Robert Porter – PODCAST
In today’s episode of Happy Market Research. we’re going to hear from Robert Porter, the CEO of Research America. I’m going to tell you right now this is one of the most emotionally charged episodes that we have had on Happy Market Research and, honestly, across all the podcasts I have subscribed to. So I hope that you will tune in; stay with the story. It’s got a great ending, but it’s a very interesting journey that this man has been on.
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. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Robert Porter, CEO of Research America. Research America is a leading market research and consumer insights company, serving the likes of PWC, Little Caesars, and Wrangler. Robert, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast.
Thank you for having me.
We’d like to start out with our signature question: Tell us a little bit about your parents and how that’s affected your current career.
So, interesting question. So, a little bit different than most folks. At three years old, my mother put me on a plane with my two sisters. She went to one terminal; I went to the other. So, I was sent to Philadelphia. She called her mother and said, “Hey, the kids are going there; I’m going to Spain.” And that was the last I’ve seen my mother. I’ve seen her two other times. So that’s obviously had an impact on me for sure. So not all impact that you get from your parents is always something that’s reinforcing or helpful or positive. Sometimes negative things help you as well. So, I floated around the system for a while after leaving my grandmother’s because there were three kids (two sisters) and, as the boy, which one flew out the coop. So I was gone. And I was in the system and went through different homes, went through a lot of things, both physical and emotional, and it taught me a lot. So there’s some positive as well. I was in neighborhoods that had some wealth, education. And I was able to learn from different homes that I lived in from different parenting and different techniques how people succeeded. There’s really nothing that I could say that’s more motivation than having a parent tell you or a parent-type person, “Hey, you’re not going to amount to anything. You’re not going to be a good parent. You should just be a good gym teacher. That’s all you can do.” There’s nothing that gives you more motivation than something like that. So the motivation that I got from growing up really came from those types of things, and how to overcome that, and how to be a better person than other people saw you. So that’s what I had.
I love that – coming out of this catastrophic spot and then pivoting into the successful company that you subsequently built with Research America. Now the CEO of a large company and then starting quite literally with nothing, not even a support network. Outside of that, was it just the motivation that enabled you to create that bridge to bootstrap yourself? Were there other people that came along side you through that journey?
So at 21, I reconnected with my real father, who started an answering service. And the answering service is really where I started my business when I was about 27 or 28. And I bought that very small business from him and reconnected with him. And I bought it from him. And my stepmother became a mother figure to me and is probably the greatest inspiration that I’ve had in my life. So Joanne. So, I bought that business from them for, I think, around two-and-a-half million dollars and a loan pre-2008 because I was building the business really too large for me to ever buy it back. It was just a one-site office. Well, I built it into about 15 sites, doing around sixteen million dollars and sold that business to a public company, a large public company. I could have retired at that time. Instead, I was given Research America, which was a part of the call center business ‘cause all we did was data collection by telephone in 2014. And they left me with that business. They said, “Hey, we want no part of this.” I said, “Great.” It gave me the opportunity to build out a market research company that was new and unique and did a lot of different things that other companies were unable to do both in field and full service, both in qualitative and quantitative, and with many proprietary products. And some of the way I was able to do that is by 14 boutique businesses. So, we have 14 offices, around 300 employees currently, and one team. So we take these boutiques of boutiques, we put them together, and we’ve built a great business in just a five-year period. We’re actually four-and-a-half years right now, moving on to five years very soon in April.
We recently, I think last Thursday, posted an interview with a young lady, 17-year-old female Latino. Her name is Gaby. She actually has grown up with her grandparents – so slightly different story. And she’s recently bootstrapped her own company with a couple of high school friends, selling different types of ethnic food in a mail order format. It’s a pretty interesting business. But what I see that’s really the sort of commonality between the two of you (obviously, she’s super young) is this concept of “I can do it and WILL do it. Watch me!” You, obviously, made a ton of money through the one acquisition you did and then harvested that. And then to roll the dice again inside of Research America… I think a lot of people would rather spend the rest of their life on a beach with some Mai Tais, right? Do you think that’s just inbred, given the background?
Ahh, no question. First off, I was born with a certain gene that you’re going to have to have. Jamin, I know you personally; you have that gene as well. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit. You’re born with that. I mean that’s something that I got from my biological parents that I was just born with. There’s no question. That’s Number 1: you have to have that. But, certainly, give me somebody who’s hungry and has a past and something, a chip on their shoulder, that any day… And we know that these are the guys that really, really change the world and make things happen. So this is an advantage. I mean what I’ve spoken to you was really an advantage. Something that a lot of people that I know, they have a disadvantage because everything was given to them. I wonder even with my own children, “Hey, are they going to have the hunger that’s necessary?” But there’s just no question… I had the opportunity to retire at that time, and I never even thought about it. I said, “Hey, I’ll retire when I’m dead.”
[laughter] My grandmother is a hundred-and-two years old. We just celebrated two weeks ago her birthday.
Oh, congratulations! That’s a big one!
It is a big one. No kidding.
I hope that happens to me and everyone listening to this podcast.
I hope so too. I lived with her for a few summers when I was doing field work. She lives in a really small, rural community. And she would literally… she would stay up after I went to bed. And I would go to bed late as a teenage boy. And then she would wake up at about 4 o’clock and make me breakfast and get me out of the door by 5 a.m. And I asked her; I said, “Grandma, when do you sleep?” And she goes, “You sleep when you’re dead.” [laughter] And I think that that, right… And her other quick, great quote was, “If you lay down too long… If I lay down too long, they’re going to start throwing dirt on me.” [laughter] I think you’re right. It really isn’t about the money as much as it is about this constant need that I have in this case. And I think, intuiting on how you framed yourself, that you do as well. To prove myself and almost middle-finger the rest of the world that, “Yeah, I can do it. I have done it. Yeah, I can do it, and I can do it again even better.” I don’t know what’s that about. Something definitely is wrong with me, but anyway there you go. I hear ya, man.
So, money to me is just a way of keeping score. And I think that you’ll find that amongst true entrepreneurs: it’s really just a way of keeping score; it’s not a real necessity. It’s like any other one of your numbers. You have to know your numbers at all times, and it’s just another number.
So, what would you see as one of your largest challenges with Research America?
So I’ll give you another story. So the biggest challenge that I had was in 2016 in November; it was really solved by Rex Repass from REPASS Consulting, one of our main companies in full service in Cincinnati. And I flew from his office to Miami to meet my son, and my daughter and my wife. (They were on a different airplane from our home in Philadelphia.) And I had met Rex just three times prior in person; so, this was the fourth meeting. And we knew that we were totally aligned. We had only known each other for two months. And I had just bought business his weeks before. When I landed in Cincinnati, my phone blew up. And I found out that my wife had cardiac arrest, very severe due to multiple diseases and ailments. She subsequently had hundreds of shocks; she was on life support – almost lost a limb. She was weeks in a coma, paralysis; waking up, rehab. So I had no way to run a business at this time, and I just bought five businesses that year, which was the largest. And two of them, Intellitrends and REPASS were in the last probably 90 days, both of them. So, on Monday (this happened on a Friday, coming back from Cincinnati) I called everybody in our group meeting, had an emergency meeting with all of our sites. And I just said, “Hey, this is where we’re at.” I said, “Rex Repass is in charge of this company.” Some people had been with me for years. It was, to me, was the obvious decision even though I had met him just three times and had only bought his business two months prior. And Rex took over the company. People were like, “Hey, who’s this guy?” Of course, they were shocked to learn what had happened to my wife, which has really become a great story. And she’s recovered and done phenomenally well. But the story here is – Wow! – during this time of hypergrowth… On November 4, 2016, I had this tragedy, and the company had to hold itself up on its own. And Rex was able to help that. So you have to have somebody who’s there to help and, fortunately, that had happened just a couple months prior. My wife had slept through her birthday; she had slept through Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. We had to fly her five weeks later back to Penn where her doctors are – an emergency transport from Miami. It was a really crazy time; so, this was the time that was the biggest challenge for me. And I had a great support team with my company to allow me to do what I had to do for my family and for the wife and for my children so that the business would not fall apart. Certainly, my Number 2 and now president of my company, Rex Repass, is to thank for that. We are completely aligned. He has helped me along with my CFO, who is one of my best friends from high school, Mark Schoenberg. So I have a good support team and now some vice presidents and many directors, who I count on every day. Basically, it’s one team that I was developing that was able to keep this afloat during such a challenging time in my life.
There’s a tremendous amount of complexity in that narrative. The thing that stands out to me is (1) – just doing that level of M&A: massive, massive amount of focus is needed to pull that off successfully. And then to go through a personal trauma right in the middle of it… The fact that you guys were able to keep it together is amazing. But, having only met with Rex three times and then to entrust him with the whole enchilada, that’s a massive capacity for trust that you exhibited, right?
It’s like the guy who meets his wife and knew right away, “Hey, this is the person. This is it.” Sort of no different than that. When it came, I knew that this was the person right away. And when I left Cincinnati that day on my way to that tragic time, I knew that I had found my person to build this company with.
Has that been a skill or characteristic that you have, obviously, sort of a high EQ in identifying people that are high capacity and also on your team, right, because he could… there are a million different problems that could have happened there, and they didn’t, obviously. Like is that a skill that you’ve developed, or is it just coming natural out of your background?
I think it’s definitely a skill that I’ve developed in what I’ve been doing, but it’s got to be a skill that you have, whether it’s innate or you’ve learned it. Talent is the Number 1 thing that everybody needs. So, if you ask me, “Hey, what do you need for an all-star employee?” The most obvious is talent. And, if you don’t realize that talent is the most important thing, you shouldn’t be in charge of a business because that’s what drives the entire machine always.
The other part of that though is your optimism that he would be able to not just take the ball but score a touchdown, right? And that comes really from YOU initially.
Yeah, I think so, but really it all boils down to building a team; in our case, what we call one team and making sure that you have the right folks on board. But, without that, there is no business, and that shouldn’t be something that I’m teaching anyone on this podcast; it’s something that everyone should know for sure.
I love the one team framework. Let’s segway in, as you already have, to the characteristics of an all-star employee.
So, I won’t give you talent [laughter] from right off the list. If you don’t know that, again you got to get out of the game. Number 1 thing for me is drive, and that’s manifested by hunger or self-motivation. I need somebody who thinks out-of-the-box like an entrepreneur would. And here’s a funny one: how about obedience in a way or the ability to understand that rapid expansion really needs someone to make those decisions. So, after thinking out-of-the-box and coming up with your own decisions and being listened to eventually, if you’re in hypergrowth, quick decisions have to be made, and you have to accept those decisions as an employee. And you need employees that will listen to you and work with what you ask them to do once you listen to them. So you need to listen to them; they need to be open and give you ideas, but they have to be willing to say, “Hey, the decision has been made. I’m going to make it happen.” That’s really very important, and people don’t realize that, hey, it’s not just thinking out-of-the-box, ideas, and having the drive to do it; it’s being able to listen and do what you’re asked to do. Two-out-of-three is not good here. You need to have all three to be an all-star employee: the ability to listen, the ability to think out-of-the-box, and you must be hungry or self-motivated.
I have an interesting story, kind of piggy-backing on that out of that, out of my personal experience. I hired an area manager out of Asia, and they had an aggressive sales growth target when he was brought on board. So the team, of course, was complaining though his answer simply was, “Our job is not to ask ‘why’ but to ask ‘how’.” And that created this great series of productive conversations that led to very specific tactics that allowed them to reverse engineer the growth trajectory and then, ultimately, hit it. So, you’re absolutely right. That mentality of ownership and the ability to just kind of do it as opposed to not is paramount. But I do want to kind of pivot back to this one team that you talked about. So you have this rubric of what an all-star employee looks like and, obviously, your team conforms with that. After doing that many acquisitions, was there a pretty difficult process to align the team or cull the team so that they were completely aligned against one culture?
So, when you acquire different businesses and you put them together as one, you have owners and managers that are used to running their own fiefdom the way that they always wanted, that they always did. If you’re doing different things, sometimes it’s hard to get everybody to agree, to work as one organism – one operating organism. And, getting people to do that, you have to make sure that they’re aligned with your core values. We have core values, and we believe that we’ve instilled those in everybody to work with one another. And that allows them to sort of give up that private fiefdom and work with everybody as a team. And, when people start to do it, they really enjoy it, and they say, “Hey, I’m so glad to be part of this bigger, better team, doing different things. And I don’t know everything, and I have so many people to learn from. But, as long as they’re aligned with your core values / your pillars, then you’re going to have a great company.
So, you’ve been in the market research space for quite a while. What are you seeing now as a macrotrend?
I don’t know if I’ve been in the business for quite a while; I’ve only been in the business for four-and-three quarters years. So, I started sort of learning this, but I was learning from experts as I was looking at different businesses. I was going and talking to other owners constantly so that they could teach me, going to conventions and learning everything, getting a crash course in five years. So, there are a lot of things that are changing and evolving in the market research field: artificial intelligence, reduced budgets – which is something that we have to, from supply side, have to work with all the time – and new technologies coming in, and DIYs. So these are the macrotrends in the space, and we have to work with them. So, if we say, “Hey, qual and quant. They’re both great. But we to do both of them, and they’re better together. Full service and field service: Hey, they’re great separately, but they’re better together.” So those are important things. Same thing with artificial intelligence and using those products: those are better together with traditional research products when you’re using AI to moderate or AI to develop panel based on past information to build panel answers versus traditional methods. You got to do them both. That’s the thing sort of… DIY is becoming something that is so important. Again, part of what we do, it’s better together. You can use a full-service market research company, and you can do as much or as little as you want but, as a researcher, it’s my job to put those things together and say, “Hey, do as much or as little as you’d like. We’re going to help you either way. So, if you have your innovation center that you have internally and, as long as your research is not unbiased, we want to work with you. We want to figure out, “Hey, what can we do to help you?” We’re not large enough. And some of these businesses that are losing amazing amounts of revenue in this business. We’re growing in a business that, certainly, on a revenue standpoint, seems to be shrinking. I’ve always been in businesses that have grown in a shrinking market. That’s my story; I’m sticking to it.
What are you seeing as one of the keys to your success for Research America? And then, are you drawing on your expertise coming from outside of the industry and bringing it into research?
Yeah. First off, there’s an obvious answer here. And again, you have to drive growth and profitability. You have to increase your conversion. You have to increase the leads that you bring in. And you have to increase your product service offerings. So, this should be new to no one that’s making the kinds of decisions that I am. They’re the same for everybody. So, what’s unique to our company and what I’ve brought in? I really brought in the same core values that I brought into… from my other business. And I think that that was the secret sauce, and I don’t think it should be a secret for anyone. Our core values are: integrity matters; relentless curiosity, which is really necessary in marketing research (that was the one that was added new); certainly, the one team that we talked about before; and really, we can’t grow and succeed without a sense of urgency from everybody. And these four core values are values that we spoke about with our leaders to make sure that they were aligned with them, and they agreed, and they aligned with market research. And integrity is very important in market research. Relentless curiosity is extremely important in building a good company. One team and a sense of urgency is so important.
Yeah, I think it’s brilliant. I wish I would have talked to you before Focus Vision. [laughter] Honestly, the one team pillar is very, very powerful and succinct. I really like the centralization of decision-making but then also sort of how it’s a group effort as opposed to one person, you know, top-down whatever. I really like that framing as an additional add-on to core values. I think we take that for granted in a lot of cases as just part of the value system in order to see the other one succeed. Like you said, integrity or urgency or relentless curiosity, but calling it out, it really puts it in a special place and identifies it as critical.
There’s no question. I often sign emails to team members “One Team.” So, we’ll be talking about something, and there’ll be a group of us from diverse companies and backgrounds in marking research. And I’ll remind them about that core principle: “One Team.” We’re always talking about it; almost every meeting that I have, that’s brought up.
Does it have reach to the customer as well?
Oh, there’s no question. So, one team to them means security to their data. It means we have people working together instead of outsourcing that to a bunch of people. We have everything internally working as one team to make sure the time when we have so much legislation regulation that we’re able to have a secure data and make sure that one team is working on all of their work instead of outsourcing it all over the place, whether it’s field or full service. So, I think it’s invaluable.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your business. What are you guys offering right now that’s getting a lot of traction in the market place?
Well, right now we’re developing a company, based on the boutique of boutiques. So, basically, I’ve bought 14 or 15 boutique businesses. I’ve put them together into 14 offices. They do different things, whether it’s recruiting, or data science, or qualitative moderating, quantitative. We own three focus group facilities – soon to be four, two of Test Kitchens lab and sensory rooms. So we’re doing so many different things. This boutique of boutiques is very helpful to our clients; being a one-stop shop, as I just discussed, is very important. We have cutting-edge techniques that we use, both in a proprietary form and then also on non-proprietary, where we’re using some of the innovative folks in our industry who are working with AI and video and some of these things and social scraping to be able to help our clients. Data security has been a huge push to us in the last year because we know that a lot of companies have not been careful with the data – as really the climate with viruses and with data theft and the things that happened in the last election and the sharing and passing around data between multiple companies – as we have. We think that data security is here to stay, and it really… If it’s not on your front burner, you better move it up. Data security is very, very important.
My guest today has been Robert Porter, CEO of Research America. Robert, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.
Thank you. I really appreciate your having me, and thank you for anyone who has listened this long to my story. Hope it was inspirational and, appreciate being on.
The honor was all of ours. Thank you very much for your full disclosure. I do think that we tend to make everything really happy [laughter] incorrectly so. In many cases, there are struggles and difficulties that we face at varying levels at different times in our lives.
Jamin, this is a happy story. It has a happy ending, and it has… I’m a happy guy with a happy family. Just because it takes you… there’s a few slips along with bumps and bruises… doesn’t mean it’s not a happy ending. This is a happy story. This is the happiest story as you could ever hear.
Love it. Robert, thank you very much. Everyone listening. Thank you very much for your attention during this time. As always, we love your feedback. Please be sure to leave some comments on Apple iTunes, and those ratings continue to drive our adoption. Have a great rest of your day.
Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, we’ll be talking with Stacey Walker on-site at Adobe. This is my absolute favorite episode so far. We actually have her go through a card sort of trending technologies and have a few other fun games that we’re playing. Hope you’ll tune in.