About Dave: Originally from Bringham, CEO of Voxpopme, Dave Carruthers has transformed the way businesses think about consumer insights, bringing video analytics to the forefront of the market research industry. Since its inception in 2013, Voxpopme has helped clients from all industries capture and analyze video insights to create great brands, products, and experiences. Dave’s perseverance and innovation have allowed Voxpopme to grow across the pond from the U.K. to the United States.
Currently, Voxpopme’s team spans across the world, consisting of 68 employees that share Dave’s vision for video to become the dominant medium for collecting and sharing consumer feedback. Voxpopme’s hard work and dedication have landed the company on GRIT’s 2016 Top 50 Most Innovative list at #43, while also receiving the Accenture Consumer Innovation Award the same year. In addition to his role as a CEO, Dave is a Board Director for the Insights Association and an Advisory Board Director for the MSMR Program at Michigan State University.
In this edition of Executive Insights, Rudly Raphael sits down with Dave to discuss the evolution of the market research industry and his tips for becoming a successful entrepreneur.
How have you adapted to COVID?
This has not been the year that anybody planned for. We all came into 2020 with high hopes and high ambitions. I think the team has done very well coping with it. The transition for many of us in the industry to remote work has been much easier than others. Overall, I've been really pleased and surprised by how people have adapted. When everything shut down in March, you saw a lot of uncertainty. People didn't want to conduct research at that time; they had bigger things to worry about. We weren't really sure what was happening.The reaction from the majority of people on the client-side and from their peers was to stop everything. That was a nerve-wracking time for us as a business, as I'm sure it was for many other people. Nobody knew how long it would last. Q2 was really difficult, but come the middle of June, through the summer, people realized that this wasn't going away anytime soon. With so much changing in the world, it's been an incredible time to understand what people were going through and how brands need to react and adapt to make sure new consumer needs are met.
What do you miss most about working pre-pandemic?
Market research as an industry is relatively small. You go to conferences, and everybody knows each other. Some really close friends work at other research tech firms, and I miss working hard and playing hard with those guys and girls on the conference circuit. I miss the human connection of spending time with good people. I got a lot of energy from surrounding myself with people like that. So that's been tough to replace that energy source working remotely.
Considering COVID’s effects on different industries, do you think Voxpopme has an advantage given the product that you’re selling?
We were already seeing businesses replacing more traditional in-person and qualitative research, and the pandemic just accelerated that transition. Across the board, we have seen this digital transformation. The market research industry has not always been the fastest to adopt certain technologies. What we've seen is out of necessity. People are switching to different vendors and are experiencing some tools that they were dabbling in before. Now they’ve realized that they can do things with less budget in quicker turnaround time and still maintain that high-quality. I think for many, they won't be going back to some of the more traditional routes.
What has been the winning formula to get Voxpopme where it is today?
When we started the company, we had no market research or CX experience. From a technology point-of-view, we were bullish on how video would become this preeminent medium for feedback. At the time, we saw the rise of Instagram and Snapchat and how everybody was becoming comfortable pressing that red button. Just the power of video as a medium to capture feedback and show executives what people really thought using these bite-sized share reels that the platform demonstrates. I think it was the belief in video as a medium and then applying it to an industry and to large brands that needed to get closer to customers. We talk about it all the time, how every company wants to be customer-centric. That's the buzzword that gets thrown around a lot. We've enabled insights departments and teams to put the customer front and center in a way that's difficult to ignore for other executives.
Where does Voxpopme stand in the industry?
Today, we spend a lot of time focused on our customers. The majority are large, household names. That's where the majority of our revenue comes from at this point. What we've seen over the last three to five years is the democratization of insights. More and more people want to get insights data. We've noticed that trend in quantitative for some time with a number of teams, whether it's Zappy, Survey Monkey, or Qualtrics. Those tools are permeating far past just the enterprise's insights team. Its product owners, product managers, and marketing people. At the moment, there's a lot of tools that deal with the survey side of things, but very few tools that democratize qualitative research. That's a big focus for us over the next two years. We want to make video surveys something that really anybody can deploy.
How do you define success?
For me, I would define success as building a product that people love, something they can't do without. A must-have product people tell their friends and industry peers about. That's what excites me - how much work and new clients I see from referrals. So, from that definition of success, I think we're in a relatively good place, but the entrepreneur in me is never satisfied. We were ranked number one for qualitative in the GRIT report. That was great to see because we were voted for by the industry and our peers. We are where we need to be, but we need to keep going up in terms of that kind of growth.
What drives you?
I think the key driver is this product to the heart of it. We need to practice what we preach. We spend all this time getting people to listen to their customers; we need to do the same. From my perspective, most of my time is spent talking to our customers and understanding what their needs are and how we can better facilitate that. What drives me is growth and everything that comes with it, which stems from building a great product. It’s focused on that product lead growth and creating something people want to evangelize and become advocates for. You want the journey to be fun. Running Voxpopme never felt like a job. Waking up every day thinking about the challenges of growth, how we can help people get closer to customers, and becoming experts on the customer within that company, that's what drives us.
I see you moved from the UK to Utah. How was that transition and have you noticed any stark differences?
We knew the US was the largest market in the world for research. To really scale, it was key that we invested in growth across America. We were about 50/50 between the US and UK in terms of headcount, so I'm fortunate to have a great co-founder, our CTO, who runs our UK operation. Also, all of our P&D and engineering is done out of the UK.Culturally, there's a lot of similarities between the UK and the US. One thing that I really enjoyed about moving here is that the culture really embraces entrepreneurship. There’s lots of optimism and a have-a-go-at-it mentality. In the UK, people can be more pessimistic about new things and success. So, I find that the US is certainly more welcoming of entrepreneurship.
If you could go back in time knowing what you do now, would you do anything differently?
It's always easier to sit here now and think about what we should have done. Hindsight is 20/20. The biggest change I would make would be investing sooner into more self-serve DIY for the product. We've made a monumental change there. The product has always been pretty DIY on the back end. Once you run your project, you can go in, and you can do all kinds of things. More recently, we've invested in the front end. It has really paid dividends as to how people are using the product and embracing it. That would definitely be one change I’d make.We’ve raised over $20 million from venture capital investors, and there's a lot that we've learned through that process. There are definitely some things we would have done differently early in that stage. As I say, hindsight is 2020; you can't spend too much time reminiscing over mistakes you've made. You need to move forward.
What are your views on creating a successful company culture?
Culture isn't just free lunches and table tennis. To have a good culture, you need to be intentional about what you want to create. You want to build an environment around company values and getting the balance right between working hard and enjoying life. Curious innovation is also massively important. Company cultures are set by the way leadership acts, not by what leadership says. You need to follow through with what you say because, at the end of the day, culture isn't what you say you are it's what other people say about you.
How would you describe the culture at Voxpopme?
Teamwork is massively important to me. It’s imperative to create an environment that people want to be a part of. An environment where people don’t feel like it’s a job. They feel like they are part of something bigger and that the work they do matters. When my leadership team or I go through the interview process, we look at how people can give examples of what they did in previous roles. It's not always about their job, it's to understand their mentality. We are focused on the team. Through interviewing people, I have discovered that many people tend to talk about their accomplishments as if they achieved them single-handedly. In reality, they probably collaborated with a whole team. So, we're always listening for interviewees who want to take less credit than they probably deserve to find people who share our team mindset.I believe good ideas can come from anywhere within the organization. Voxpopme has a relatively flat kind of organizational structure; we don't have tons and tons of hierarchy. Some of the best successes come from the growth of our early people that came on as interns. It’s incredible to see them evolve over a five or six-year journey. Although our number one priority is our investors, for me, it's really about building a culture and environment that people really want to be a part of. We see that with people we’ve hired wanting to bring others with them to build our team. It’s great to see.
What was your approach to branding Voxpopme?
When we first started going to these research conferences, we didn't know anybody there. Many exhibition booths looked the same, with screenshots of SPSS type looking software and things like that. So, we really wanted to do something that stood out. We used loud and vibrant colors and did a lot of stuff on activation at events. We were always trying to disrupt the status quo. We invested in building relationships with people, and some of our best relationships are actually other vendors. Over time, we created a good network for collaboration. From a brand perspective, we've always tried to focus on being playful.
We certainly aren't super corporate in any way. Everything we do has a bit of an edge to it. People are so worried about pleasing everybody. Occasionally, you've got to be more outspoken on your views on the industry or what you think is going on. Yeah, you're going to annoy some people, or some people are going to disagree with you. In my opinion, it is better than being straight down the middle and not standing for anything.
How do you approach failure?
A Lot of people told me no. A lot of people said the idea wasn't good enough and that it was just a lifestyle business. When you're really passionate about something and go pitch to investors that are getting pitched all the time, you’re up against a lot of competition. It can be pretty soul-destroying to be told it's not good enough. You got to have a short-term memory and just be able to put that behind you. I think that's the key part of it.I would also say gratitude is important. Sometimes, we can get super focused on our own world and problems. They're real for all of us, but in the broader context of things, we're not struggling with many of the issues people face around the world. It’s important to have some perspective and gratitude for what we can achieve, rather than compare ourselves to others. Ultimately, it's a mixture of grit, determination, and luck.
How do you deal with pushback?
I look at pushback as my problem or my leadership team's problem because we haven't done a good enough job telling a story that gets people to believe. Our relationship with boards and investors always has a level of tension regarding what we can deliver and what we are trying to do. The key is to come back to the center to figure out how we can work together for the best outcome. Too often do we see things only from our own perspective. It’s important to take a step back and consider where the other person is coming from because there's a reason why they're pushing back.You've got to really listen to what's behind that objection because often, what they claim that objection to be, isn’t the case. A lot of the time, it's something else. You've got to really listen to see it from their perspective, so you can come at it from a different angle or frame it in a way they understand. You can't always convince people, and that's just part of building a business.
What are some misconceptions of the market research industry?
The industry is going for a big shift. We're seeing market research take COVID as a real opportunity to reinvent itself. So, I always hear the narrative that market research lost its seat at the table. It doesn't have executive buy-in. It's a support function, and it isn't critical. Now, people are realizing, this is one of the most strategic parts of the business in terms of understanding what customers want and need. When speaking to executives on the brand side over the last five or six months, they're being bombarded with questions. They need market research more than ever. It's becoming ever more critical.
What do people not do enough of in market research? What do they do too much of?
I don't think we do enough to inspire action. It's easy. It's data interpretation, and we don't go that final step further and have real conviction in our recommendation. It’s like the consultant model where you could do A, B, or C, but we need to do a better job driving action. How are we promoting real business outcomes, rather than just survey results in a PowerPoint?In terms of what we do too much of, I would say feeling sorry for ourselves. Too many companies are sitting there feeling sorry about their budgets or shifts in the industry. They start buying into this narrative that their business is just a lost ship rather than doing anything about it.
What inspires you?
Family plays a huge role. I have three daughters, so that's a big part of my life. I’m trying to be a good role model. I want to show them where hard work can get you and how you can achieve anything you want by dreaming big. I think that's something that I've gotten better at over the last couple of years. I used to be obsessive about work. I was at the point where everything else came at a very distant second. I've really invested in trying to get that balance right and having an outlet outside of work and family. I do a lot of MMA, mountain biking, and things like that. Physical and mental wellness is critical. It’s unhealthy to be focused on only one thing. Moderation is key.
How did you get involved in MMA fighting?
Originally the boxing thing was a charity event. I'd been doing some boxing fitness classes when Qualtrics decided to do this 12-week competitive class with a big event to raise money for charity. So that was the start of it. Now, I do MMA with my coach who’s also teaching me a little bit of jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. It's been a great outlet. Growing up, I played a lot of rugby. When I moved to America, I missed the competitiveness and team aspects. I played ice hockey and soccer for a bit, but it was difficult to travel with work.
How does living an active lifestyle translate into other aspects of your life?
The competitive nature definitely translates into work. Everything turns into a competition. It’s about the training, the preparation, and the journey. It's not really about the fight at the end of the day. You have to follow a regimen, have discipline, and stay accountable for yourself. I think that focus and that competitive nature transfers into the business.
Do you follow a daily routine? If so, what does that look like?
Before COVID, I was traveling a lot, and it was very unstructured- which I enjoyed. Now, I've had to train myself to be a lot more structured. We need that now with everyone being remote. We need to have more intention in communicating. We need to invest that time because you're not having any of those serendipitous conversations anymore.
How do you stay up to date with industry trends?
I spend a lot of time on social media consuming content. More recently, I've been trying to create content and share perspectives on stuff. LinkedIn is good. I just wish there was more authenticity in human connection. It’s becoming similar to the Instagram culture where everyone's putting out their best life when it’s not reflective of what’s actually going on. What I've been trying to do is start a dialogue around not only the wins but the failures. That's what people want at the moment, authenticity. That’s not to say people don’t want to hear about the wins and be happy for you, but it’s becoming a stream of self-promotional garbage. I think it’s because of the lack of real events and people still finding a way to use LinkedIn.
What’s your opinion on the amount of content channels surrounding you? Does it ever get overwhelming?
Overwhelmed is the right word because you've got great YouTube channels, email newsletters, podcasts, LinkedIn, Twitter, this constant source of information. I would say my content is probably 10% to 20% research content. The other 80% is actually about tech SaaS company growth because, in my role, it's about how we can grow faster and continue to build our team. I’m always looking to put the content I’m consuming into action.Sometimes, you've got to stop just listening to crap and actually start putting things in motion. I always see people on social media who are posting about reading 60 books this year. That’s great, but what did you actually implement? People feel like they're busy because they can consume a lot of information, but when you ask them what they’ve done for their business in the last 90 days, it’s very little. At that point, you’re just reading for the sake of reading.
Are there any causes you’re passionate about?
My eldest daughter was born prematurely and has a disability, so I am very passionate about making sure she has a good quality-of-life. Also, we are seeing a lot of focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m glad those topics are getting the recognition they deserve. People are having uncomfortable conversations to listen and learn about social issues. I think it all starts with hearing each other out and education rather than just having a position on something. You have to listen before you speak. COVID has forced us all to show a bit more humility towards one another and take the time to discover those stories, which can only be a good thing.
What do you want people to know about you that they don’t already know?
I think being a CEO, some people make assumptions about my upbringing. I left school at 16 and didn't go to college. I set up my own business when I was 20, made a bunch of money by the time I was 23, and lost everything by the time I was 26. I’ve been through a whole journey. There's no such thing as an overnight success. I think most people that know me would say I'm pretty extroverted. I am in certain situations, but I'm also quite introverted. I've got better at doing a lot of this stuff. I was probably physically shaking the first time I spoke at a conference. There were most likely several bad presentations before there was one good. It's a journey. No one was born with all the answers.
What does the next chapter look like for you?
At the moment, I’m pretty focused on the business and spending more time on myself and my family. I just got approved for a green card, so that's probably the start of the next chapter for me. Having stability that I'm here to stay is definitely a big part of it. Also, growing Voxpopme to that next stage. We have 70 people now, and we've got some pretty ambitious plans over the next couple of years for growth. Hopefully, we raise a significant round of funding towards the end of 2021.
As our interview concludes with Dave, we take away the importance of being resilient and working hard to become the best version of ourselves. By creating a culture focused on teamwork and authenticity as well as going against the grain with confidence, any organization can find their voice amongst the crowd.
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