Today we’d like to introduce you to Ron Sellers.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Ron. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Since I’ve been doing this a long time, it’s not a short story! I got into consumer insights entirely by accident – I was a broadcasting major at Pepperdine University. At that time, all communications majors had to minor in something outside of communications, so I chose marketing. One semester, I really needed a class for my minor, and the only thing that fit was marketing research, so I took it. I did well enough in the class that the professor told me not to bother coming in for the final. He also owned a research company and offered me a job after college. I already had a job lined up as news director of a radio station, but this offer was more lucrative, so I gave it a shot. I figured on staying a year or two, making a little money, and going back into radio.
Never happened – I just kept sticking around and learning more and more.
That job led to a research position with Valley National Bank in Phoenix, which became Bank One the day I joined the company (long-time residents will remember that name). I stayed there for three years, then joined a consulting firm and got Grey Matter Research off the ground as a division of that company (although Grey Matter was not the original name). I took over Grey Matter myself in 2009, amicably separating from the parent company. Here I am years later still running Grey Matter…
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Anyone who tells you their career has always been a smooth road is lying – either to you or to themselves. Nothing is ever a smooth road.
One of the early challenges was simply needing to mature as a person and as a businessperson. Here I was at 21, suddenly thrust into the corporate environment. I was supposed to do on-the-job training for six months, but due to a combination of circumstances, after one month I was serving our largest client (Disney). I just wasn’t prepared for that, and sometimes it showed. I was also at a small company that switched back and forth between business and wanting to be “a big family.” The lines were often blurred, which left a lot of us never quite knowing what the relationships were or were supposed to be.
One of the biggest struggles has always been business development. Early on, it was watching the company owner struggle to get business – then when it was my turn to run a company, his struggles became my own. When you run your own company (whether it’s a one-person shop or a huge corporation), bringing in new clients is always the challenge. You build a great relationship with a contact and then she leaves to work for one of your competitors…you have potential clients decide to use a competitor for absurd reasons…you spend a tremendous amount of time on a potential project and it gets canceled at the last second.
Grey Matter came in second on one bid literally because the winner had more buildings than we had, even though they had no experience in the sector and we were highly experienced (yes, that’s really what happened). I lost a $31,000 project because someone else underbid me by $100 (the analyst demanded to work with Grey Matter, but Purchasing in this multi-billion-dollar company didn’t care – they just wanted to save $100). Surviving with your confidence intact after situations like that can be a huge challenge. That’s the number one thing I tell people who are considering going out on their own: can you develop business? Can you build relationships? Can you survive earning $30,000 one month and nothing for two more months as you build your business? The idea of “working for myself” and “being my own boss” is great, but there’s also the reality of what that entails.
Please tell us about Grey Matter Research & Consulting.
We do consumer and business research. Essentially, we help organizations understand what their current, lapsed, and potential customers are thinking, doing, and feeling. This might include helping a company build a successful advertising campaign that will resonate with potential customers, helping an organization build a brand that is meaningful to consumers, helping a company understand consumer needs so they can design a product to meet those needs, or solving hundreds of other information needs. We’re a bridge of understanding and information between organizations and their target markets.
Just a few examples of projects Grey Matter has worked on over the years… We helped the Arizona Coyotes learn how fans perceived their old logo, then helped them design the current logo. We helped Chevrolet design the first Equinox SUV, through a series of research projects that gave them insight into how car buyers were perceiving various design ideas they were considering. We helped American Red Cross design a successful holiday fundraising campaign based on input from potential donors. We helped Cancer Treatment Centers of America re-create and sharpen some of their long-form direct response advertising.
Grey Matter has worked with an enormous variety of product categories: women’s professional soccer, study Bibles, chocolate, vehicle interiors, checking accounts, electric utilities, climate change policy, newspaper websites, cancer hospitals, and scores more. The variety never gets old.
Even with all this variety, we do have some areas of specialty. Nationally, we’re one of the very top names in the non-profit/religious sector, as well as focusing heavily on branding, financial services, sports/leisure, and communications (publishing, radio, magazines, etc.). One of the things I’m most proud of is that the vast majority of our business is repeat and referral. I have one person I worked with for 30 years until she recently moved to Taiwan. I have a current client I worked with from about 1988 to 1991 – when he got back into business consulting a couple of years ago, he immediately called me and we’re on our fourth project together. I have clients who have worked with Grey Matter at three or four different companies, taking us with them wherever they go.
We’ve also gotten a lot of international attention for our work, which has been covered by NPR, USA Today, MSNBC, K-LOVE Radio Network, Arizona Republic, Wall Street Journal, and even media in China, Russia, Hungary, Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
We differ from a lot of other research firms in that we really believe in a partnership with the client. We don’t do the research and hand it over to them and leave – we work together with them to understand their pain points and business needs and help them solve those issues. We customize reporting to formats that will work best for each client (some want quick summaries, some want extensive detail, etc.). We dig in and learn their industry. We ask a lot of questions. We also try to go over-and-above to meet their needs, and never have junior-level people or interns working on their projects. We get a lot of repeat business and referrals because of the experience clients have working with Grey Matter.
If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
Tough question, but a good one.
I go back to what I said earlier about some of my initial struggles. I would learn how to be effective at and comfortable with sales and business development much earlier. My first boss basically told me, “Go get some new clients,” and I hadn’t the faintest idea how to accomplish that. Everything was trial and error (mostly error at first). I never wanted to be the stereotypical hard-charging sales guy that so many people dislike and distrust, so I probably have let some opportunities slip by because I wasn’t aggressive enough. Finding the right balance (and finding time and energy to keep up with business development when projects are keeping us busy) is still a daily challenge.
There are two things I DID do early that have had a tremendously positive impact on my career. One is a lesson I learned from my father: keep your contacts. He failed to do this, and really pushed me to do it. When I left the vendor side and went to the client side for three years, I kept in touch with former clients. One of them gave me my next job because he knew how to find me (in the days before LinkedIn). My first projects at the new job came mostly from people with whom I had kept in touch. Keep your contacts.
The second is to be very well-read and well-informed beyond your own area of business specialty. I can’t tell you how many times this has come in handy, from clients who love discussing football to those who have a passion for history or classic cars. It’s also made a huge difference in the actual work – if I’m already familiar with how fundraising is done or how banks work or how cars are designed, I have a huge head start when I’m asked to work on a project that covers those areas. Learn about the world around you, even if it has nothing to do with your current job.
Although my job is research, I’m fascinated with history and culture and travel, and try to document that through photography. I’ve been to around 40 countries, and have a house in Portugal. That’s what these pictures are – places I’ve been (and pictures I’ve taken). Believe me, these are a lot more interesting than shots of me moderating a focus group or on the phone with a client.
- Everything we do is custom-built around what our client needs, and projects have literally run from $7,500 to $375,000, so there’s no standardized pricing we can provide.
- Address: 3145 E. Chandler Blvd.
Suite 110-327 Phoenix, AZ 85048
- Website: www.greymatterresearch.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Other: www.linkedin.com/in/ronsellers