that takes five to seven years, maybe.
So coming out of a company that didn’t do well… I’ve had a company, incidentally, that failed. It was called Webconstruction.com; it was one of my very first startups. I did it in 1993, where I created websites for companies, and I wound up closing it. I could do the technology side of it really well, I just couldn’t—it was ironic—handle the accounts-payable and accounts-receivable side effectively. Just really basic stuff that I was failing at. I could do that sales and the delivery side. Anyways, it was a tough time for me, closing that business and taking a job for a few years, which, thankfully, worked out to be a blessing in disguise. How did you emotionally transition or maintain a highly positive perspective moving into Pollfish? Was that ever an issue for you?
Very interesting question, and it was not that hard. It was very natural. First of all, we didn’t raise any money, either from friends or family, or VCs; or we didn’t have any clients that were missed or that we had a responsibility against. So, really, it wasn’t that big of an issue or that hard of a decision. And it’s important to know that it was something that happened right after university, with no strings attached.
And the thing that made it easier was that Pollfish was, right away: there are no period of doing nothing. It was, “Here is Pollfish. If this business doesn’t go well, half of the team will move forward,” and we moved forward to Pollfish. So it wasn’t a bad period of bad experience whatsoever.
So employees, of course, are the core of any business. In fact they are the asset of the business I have always argued. A contingent of our audience are from the University of Georgia, Michigan State… It would be great if you could talk to us a little bit about what you see as some key characteristics of an all-star employee, and how that really impacts your business.
An “all-star employee”. That question really depends on the time that you are asking and the state that the business is in. So at this point of time, where we’re running at 200 miles an hour, I think the all-star employee is somebody who is extremely adaptive to changes: “We’re going to this. We’re doing this. The first week we don’t see results, we’re going to retreat immediately.” So being able to handle that acceleration. And the other one is “self-motivation”. Doing so many things and being such a small company addressing such a big market, you need people to be self-motivated all the time. Down the road, maybe one or two years from now, that definition may change, right? You may have more people that can lead teams effectively and educate people and on-board people, but at this point in time “self-motivation” and “adaptiveness” define the all-star employee.
Yeah, I love that. I think, experientially, that “adaptability” has always been key; and then, similarly, “self-motivation”. I’ve only managed a 400-person company, but from that framework of zero to four-hundred, I’d say the people that have excelled are the ones that are always adding value above the standard deliverable, and that comes, I believe, at the core of this innate desire to do better, which is to your point all about that motivation. That critical eye that that employee provides on the work, and then the communication and how that informs the broader organization, is really vital, honestly.
In fact, taking it a step further—sorry to be kicking the horse as it were—this concept of motivation and adaptability starts blurring the lines of responsibility a little bit, which can make people uncomfortable, when they like strict guidelines, but that’s where I’ve seen improvements to gross-margin, because people will reach outside of their specific deliverable in a project-process and say, “Oh, if I got the information or the data in a slightly different format then it would save me a certain amount of time.” That sort of dialogue, if it happens at an organic level, can make all the difference in the world for a company.
Yeah, and any trait, if it’s in a very exaggerated form, can be negative as well. So, don’t get me wrong: you need responsibility in there, you need communication, you need diligence from the employee for them to be a good employee; but if they have all this and they are also self-motivated and they do not provide an obstacle every single time the business is changing years or direction, that’s an all-star employee.
You’re absolutely right. And I think that’s a point well-taken. You have to own your deliverables, your lanes, what it is you have to get done in the context of budget and time. So you’re right, there is absolutely a ceiling and a floor to that framework for it to be successful. And the reality is, I think, we all have and will continue to balance that to some degree. But I like that “adaptability” and “self-motivation” as core to an all-star employee. You’ve built a very successful company. What is one of your secrets that drives your growth, profitability or success?
I’m going to go back in answering this question to a similar way I answered one of the previous questions. I think it’s naïveté. It’s going back with a fresh perspective. And I’ll give you very specific examples just to understand what I’m saying. The period that we launched Pollfish, the standard was panels and interviews—they still are, but there was a notion that you had to pay, in some way, with a gift card or actual money, the people that were responding to the survey. That was the standard, and we didn’t know that. And we went into the industry saying that what the consumer and the respondent values is not necessary thirty cents per response, or even one dollar, it’s the experience they are getting: that’s what they value the most. So going there and those things being very native to us, we did it. You don’t expect a yellow cab driver to invent Uber—all he knows is yellow cabs; he does that every day; maybe he’ll invent a better yellow cab. So coming from a very fresh perspective, we managed to change the dynamics and the unit economics of sampling. If we didn’t pay the consumers—this actually happened: we didn’t do the calculations to do that, it actually happened. Without paying the consumers, and only paying the channels that the consumers will have access to, and giving the consumers native, in-app experiences every single time they respond to a survey, we can pass that unit economics benefit back to the client and allow them to do research very cost-effectively. If we had to pay the consumers—that model is broken. And we also couldn’t understand how a person could do 150 questions in one session. I have never done a survey like that. And if I wasn’t research-based, it would grow on me. I would say, “All right, it happens.” So we only, in the beginning, were allowing people to do twelve questions, and then we increased that to seventeen questions. And we lost a lot of clients because of that in the early days. But we were very stubborn, and coming from a different world, and saw—I’d like to think—the disadvantages of the market research base, and we took a completely fresh approach.
Know your assumptions, right? This point is my favorite thing that we’ve talked about. I take it for granted myself and am guilty of it as anybody is. We need to understand what our core assumptions are and not assume that they are “truth” because we are probably, to your point, missing the bigger picture. And that’s why it’s so important that we surround ourselves with people that are outside of our industry, that are widely diverse from us on a diverse a perspective as you can get, because that’s where we can start triangulating and then finding “core truth”.
I completely agree with that. Yes. Also, it’s a very hard thing to do: once you think you know something, it’s extremely hard to accept a different way of thinking. So it’s also a very hard thing to do as well.
So what is Pollfish offering right now that’s finding purchase in the marketplace and offering a lot of value to your customers?
So essentially, there are three things. We allow our customers to tap into our survey network—it’s a very big survey network that reaches half a billion consumers—and we allow them to do so in a self-serve manner. So we brought two things: we brought speed and cost-effectiveness by not paying the end-consumer, by paying the channels, and implementing that new unit of economics. And at the same time, we said that we will only allow you to use our service if you know what you are doing, if you can build the survey on your own. That, again, is something that in 2013 nobody would do. So what we are presenting is that we want to make it extremely easy and no-brainer for a business to do research. That has a lot to do with the cost and a lot to do with the speed and ease-of-use, and I think we’re getting there. Maybe we’ve played a very small role in it, but the businesses also want that today. So whatever you are doing now, if you are in a company and you have a question, it’s a no-brainer to run a pollster survey and have more insights for things that when wouldn’t normally pick up a phone and run a survey campaign.
Does the SurveyMonkey IPO get you pretty excited? I know today’s an off-day in the market.
Yeah, you picked a day. But yeah, it’s the first after a lot of time, right? And I don’t think it’s a secret that more will come. It’s really nice to see how markets react to market research, but it’s a pretty different model and different industry—it’s not on the sample side, it’s more the provider and the tools. But yeah, I was very excited on the day of the IPO. I actually went to Times Square to see the whole thing with the NASDAQ images there. But I think that everybody in the industry is excited with that, to see how that will go.
Yeah, it’ll be neat to watch them and then Qualtrics, of course, coming out sooner rather than later, I believe.
Right. Yep. That’s my prediction as well.
My guest today has been John Papadakis, CEO of Pollfish. John, thank you so much for being of the Happy Market Research Podcast.
Thank you so much for inviting me, and I enjoyed very much the conversation.