Research 101 for the Startup Entrepreneur

By Azza Yehia 

It comes as no surprise that building a start-up can be quite a daunting and an overwhelming experience. The first and most basic step of forming a start-up is pitching your idea. To do that, entrepreneurs need to put down all their ideas into a simple document identifying their business objectives. In comes the business plan. In marketing jargon, entrepreneurs need to clarify their company’s mission and vision. Once these two have been formulated, then an entrepreneur is one slight step closer to realizing the start-up dream.

Having a mission and vision is all nice and dandy. Yet it remains pertinent that any start-up identify the market need it aims at satisfying. Two crucial questions come to mind. First, what market problem is the start-up trying to solve? Second, how does the start-up intend to solve this problem? In comes the role of market research. Research’s main goal is to shed light on a start-up’s feasibility.

Dilbert Charts.jpgMarket research as applied to start-ups is defined as “The process of assessing the viability of a new product or service through techniques such as surveys, product testing and focus groups” (source: Investopedia). Market research will never have the ability to confirm or negate the success of your start-up. It is more of a directional litmus test on whether a start-up’s service or product fulfils a market need. Post a market research study, it’s up to the entrepreneur to determine the start-ups unique value proposition (more marketing jargon!).

Two market research techniques exist: qualitative methodologies and quantitative methodologies. The former is all about exploring underlying reasons and motivations into consumer behavior, habits, lifestyle, preferences, etc. The latter is all about quantifying and measuring consumer information and data.



Therefore, qualitative research focuses on answering questions such as: who (understanding the consumer psyche), how come (discovering lifestyle and behavioral insights), where (finding the place/location of consumer need), when (recognizing consumer moments of need), and what (identifying need triggers). There are many different techniques used when conducting qualitative research. The two most common qualitative research methods gather insights by either conducting one-on-one conversations with the target audience (also known as in-depth interviews) or by conducting group discussions with people of similar profiles and backgrounds (this method referred to as a focus group).

On the other hand, quantitative research tries to calculate the frequency of a behavior, consumption patterns, purchase patterns, need levels, etc. It tries to answer questions such as: how much and how many. A survey is the data collecting method used in quantitative research. There are many ways to collect data through a survey. However, these days the fastest and cheapest way is using web surveying. Due to the popularity and wide spread usage of this survey technique, many free web tools have mushroomed over the years. The three most popular free web survey tools include: Survey Monkey, Google Forms, and SoGo Survey.

In most situations qualitative research precedes quantitative research. Qualitative discussions help identify what issues need to be tackled. Further on, these uncovered issues need to be qualified through quantitative surveys to measure their frequency. Quantifying consumer and market issues helps negate or validate demand and need levels for a product or service.

When designing a qualitative discussion or a quantitative questionnaire, several important do’s and don’ts apply.

Do’s Don’ts

1.     In-depth individual interviews are best when talking to professionals (example a medical doctor or a high level manager)

2.     Focus groups are best when trying to explore viewpoints (example brand perceptions or product usage)


1.     Do not begin a research study if you are not clear on the objectives:

a.     what are your study goals?;

b.     how will your research goals benefit your business objectives?; and

c.     how do you intend to use the findings?

2.     If research goals are vague, then the research design will be flawed. Based on your objectives, you will need to decide on the appropriate design.


1.     Use your social network to recruit participants.

2.     Ensure that participants of a single focus group are homogeneous (example females, living with their parents, aged between 40-50 years old)

3.     4-6 participants in a focus group allows for easier control over the discussion.

4.     Overbook participants to compensate for last minute drop-outs.


1.     Do not recruit participants for the sake of having participants!

a.     if your study is about breastfeeding, then recruiting mothers, nursing mothers, or mothers-to-be would be the right way to go.

b.     if your study is about the type of courses provided in a business school, then recruit students or/and teachers.

2.     Do not place non-homogenous participants in the same group. Going back to the business course example, ensure to conduct separate focus groups for both teachers and students.


1.     In-depth interviews participants decide on meeting point (example place of work or coffee shop).

2.     Focus group participants are invited to a relaxed and central location (example coffee shop or someone’s house).


1.     Explain the objective of the study.

2.     Assure that there is no right or wrong answers.

3.     Include a warm up section to break the ice and get the participants relaxed.

4.     Play on the psychology of the respondents:

  1. make conversation and
  2. be non-confrontational

5.     Keep questions simple.

6.     Ensure that the questions are phrased so that they lead to a conversation and not to single answers.

7.     Ask broad and general questions and then narrow it down to specifics.

8.     Ask positive questions before moving on to negative questions.

9.     Ask factual questions before opinion based questions.

10.  Use effective probes:

  1. Why do you say so?
  2. Could you give me an example?
  3. Could you explain further?
  4. What does that mean to you?
  5. What do you mean?
  6. What else?
  7. How come?
  8. How often?
  9. When?

11.  Use projective techniques (example supply participants with magazines to create a collage to describe abstract ideas and feelings).

12.  There will always be one respondent who is more vocal than the others. When this respondent dominates the discussion floor politely and firmly steer the discussion towards the other respondents.

13.  Thank participants for their time and feedback.


1.     Avoid asking “why”: “why” puts respondents on the defensive. A “why” question sounds like an interrogation, inflammatory, or rude.

a.     Do not ask: why do you prefer that type of TV program, and

b.     instead ask: what are the reasons you prefer that type of TV program? What do you like about it?

2.     Do not use complex or technical words. This runs the risk of alienating participants, causing discomfort, and stopping the conversation flow.

3.     Be cautious about giving examples. When giving examples, you run the risk of limiting participants’ responses.

a.  Allow participants to share their input, then

b.  consider using examples as part of your probing questions.



Do’s Don’ts

1.     For start-ups, the best way of choosing a survey design is by picking the easiest and most cost-efficient. Survey designs that fall under such criteria include:

a.     email surveys;

b.     telephone surveys; and

c.     web based surveys.


1.     There are two methods of recruiting respondents for surveys:

a.     probability sampling: a scientific method and

b.     non-probability sampling: non-scientific method.

2.     Recruiting respondents for a start-up survey is best done through a method known as snowball sampling or convenience sampling.

a.     Snowball sampling, a non-probability sampling technique, depends on your social network and their referral system. The survey ends up being shared by you and your network through referrals etc.



1.     Start the survey with a small introduction or welcome message.

2.     Ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

3.     Follow the KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid) when setting-up a survey.

4.     Screen your survey only to include the study’s target respondent (example male, 20-30 years old, unemployed).

5.     Begin with general questions and then zoom in on the specifics.

6.     Leave sensitive and personal questions till the end of the survey after respondents have warmed-up.

7.     Keep question phrasing simple and use simple words.

8.     Keep questions straightforward and specific.

9.     Stick to closed-ended questions, as it compels easier survey analysis (sample question: pick from the list below which brand of shampoo(s) you normally use).

10.  Make sure to test your survey on a minimum of three respondents for feedback before you share it with a larger pool of respondents.


1.     Avoid abbreviations and industry jargon. Respondents will either not know how to answer or will misinterpret the question.

2.     Avoid complex questions. Complex questions yield unreliable survey results.

3.     Avoid vague questions. Example:

a.     Vague: Do you regularly visit your dentist? Each respondent may have a different definition of what is regular.

b.     Clear: Do you visit your dentist once a year? Here the question defines the time frame.

4.     Avoid negatively phrased questions. Try to phrase your survey questions in a positive manner. Negative wording can cause respondent confusion.

5.     Avoid leading questions. This is when survey questions lead respondents to a particular answer. This causes bias in the survey results. Example:

a.     Biased question: Don’t you think the government is corrupt?

b.     Unbiased question: On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 not honest at all and 5 being totally honest) can you please rate the level of government honesty?

6.     Avoid double barreled questions. This is when two questions are combined into one. When double barreled questions are used, then there is no way of telling what the respondent was actually referring to. Example:

a.     Could you please rate your satisfaction levels with the brand of shampoo you normally use and whether you think it’s good for your hair type?

Although market research can seem nerve-wracking, the best policy is to keep it simple. An entrepreneur should never feel uncomfortable asking for help. Remember to pilot test before launching your market study. Finally, when in doubt let Google be your best friend!



B&W Pic.pngAzza Yehia is a Researcher Story-Teller at heart. Having worked within the realms of the corporate world, she has learnt to do things efficiently, creatively, and at minimum cost. She is now embarking on new and exciting entrepreneurial journey. Her start-up, Dalala, uses social media as a means of investigating brands, consumers, communities, and industries in the hope of providing directional, timely and cost effective research.

For any tips, pointers, and feedback on start-up research design, contact Azza at or on Twitter @AzzaYaya


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