The challenges and rewards of owning a business in the marketing research industry

The marketing research and insights industry is constantly changing, which can be exciting for individuals looking to start a new business. Markets and consumers are always evolving and staying ahead of the trends requires a deep understanding of industry best practices, as well as a willingness to look to the future and think outside of the box. 

To better understand how insight industry entrepreneurs are navigating the challenges of owning a business, we checked in with a variety of business owners – from newbies to industry veterans – to learn about their personal experiences. 

Being your own boss is challenging and rewarding 

While being your own boss may sound freeing, the reality is it takes a lot of hard work. But, as many of the business owners we spoke with pointed out, the hard work is worth it because of the flexibility and sense of purpose it brings. 

“I define my business vs. a job description defining me,” said Nancy Cox. “This grants me the flexibility to both refine and expand.”

Aaron Cruikshank echoed this, pointing out that you shouldn’t launch and scale a business for “money and freedom.” 

“It's a terrible way to get rich and have loads of free time,” said Cruikshank. “I look at the rewards more as having the freedom to work on what I want to work on rather than how much I work.”

Preparing to start your business and navigating challenges in the marketing research industry 

We received a variety of advice from marketing research business owners and felt it helpful to break it down into five key tips – from networking (nearly everyone mentioned the importance of finding mentors and fostering a strong network) all the way to being OK with making mistakes. While this list is far from exhaustive, we hope it sparks more dialogue within the research community. 

Develop relationships with mentors within your industry.

1. Develop a strong network and find relevant mentors. 

Creating and fostering a business network was the advice we heard most when talking with marketing research business owners. 

By focusing on networking early on, entrepreneurs can not only make better decisions and avoid potential mistakes, but also build relationships that are beneficial to the business down the road. And before launching out on your own, consider talking one-on-one with others who have moved into self-employment/entrepreneurship.

“Talking to others was an important part of my research and preparation, and something I started doing about six months before making the decision,” said Angie Meltsner. 

Networking can go further by collecting stories which will help you to better understand people. 

“As a market research business owner, you are in the business of people. Collect life experiences – both personally and professionally – that will help you understand people more deeply,” said Cynthia Harris.

Talking with other researchers will also allow you to find mentors. Cox said having multiple mentors is necessary.  

“The MR community is one of the most encouraging and generous communities of any industry,” said Cox. “Lean into this trait of our fellow researchers to recruit a variety of mentors. And you do need more than one mentor. One of my early mentors taught me you can have an everything bagel but not an everything mentor.” 

Talking with other researchers will also help you to gain partnerships that will allow for mutually beneficial opportunities. 

“Figure out who your channel partners are and invest heavily in those relationships … find sectors or types of businesses that go after the same clients that you go after but where there are non-competing, mutually beneficial opportunities,” said Cruikshank. 

2. Create a list of references. 

A general opinion in any business is that it can be more costly gaining customers than it is to keep the existing ones. However, as a new business owner, your list of customers may naturally be very short. To overcome this, Cruikshank suggested asking your existing customers to become “reference customers.” 

“To get new customers who have never heard of you before, you need to accumulate reference customers,” said Cruikshank.   

3. Determine your business values and goals. 

One piece of advice that Patrick Stokes gave was to create clear values, priorities and goals for the operation of your company. 

“One of the key values that has benefited our business over the past two and a half years is a strong people-first approach, and I’d encourage any entrepreneur to prioritize this from day one,” said Stokes.

He continued and said that “people-first” doesn’t just mean customers; it should take employees into account as well. 

“Start with an attitude of trust, empower each person to do their job, and create the type of collaborative work environment today’s workforce needs – one that is flexible, provides space for work-life balance, and offers open communication channels. It is worth it,” Stokes said. 

Erin Sowell agreed that having a mission that you believe in will also help your business.

“Frame your business as a mission and pursue that mission in a way that makes you excited to do what you do. Your experience is important too,” Sowell said.  

4. Don’t let people force you into a box. 

One challenge that research industry entrepreneurs may face is being categorized into a small bucket despite a broad knowledge base. Several individuals we checked in with spoke of the challenges of being pigeonholed to one demographic or category. 

“I started out moderating kids, but also quickly had wide and deep experience in many categories,” said Susan Fader. “In my early career I heard so many times, ‘Oh, I forgot you had experience in X category.’” 

Sima Vasa also mentioned the struggle of trying new things. 

“Building and selling something that is innovative is a balancing act. Change is hard and clients might not adapt to things are quickly as you might think,” said Vasa.  

Diversifying and breaking out of a specific niche can be difficult, but showcasing a wide range of experience and capabilities, and continuing to put yourself out there, can help prove your value to a broader range of clients. 

5. Remember, it’s OK to make mistakes. 

Not many people are comfortable when they make mistakes, let alone public ones. But that is almost guaranteed to happen as you are building your business according to some of our experts. 

“Get comfortable with imperfection and learning in public,” said Sowell. 

This can be easier said than done. Put learning to be OK with making mistakes will not only help to improve your business but could help you become a better entrepreneur and leader.