A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Meeting Street Insights
Learn more about the history, philosophy, and practices of our firm, and how they lead to stronger partnerships and better insights for our clients.
As a founder and business owner, one of the most important things I do is to evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going. This process of reflection helps me better respond to the current needs of my clients and plan for future needs.
So when my longtime friend and financial advisor Brett Fellows invited me for an interview about Meeting Street’s past, present, and future, I jumped at the chance. During our discussion, we talked about my background, how Meeting Street Insights (MSI) started, my team, the way we think about research, how we work with clients, and what the future holds. You can read highlights of the interview here.
If you’re more the listening type, or want access to the entire interview, scroll down to the bottom for a link to the podcast.
The Beginning: A Loss, Some Wins, and Something New
Brett Fellows: How in the world did you decide to start your own business? When was that? What were you doing before?
RA: When I was in college at Wake Forest, I developed a passion for politics and political campaigns. By halfway through my junior year, I’d gotten all of my politics credits for my major, and I volunteered on campaigns in the area.
The challenge was that the Career Services Office at Wake Forest didn’t really have a roadmap for that career. Eventually, I found someone who was a general consultant on campaigns.
He hired me part-time, then helped me find jobs on campaigns. I did that for a couple of years—sort of ran a state House race, a Senate race, and then a Congressional race in Mississippi. I thought that was my career path moving forward.
The Congressional candidate I worked for in Mississippi was great. For the campaign, however, the problem was he just wanted to do his day job, which was being a state rep. He didn’t take time out to campaign, which hurt our fundraising. He wound up finishing fourth out of nine candidates in the primary.
For that race, we didn’t do any polling or any type of research. We just kind of went with our gut instinct because we had a limited budget. At the end of that campaign, I think we all thought we were in a better position than we were—that we had done the right things to win the race. But our gut instinct was wrong. And it’s pretty humbling in politics on election day, when you lose.
BF: I bet.
RA: It’s a very unique business. And I used to get asked about negative campaign ads and why political campaigns aren’t run more like beer commercials. And I tell people, if you imagine that there’s one day every two years where Americans decide which one beer company can provide beer for the next two years . . .
BF: It would get nasty.
RA: It would get nasty. And it’s just a unique business where your entire work is built up to one day. Judgment Day. You live or die.
So after that campaign, I went and met with the pollster who I had hired but never used in my campaign. And I walked out of that lunch with a job offer. I took it, and I was there for eighteen and a half years.
Public opinion research wound up being the perfect marriage between my passion for politics and my other passion, which was economics and numbers. I started there as sort of the project manager. Eighteen and a half years later, I left as one of the managing partners of the firm.
I loved and appreciated my time there, but I wanted to create my own company with my own personality and I was looking for a new experience. So in January 2015, I started Meeting Street.
The Secrets: A Great Team and Great Clients
BF: And where does the business stand today in 2021? How many employees do you have? What’s the ideal client look like?
RA: When we started in January of 2015, it was just me. We hired a person later that month and another one a couple of months after that. And here we are six years later; we’ve got seven employees, which is a good size for us and what we want to do. We’re spread out all over the country. We all work remotely and have been doing it from the beginning, so this pandemic was not really a disruption to our business.
We have such a wide variety of clients. We still do politics. We have eighteen members of Congress as clients, two U.S Senators, and we do some international work. You can never really leave politics, I found. It’s kind of like The Firm, the John Grisham book. You just can’t leave.
But our other clients run the gamut. We do work for Warner Media, CNN, and HLN. These companies test any type of new programming that comes out. We also work with companies that are launching new products or new services to understand who their target market audience is. How do you position your product or offering with that audience? What messages appeal to that audience?
And then we work with issue advocacy groups that are trying to move public opinion on certain topics. They work with us to help identify the most convincing messages, the obstacles to getting the public to move in their direction, and how they can navigate around those obstacles.
BF: Going back to when you started the business, what’s one thing you know today that you wish you’d known when you began that career?
RA: I think the big thing is the importance of relationships. When I was thinking about starting my own business, one of my favorite books that I read was Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human. The premise essentially is that all of the jobs we have today are sales-related. The Commerce Department only classifies one out of nine as a sales job. But every job is about sales in some form or fashion. And developing relationships, investing in your clients and in those relationships, pays dividends down the road.
Politics in general is a cutthroat business. When I left the firm, they called all of my clients and tried to get them to stay with the firm. And so I, in turn, called my clients to say, no, I’d like you to stay with us. And every single one of them stayed with me.
Their responses surprised me. They all said, “We have a relationship with you. It’s you we trust.” And we are, I think, traditionally thought of as a transactional business because we provide people with data. And yet, what they valued was the relationship. The data was important, but it’s the trust they put in us. And the insights they get out of that data were (and are) where they placed their value.
Relationships with clients are extremely important. Relationships with the people you work with, extremely important. If I were to lose a team member, an employee, it would have a tremendous impact on my business. Finding the right fit takes so much effort. You’ve got to make just as much effort to keep them.
BF: Right. And how has that journey been? You started the company just by yourself, so you were the entrepreneur, you were the manager, you were the technician. Now you have seven employees. How do you manage those different roles? What’s a typical day look like for you?
RA: I feel like it’s a little bit of all those things. Honestly, I think I’m extremely fortunate. And the reason Meeting Street has been the success it is—the thing I most attribute our success to—is I’ve had great luck hiring really smart people. So a lot of our clients know they can reach out to any of our team members when they need something, so it doesn’t necessarily have to come from me.
And everybody gets along, and everybody can do pretty much everyone’s job in some form or fashion. So whenever a workflow is heavy for one or two individuals, someone else on the other team can pick up and alleviate some of that burden.
What do I do on a typical day? I think one big lesson by far that I’ve learned starting a business—unfortunately, I learned this the hard way—is the need to delegate. So to anyone who starts a business, the most important thing you can do is write your job description. Like, this is my job, this is what I need to do. I try to do this every year.
The first couple of times I wrote it, it was like three pages long. And then you sit there and look at that, and you realize, I can’t possibly do that job. So what is it from that job description that I can delegate, or that I can hire smarter, more capable people to do? And that’s been something I’ve learned more recently. And it’s been tremendous, because putting everything down on paper for me, and then working off what I absolutely have to do to keep the business running and growing, versus what someone else can do.
BF: Yeah, that’s great. And that ensemble type of mentality where the clients can call anybody on your team, do you set it up that way from the get-go with the client? How do they know that?
RA: In some cases, it’s easier for corporate clients to embrace that. Politics still hires the individual. And so for all of our political races, we’ve got a team that supports—who does a tremendous job in terms of building out the research design and execution and data and analysis. But political candidates want “their” pollster to be their point of reference. And so that is still the case. And that’s fine. I enjoy that. And I’ve been doing political campaign stuff for 20 plus years now.
In the corporate world, though, I think it’s more of a team effort, both in terms of who we work with, our clients, and what they expect from us on the research side. From the very beginning, they understand that this is Meeting Street Insights, not Rob Autry Insights.
And it’s . . .we worked hard to compile a dynamic team that has experience. All of my employees have multiple years of survey research experience with other companies. Collectively and individually, they’re a well-seasoned team of researchers. As the business owner, I have to put team members in positions where they are in leadership. They help edit the questionnaire or interact with the clients. And developing them as thought leaders is something that we’ve started to focus on the last few years. They develop content on our website and interact with our clients. This lets our clients know that these are experts, not just me. That it’s a collective thing.
The Technology: Quantitative and Qualitative Tools
BF: So how do you make the sausage? I would imagine technology is a huge part of what you guys do.
RA: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve seen a huge evolution in our business over the last four or five years, and certainly over the last year with a pandemic. Primarily, there are two types of research tracks: qualitative and quantitative.
Quantitative includes tools like surveys or polls. You do that type of research when you want to find out how many people feel this way about a particular topic.
Qualitative research is better at understanding the why. What are some of the reasons why you feel this way? Things you can’t really get in a survey, you’re more likely to get, for instance, in a focus group. But an in-person focus group doesn’t happen in a pandemic. So there was a huge transition from in-person focus groups to online focus groups; something that we did quite a bit of, in the past, we solely do today. And I think at some point, we’re going to get to a stage where people feel comfortable being in a room with strangers and we can do more in-person focus groups.
But we’ve also found that we get more data from online research. People can spend more time there. There’s not as much groupthink. They feel a little more freedom to express their opinions, perhaps at home by themselves or at the office by themselves, than they do in a room with strangers. And so we’ve actually gotten a lot of value and benefit for our clients by moving our qualitative research online. Surveys are increasingly done online, whether email, mobile devices, text-based surveys. So that’s something that the pandemic sped up. But we’ve been doing that for five or six years.
BF: You mentioned you have such a diverse clientele, from Google to people in Congress, CNN, and the Olympic Committee. Can you do the same sort of research for one industry as you can for another with the tools that you have? Are you always learning something new? And I guess why I asked that is, do you want to have a diversified client base? Or do you want to be more targeted in a certain area and become known as the person to go to for public opinion research in this space?
RA: I can tell you, I don’t think I could be sort of a one-trick pony. What I love about having the clients that we do is that I’m learning something new every day. I think what we do—what we try to do well—is to get in the heads of our clients, to understand their business, to know what their ultimate goals are. We don’t get as much sort of intrinsic value, if you will, from clients who call and say, “I just need a survey. Here are the five questions. Can you give me the data by the end of the week?” That’s it.
And quite honestly, most clients don’t come to us for that. Clients like Warner Media or CNN that we do a lot of work with and have a close relationship with, they get a sense, hopefully, that we’re invested in their businesses, that their objectives become our objectives. So we spend a lot of time understanding their business, understanding the problems around their business. That makes the research that we design and the insights we give them, as a result, more relevant, more impactful, and more actionable.
We worked recently for a financial services company that was looking at a line of new products through its financial services app. No one in our company had used this app, so we all signed up for it to learn more about it. And we’re fascinated by it. We’re doing stuff that we never knew existed. That learning process forces us to be more creative and have an open mind to all these projects. I love that challenge.
The Misconceptions: Politics and Publicity
BF: So it’s not all politics at the end of the day. Is that the biggest misconception of public opinion research?
RA: I think there’s more than two, but two of the big misperceptions are probably one, that we’re just designing research to get a specific response. That we want Brett Fellows to agree on this particular issue, and we’re designing an instrument that does that. That polling certainly does exist. But it’s not true survey research.
We are approaching an issue to understand the landscape, to understand people—where people really are on that issue. What are the positive movers on that? And what are the negatives and obstacles you have to overcome? And who are the key groups that move it? So that’s the big misperception.
The other big one is that we’re just designing research to be reported in the newspaper, on news. And 99% of our research, even in the political realm, never sees the light of day. Never is in the public domain.
The Future: Letting Go . . . Eventually
BF: So it’s 10 years from now. What has to have happened for you to feel happy with Meeting Street’s progress?
RA: Well, 10 years from now, hopefully, all seven of our employees will still be there.
BF: Do you envision it getting even bigger?
RA: I don’t know. I don’t have designs on necessarily being bigger. I mean, there may be a point where it’s required. But I’ve never—I’ve never sat down and, even over the six years of building this company thought, gosh, my goal is to be a 40-person research firm. To me, it’s: are we doing challenging work? Are we continuing to adapt and innovate in terms of our offerings and how we’re conducting research? Are we providing those benefits for our clients?
And the great thing about this is, being sort of a small boutique firm, that we have a core set of clients who do bring us in on a wide variety of projects. It feels like a family, both in terms of our team members and also our client relationships. And I think we all value that. I think just keeping the culture in place, continuing to strengthen it, both internally and externally with our clients, and just doing more fascinating projects and more fast working with fascinating clients. I haven’t set broader goals than that.
BF: Have you ever thought about the team that you’ve created taking the reins over? And maybe at some point in time you actually walk away from the business?
RA: I am not thinking of retiring soon, and I’m not sure my wife would support me being at home on a more regular basis. But absolutely, I think that is the ultimate goal. And that’s what I think we’ve tried to do from the very beginning: hire people who are going to be there for the long term.
And part of my current job description this year is to build each of our team members as thought leaders. Because if I can do that, selfishly, as the business owner, I can delegate more and put more on their plate, and therefore I can do more online. So absolutely. I think that’s the environment we’re trying—we are working to create. And that would certainly be my objective at the end of the day.
BF: This podcast is about successful entrepreneurs. And I’ve found is that the word success means different things to different people. So I’m curious, what would be your definition of success?
RA: Happiness. Clients who are happy with the work product and the insights they get from us, employees and team members who are happy to work in this company and happy to work for the clients that we work with. My happiness and getting to do this, to create this and watching it grow. To me, that’s success. It’s not necessarily the size of our company or the number of clients we have. It’s just a feeling of happiness.
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