September 2015. A close friend of mine opened an Indian restaurant in a suburb of Dallas, TX. The restaurant specialized in South Indian food. It was a small restaurant, with seating for 30 people. My friend wasn’t a chef himself. But he was a self-made food critic and had a fairly refined palate. He had hired a chef all the way from India. The restaurant was named “Arpana,” which meant “sacred offering” in Sanskrit. My friend deliberately strayed away from the more common Indian restaurant names like “India Garden,” “Flavors of India,” or the ubiquitous “Aromas of India.” He believed that any restaurant that had “India” in its name was never authentic.
My friend had taken care to make sure that the restaurant would be situated in a part of the city that didn’t have any other Indian restaurant in the vicinity. “There’s no competition anywhere within miles of this place!” he had declared. The restaurant was located right across a gym. “People tend to come out of a gym hungry, and the sight of my restaurant would just draw them in like flies to honey,” my friend reasoned. He advertised furiously on social media. He printed out pamphlets and stuck them on car windows, especially on cars parked in front of the gym. He was careful to price his offerings reasonably. He also provided catering services for parties and made sure he got good reviews on Yelp. Life was good.
November 2018. The restaurant closed. My friend managed to sell it with some difficulty. Overall, he had incurred a loss of about $50,000.
“I don’t get it.” He told me over a drink at his house. “I had everything figured out. The food. The location. The pricing. The advertising. Everything. What happened?”
Let’s break it down. The different things my friend said he had figured out.
Let’s start with the food. South Indian food. In a neighborhood of Dallas that had not seen an Indian restaurant. Most people equate Indian food with North Indian food that is typified by bread (Naan, roti, etc.) and curries. South Indian food is very different, and most people unfamiliar with Indian food had no clue what they were eating. It was an acquired taste, and most of the restaurant’s patrons did not want to acquire it.
Then, the location — Forget Indian restaurants, the location that my friend had selected had very few restaurants of any kind to begin with. This was not a place where people came to eat. Anyone who had to come to Arpana had to drive specifically for that purpose. It was not an “on the way” eatery for most people. And the restaurant hadn’t developed a reputation yet. So, people just didn’t have a reason to drive all the way just to eat at Arpana.
Further, my friend thought that locating the restaurant across a gym was a good idea. Sadly for him, most people who go to the gym don’t normally tend to pig out on high carb food the minute they get out of the gym (most of the food my friend was serving was loaded with carbs). Besides, my friend had a sit-down, casual dining type of restaurant, not a fast-food restaurant with a drive through window. People don’t come in sweaty gym clothes to a sit-down restaurant. Also, while most people tend to work out alone, they didn’t want to dine alone.
The pricing was good. I’ll give him that.
As for the advertising, it turned out that most of the Facebook ads were seen by immediate friends and family only. My friend had not been successful in penetrating a wider audience. And the gym management made my friend stop shoving pamphlets into their patrons’ windows. They had received too many complaints.
The thing is, my friend based his actions on assumptions that he had made. How could my friend have avoided all these pitfalls? By learning a bit more about things before he took the plunge. By doing a bit of research.
RESEARCH. It’s a boring word. It means talking to strangers, running surveys, doing painstaking analysis. Ugh! The whole thing is so unglamorous. Why would anyone do it?
Well, because if you don’t, you’ll end up making decisions based on your gut feel, and you’ll make investments based on nothing but your instinct. When you don’t have any information about who you are catering to, and what they are looking for, you start making things up, just like my friend did (with his assumption about the location advantages, the hungry people coming out of the gym, etc.). These assumptions made a lot of sense to him at that time, but in hindsight, were completely wrong. Without research, you are shooting blind, and when you do that you reduce your chances of succeeding drastically. You started out a business-person. But you’ll end up nothing more than a gambler hoping for good fortune. In fact, that sounds like a lot of start-ups in the past couple of years. Companies came out with all kinds of products from juicers that cost $700 to expensive on-demand food delivery services and sleep tracking sensors. They failed miserably. To make matters worse, all these companies enjoyed fantastic funding from trigger happy venture capitalists, who also didn’t do any research!
When I raised this topic at a talk I was giving to User Experience professionals, a guy spoke up. He said, “…but I’m a designer, and I’ve never done any research in my life. I don’t know where to start.”
I believed his statement was a lie. I called him on it.
“When you joined your job at this startup you’re working at, did you find out what kind of designer they were looking for?”
“Yes,” he said. “In fact, I talked to people I know about what it takes to work at a startup, and looked into what it means to be a designer in such companies.”
“I see that you’re wearing great looking shoes. How did you come to acquire them?”
“I did some exploring online. I found these on Zappos.”
“And did you just happen to come by to my talk, or did you do actually find something about me before you came?”
“I dug up information about you on LinkedIn and found that you wrote a book. I also looked up your book on Amazon to see what it was all about,” he admitted sheepishly.
“So, you are a researcher!” I exclaimed triumphantly. “You’ve done tons of research in the past. What you so eloquently term as ‘digging up’, ‘exploring’ or ‘looking into’ is nothing but research! Then, why is it that when it comes to making design decisions, you hide behind the fact that you’re not a researcher?”
That’s the point I want to make in this blog.
When you do research for even the most mundane things in your life (like asking for your friends’ opinions before choosing a restaurant, or reading reviews before watching a movie), why is it that you don’t do research when it comes to making decisions at your company? Why do you feel that that kind of research is overhead, and something that need not be done to make decisions?
Now, let’s do a simple exercise. Ask yourself these six questions –
- Do I know who will buy the product that I’m building?
- What kind of value will my customers see in my product?
- What sort of external obstacles am I likely to face in succeeding in my venture?
- How can I make sure that the right people know that my product exists?
- Do I know I’m selling my product at the right price?
- How am I going to sustain myself as a business and still achieve a respectable long-term growth rate?
If you’re not able to answer even one of these questions, you could be in trouble. The more questions you are unable to answer, the deeper the hole you’re in. What is shocking is that when I asked these questions to many decision makers in companies, they admitted that they didn’t know answers to most of these questions. They admitted that they were shooting blind.
But when I asked them to do research, they confronted me with a bunch of reasons . I have answered the most common ones below.
How do I do something that I’ve never done before?
Don’t be scared at the thought of doing research. You have always been doing it at other places in your life. You just never called it research. Now, all you have to do is repeat the same kind of research before you make key decisions at your job too!
I don’t know how to do research / I don’t have time to do research
You don’t have to be a professionally trained to do research. There are plenty of resources available on the internet in the form of books, podcasts, YouTube videos, and tools that you can leverage (there are two types of research you need to engage yourself in — user research and marketing research). If all else fails, there are plenty of contractors and research agencies who can do it for you.
I don’t have money to do research
Just remember that if you don’t do research now, you may end up paying a lot more in the form of consequences of bad decisions later on.
How do I get started?
Start by asking yourself the six questions I’ve given above. If you can’t convincingly answer even one of them, recognize that you need to do research. Then, start looking for resources.
Remember, stay humble. When you don’t know something, be true to yourself and say “I don’t know”. The minute you do that, you’ll feel the need to start looking for answers. That’s when your real journey in the startup world begins.
If you liked this blog, there’s a lot more where this kind of stuff came from. I have written a book about the importance of research and how you can use it to transform your company. It’s written for researchers or anyone interested in doing research. That means you!
It’s called Ignite Your Research Mojo. You can buy it on Amazon.
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