Blue Sky Thinking. Down to Earth Results.
Abbott Research

How to Research Your Start-Up Business

whiteboard grpahic that illustrates conceptual steps to startup a businessThere’s nothing quite so exciting as a brand new idea to a researcher – a chance to help a fledgling business get off the ground. Unfortunately, the budgets for professional research are not necessarily start-up friendly.

But the wise entrepreneur knows they need the insights to refine their ideas. Because even very skilled marketers have launched failed products. The Nielsen company, who studies this kind of thing, finds an 85% failure rate.

When we are approached by a start-up who wants help but has almost no budget, here are the steps we suggest they consider.

Interviews with friendlies

Start with some informal interviews with friendlies. By friendlies, we mean people who are inclined to help you, such as those within your professional and personal networks. You want people who are from your target market if at all possible, whether that is model plane builders or college undergraduates. If you can, ask them to bring a friend when you meet them for coffee. The friend will be better able to be frank, which is what you need.

Plan to give people a nice thank you for this – a gift card can work well here. After you present the gift card to each participant, you could ask them for suggestions of anyone else you might speak with. This is called snowball recruiting, and it can help you expand your reach.

You should also seek permission to contact people again at a later stage of development.

Interviews with experts

If your network includes people that also sell into this target, but would not be your competitors, try to talk to them as well. These are expert interviews, and you can gather a lot of insights from those who are already successful with your target.

You will want to be very generous with this group in terms of saying thank you, because you are receiving professional expertise from them as a courtesy to another business person.

If you don’t know any experts like this personally, LinkedIn is a good way to find some. You can upgrade to a Premium membership, and send carefully worded messages requesting a phone interview. You want to be quite transparent in terms of your purpose in contacting them, and be clear that you are not selling, and not competing, but would value their expertise, and want to pay for 45 minutes or an hour of their time.

Form an advisory group or community

Once you have done some initial immersion in the topic, using the interview method, you could invite people to participate in some ongoing intermittent contact. Perhaps you would connect with them quarterly, as you refine the product, get your web site up, start building marketing materials and so forth.

Fortunately, many of the world-class online research platforms have a free level designed for businesses like yours.

What about a focus group?

Managing a group discussion requires quite a high skill level in order to get useful information. While it may seem like the easiest approach, it is not superior to conducting one-on-one interviews. And most of us are capable of talking to people as individuals.

Where to spend some money

For the initial research, if you choose to invest some funds, invest in having someone improve your questions. Be aware that this will take more time than you think, and plan on paying for 3 or 4 hours of professional time from your chosen resource.

This can help you avoid asking questions that are simply too direct and literal to yield useful information. Like: Would you buy this product? How much would you pay for this product?

If you have more money, you could have a professional conduct your fieldwork. You’ll want to get as much of it organized as possible on your own, and then pay for professional moderation. This is a bit like being the general contractor on your own home construction project, but bringing in expert trades.

One thing that you do not need, that big companies do need, is a formal report. These take a lot of time and cost a lot. Instead, pay for a formal debrief with the researcher, and take great notes.

Some resources that will help you

If you choose to use online research tools, you would find this book helpful: Qual-Online The Essential Guide.

Jennifer Dale and I wrote this book as a how-to guide for other researchers to use different methods of online qualitative. It’s pretty down-to-earth, and if you work through it, you too can learn to conduct research.

You can get it from the publisher, Paramount Books, or from

A lot of mistakes are made in how concepts are presented to people in research. This is really an art, and there is also a book about how to do this. It’s an easy book to read, and has step-by-step information with examples. It’s Marketing Concepts that Win, by Martha Guidry, a researcher who specializes in concept development.

You want to be sure you are getting a reaction to the idea that is not affected by your presentation. You may want to modify your ideas as you go along. This book will help you with all of that.

There is a case study of a mini-community that my colleague Ilka Kuhagen ran to help a start-up business. A small group of people were brought together using an online platform to guide decisions at several steps of the process.

As you build out your fledgling company, you will want to keep building on the insights. At some point, getting pro support may be the right choice. But when budget is tight, it is still better to do some insight gathering than no insight gathering. Just be aware of the limitations of the DIY approach.