How Market Research Leads to Unexpected Revelations

Hint: It’s not just to produce nice blog content (no matter how much it does make my life easier in that regard).

We conduct market research for three simple – yet extremely powerful – reasons:

  1. To reinforce our market insight or understanding for customers and for ourselves;

  2. To provide useful context for applicants;

  3. To review or investigate our own internal bias.

Our recent deep-dive analysis into how the market views the phrase “startup” was intended to hit point #1, which (we feel) it managed well. As with most pieces of research however, knowing more about a given subject doesn’t so much answer questions as create more of them, and this was no exception.

As we discussed in our write-up of that research, the responses that we received had one clear conclusion: everyone “knows” what a startup is, but no one can define what they “know”. The term is messy and far from black-and-white in terms of accepted use. Despite that, some common themes did emerge, chiefly that a startup has:

  1. Small staff numbers

  2. Lack of stable profit or reliance on external funding

  3. Relatively new to the market

  4. Unique, disruptive or singularly focused product

However, where things got very murky was when we tried to put boundaries on those concepts. How many people is “small”? How little profit can a startup have? How old can the company be?

Whilst our survey respondents had a wide range of answers to these questions, we were able to settle on some common averages. These, however, led to quite a bit of internal debate within the Talent Point office; whilst our applicants could agree (more or less) on certain boundaries, our own internal understanding wasn’t quite so clear.

Startups: A Talent Point of View

That was the first additional question that the research raised and was definitely worth digging into a bit further. In order to do so, I created a survey for Talent Point employees to fill out, looking to get their opinion on what a “startup” is, in turn highlighting where we agree with jobseekers and where we don’t.

The result was interestingly split. On the one hand, TP staff almost unanimously agreed with the four identified characteristics of “startups”; when given the option to add other key defining traits, such as disruptive market behaviour or innovative tech adoption, pretty much everyone (>90%) declined.

They also weighted the importance of each characteristic fairly consistently with jobseekers:

Bar graph comparing startup trait rankings by staff and jobseekers; traits are Size, Age, Funding and Product. Staff rate Size slightly more highly than jobseekers, Age and Funding slightly less, Product much more.

Comparison of startup trait rankings (weighted) by Talent Point staff and jobseekers.

Just like the applicants we surveyed, Talent Point staff agree that company size is the most important factor involved when defining a start-up, and age is the least. Where we disagreed was around product, with almost twice as many staff using product as a core trait for a start-up. That result isn’t hugely worrying, however, for two reasons:

  1. The nature of our job is focused on product as a selling point, so it makes sense that we would find it more critical and notice the product differences between companies more than an average jobseeker.

  2. The internal survey was more directed, whereas jobseekers were given broader, more open-ended questions deliberately. That led to higher variety in Talent Point responses in general, particularly around product, the least clearly defined characteristic.

However, Talent Point staff universally apply these characteristics more loosely.

Whereas job seekers were surprisingly harsh on restrictions of age, size and funding level, internally we were much happier to still refer to larger and older companies as start-ups.

Our data shows that the market generally considers a start-up to be less than four years old (70% agreement) with a high preference to reduce that to as low as two years (50% agreement). Internally, however, we’re pretty happy to consider companies over a decade old as a start-up; what’s more, no one surveyed felt the cut off was less than five years!

Disconnect on company size was even greater, with a majority of jobseekers (63%) believing maximum start-up staff size to be 20 people, going up to 84% agreement with a cut-off of 50 people. When we look at internal results, though, Talent Point staff are again more lenient. Nearly a fifth of staff (18%) don’t see size as important, compared to 5% of jobseekers, with a further 63% putting the cut-off at 50 or greater staff. In fact, our lowest response was 35 staff, significantly much higher than the average cutoff given by applicants!

Overall, then, the research has helped to highlight that we do have a degree of disconnect with job seekers. That’s not great, but it’s why user research like this is so important; by discovering that discrepancy we can now begin to remedy it! It also lets us ask a bigger question: why do we differ?

Well, perhaps it’s because of the nature of Talent Point. Just bear with me for a second.

Could We Be a Startup?

This was the second big point of discussion around the office raised by our first round of market research.

After all, if a startup is a small, quite new company, with some reliance on external funding and a disruptive, focused product concept… doesn’t that sound somewhat familiar?*

As such, the survey was designed to both test market agreement and to allow introspection. I wanted to find out how we internally viewed Talent Point as a company, with a focus on whether we see ourselves as a startup and how that might colour our wider application of the term.

You see, Talent Point was created three years ago and we employ 40 people. We’re also heavily product focused, and whilst we would argue that we aren’t monolithic, our service model is certainly tightly constrained and aims to be disruptive.

If we compare that to our previous definition of a startup it comes up favourably! We’re comfortably within the age limits of both job seekers and Talent Point staff, our product focus fits nicely and whilst our staff count is slightly over our defined boundary it’s a pretty close call. In fact, it might even explain why Talent Point staff are happier for startups to be larger than jobseekers.

The questions is: do we see ourselves as a startup? So what does the survey say? Is Talent Point a start-up?

Pie chart titled 'Do Staff View Talent Point as a Startup?' Results show 33% completely agree, 56% agree and 11% are not sure with no one answering disagree or totally disagree.

When asked, 89% of Talent Point staff agreed that we were a startup, with no one disagreeing and only a small number being uncertain.

Well, put simply, yes! Regardless of whether an industry expert would agree, internally we’re quite unanimous: we believe that Talent Point is a startup!

That might feel a little odd if you know anything about our history. Talent Point is a company that emerged from another, older business, thereby adopting a more mature model and infrastructure. It lacks what I would call a “startup” culture, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

And on that note of answers just leading to more questions, this survey was not different. One of the most interesting results was over whether Talent Point has always been a start-up. That might seem like an odd question, but just over half of staff (55%) felt that the company had become a startup since they were hired.

How much staff felt like that increased linearly with length of time having worked at Talent Point, which definitely highlights the level of change that has occurred in the last couple of years. Weirdly, that seems to imply that Talent Point has transitioned from a corporate, mature business into a startup – not exactly your usual trajectory!

Questions Are Always Worth Answering

Whilst some might see the cyclical nature of research discouraging – that each piece leads to another, and another, and so on – hopefully we’ve highlighted how incredibly beneficial it can be.

As a writer, the survey highlighted some pretty useful information, not just in how we should be applying terminology within our marketing material and campaigns, but also by revealing potential internal biases.

Knowing and understanding the differences in how jobseekers are interpreting the term “startup” to how its being used internally allows us to rectify any discrepancies moving forward and use the term more intelligently.

Most importantly, it’s helped define where it will be most valuable to direct follow-up research, allowing us to even greater market insight in the long run. We’d already begun looking into the impact on jobseeker perception that defining a company as a startup can have, but now we can refine that market analysis even further.

As such, stay tuned for our follow up article on whether the culture of startups is still fashionable, or whether market associations are beginning to tarnish the concept.

* Okay, except for the funding part – though we can dream! [click to return to text]

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