10 Things We Learned While Building an Agile Research Platform

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Flashback to when they were both at UPenn for their Master’s degrees: Dana was a market research veteran, going into the second year of her MBA, and Ethan was an accomplished product designer, sitting on the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund investment committee. Fast forward a couple of years and they are co-running a high-growth market research tech startup with investors like HearstLab and Sixers Lab and clients the likes of Nestle, P&G, Pepsi, and more.

How did they get here and what have they learned along the way? Read on to see what Dana and Ethan have to say about their experiences.


#1 Test your hypotheses and start small.

Highlight began as an idea – a pitch deck with hopes and dreams and vision… but no data. To prove that what we believed to be true would actually manifest in building out our product, there were many little hypotheses we needed to test. Would consumers ‘pay’ for products with time? Would pre-screening articulate consumers ensure quality data? Would consumers who say they’ll give feedback, actually give feedback? In order to efficiently audit our past, calibrate in our present, and orient towards the future, we need to constantly be asking ourselves what assumptions we’re making, how we can test those hypotheses, and what we can learn from those tests, to keep pushing in the right direction.


#2 Community is everything.

At Highlight, community is king. Our community of ‘Highlighters’ a.k.a. what traditional research labels as ‘testers’, or ‘panelists’, or ‘respondents’, are the heartbeat of our platform – the origin of all of the incredible data and insights we serve up to our brand partners. But beyond that more ‘obvious’ community, the different concentric circles of community – our team, our advisors, our investors, our partners, our friends, and family – are what keep Highlight alive. They keep our product evolving, our Highlighters engaged, our clients happy, our team motivated, and our business growing.


#3 Identify a north star.

At the nexus of all those communities is a unifying factor – a single north star or mission unifying all parties. Internally, most companies have KPIs, OKRs, goals, and more. But one level about the quantitative and qualitative metrics for success, lies a company mission that motivates and makes those KPIs make sense. For us at Highlight, we’re on a mission to build better products. We’ve played with a few taglines – a community for better products, because we all deserve better products, building better products together… No matter the creative execution, the message and mission are clear – together, we help create better products, and when that happens, we all win.


#4 Behind closed doors we’re B2B, but it’s important to show up and prioritize your consumer brand.

Sure, we may not be a new adaptogenic gummy, or an artisanal cookware brand, or a keto latte. But we invested in a bad-a** creative agency to give us an incredible name, face, and image. We prioritize our brand and how we show up in-app and in-home for our Highlighters, to put our consumers on a pedestal and always impress. Consumers don’t pay us, but they give us their time and their thoughts, so it’s important to deliver as a consumer brand. It makes a difference.


#5 Close the feedback loop.

Far too often we give our thoughts as a survey-taker, and we get a ‘Thanks for your feedback!’ window or an Amazon Gift Card, etc. We’ve changed that paradigm as a market research platform. It’s well-known psychology that seeing the outcomes of your actions are motivating and encouraging, but why in research has it become the norm to ‘never know’ what comes of your feedback? At Highlight, we share what brands learn back with our Highlighters, so they feel the impact of their actions and are empowered to continue contributing. It’s a great reminder to know you have a voice and a hand in innovation.


#6 Rebrands are opportunities.

Rebrands are great opportunities and we know this firsthand. Rebranding is partly colors and fonts and squiggly lines, but it really ladders down from our mission and purpose. Seeing this product testing problem and fixing the holes and issues through product development.



SAP and Qualtrics are Rebranding Branding

Beyond just being a beautiful sort of entry into the space and then giving our consumers a brand that they identify with and are proud of, the rebrand has really just been an awesome opportunity for us to focus on what’s important to Highlight and it can be that way for any business.


#7 Technology can change the product testing process.

Our vision is a world where there isn’t waste in the product development process, there aren’t products that get developed and end up failing, or nobody likes them. There aren’t people going to the grocery store and buying something off the shelf and throwing it away because they didn’t like it. We know there is a significant amount of waste in the development of products with both the product waste itself, but also human capital waste in products that are poorly optimized. There are so many different variables in product development and the more that Highlight can help brands and product builders understand those variables and design for them, the less likely it is that the effort of developing a new product goes to waste.


#8 Building a strong foundation and team makes a difference.

A strong team makes all the difference. A team is probably the most important part of all of it, it’s a strong foundation on which to grow. You can never do it alone and you need people on your team that you can trust, that are able to take on responsibility and execute. You want people who really understand the mission and the purpose. They live and breathe the goals of the company. As a founder, one of the areas I’m most proud of is the team that we’ve built.


#9 Companies are longing for more agile, efficient processes.

Companies are begging for it. Sometimes, especially in traditional industries, big machines can get stuck in their ways. When you come along and question that status quo, you get a lot of positive feedback and revelation. Highlight is really changing the way product testing can be done. Building this tech is making our processes faster and more efficient, allowing us to do more tests, earlier, faster, and better allowing products to avoid market failure. Oftentimes, our competitor is no one. We’re allowing for product testing in places and times that weren’t previously possible. The more we talk to people, the more we’re realizing that there’s an incredibly acute need for this problem to be solved.


#10 Prepare for scalability upfront.

We learned a lot and took the extra time upfront to make sure that we had something that was going to work for not just 10 brands or 100 brands, but 1000s, or millions of products tested. We built our technology for scalability, using a lot of the same technologies that most firms in Silicon Valley are using. We took what was a traditionally manual, legacy process and said to ourselves, how do we bring this into the modern era?


Photo by Lukas from Pexels

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