The Data-Research Duo

Steve Graef and Ken Zenger of Mediated Research Partners discuss … ▶ lunch-break epiphanies ▶ online surveys ▶ listening to customers ▶ double-digit growth ▶ plans for expansion

FLIES ON THE WALL This is how partners Ken Zenger (left) and Steve Graef describe MRP's role in the survey-research arena. "We monitor what is really happening in what is a massive virtual conversation," Zenger says.

The failing economy could tell countless stories of heartbreak and despair. Yet, true to the American spirit, it can also tell stories of perseverance and new beginnings. Such is the story of Mediated Research Partners (MRP), an Illinois company formed by two entrepreneurs emerging from the corporate world that went on to create a thriving, self-funded online-survey business. Now serving a variety of clients from across the United States, MRP partners Ken Zenger and Steve Graef recently chatted with Profile to discuss their very own success story that is generating serious buzz.

Is it true the idea of MRP was created during an ordinary lunch break?
Ken Zenger: [Laughs] I guess you could say that. In my previous corporate job, I was working with Steve in the communications department, managing web properties, and was in the midst of transitioning from creative work to web developer. There was talk that the company was on the verge of downsizing, and I was having lunch with Steve and the idea came up to maybe branch off into our own company. Instinctively, it was like we knew we were about to have some time on our hands.

Steve Graef: Here I was, with over 25 years of marketing experience, and I definitely was asking myself where I wanted to take my next phase of my career. Ken and I were having a lot of those ‘If I were running the company’ kinds of discussions. Right from the beginning, we came up with a business model in which freelancers would come in and out of projects, therefore eliminating the need for a number of full-time employees and a ton of overhead costs.

BY BLENDING THEIR DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS, Graef and Zenger have strenghtened their partnership and have been able to provide more unique solutions to their clients' needs.

The company was created in 2008, shortly after that “lunch-break revelation.” What were some of the early goals of the company?
Graef: We definitely saw a gap to fill in the survey-research marketplace. From a purely cost-effective basis, we knew that most big-name, full-service survey providers required their clients to pay premium prices for all of their services, while smaller companies did not provide data-results analysis. We wanted to provide turnkey surveys that were complete and cost effective. We wrote, programmed, tested, and launched the surveys and then analyzed the data to provide the client immediate perspective into their business issues.

The analyzing of data is so crucial these days. How does your company address this?
Zenger: Marketers seem to make too many assumptions. They look at data and instantly want to change their whole company strategy. Companies must listen to their customers, and customers must be confident that they are being listened to. As part of the strategic planning services we provide, we serve as a constant fly on the wall, monitoring and categorizing data that we receive from multiple sources. Especially in the social-media arena, a huge percentage of what is being said is just noise. We get past that and monitor what is really happening in what is a massive virtual conversation.

You both seem to have complementary strengths. Is that one of the main keys to your success in growing this business?
Graef: We work very nicely as a team. While we are about 10 years apart in age and have worked in different industries, I think our perspectives have always been in nice balance. Coming from different professional backgrounds is healthy. It’s how we blend our personal life and career experience together that helps to strengthen our partnership and ultimately serve our customers well.

What does the future hold for MRP?
Zenger: I’m fairly sure we are going to get more involved in social-media methodology. We are partnering with another new venture, Comment Explorer. We get past the noise and work with trained linguistic experts who can read through the data and identify actual sentiments of customers. There is also new technology on the horizon that will take online surveys into a whole new direction.

Graef: We have been seeing double-digit growth every year. And now with a couple of years behind us, we want to expand our services. I would love to also get into more international work. In some ways, we want to stay a small company. And in other ways, we can’t wait to grow further.