Welcome to The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast, where you go behind the scenes with financial planner and business exit planner Brett Fellows to hear stories of how leading entrepreneurs navigate the inevitable challenges that arise on the path to financial freedom. Get insights from real business owners about how to break through to the next level in your business and retire on your terms. And now, here’s your host, Brett Fellows.
Brett Fellows Welcome to today’s episode of The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast. My guest on today’s podcast is Rob Autry. Rob is the owner of Meeting Street Insights, a public opinion research firm that specializes in positioning companies, causes and candidates for better outcomes based on smarter research and insights.
Brett Fellows What’s unique about Rob though, is that the heart of his methodology isn’t around designing research to get a specific response, or simply working for politicians, which is a common misconception of public opinion firms. But rather, around how focusing on his clients’ values and goals has de-commoditized Meeting Street Insights from a predominantly transactional industry.
Brett Fellows In this episode, we talk in depth about how no matter what systems and processes a public opinion firm has implemented within the practice, if Rob hadn’t surrounded himself with A-players on his own team, who over time become thought leaders on their own, then he would have had a hard time accomplishing any success; why as an entrepreneur himself, Rob realized the most important part of any business is investing in relationships, most importantly, those with his own team and clients;
learning to diversify his client base to broaden his firm’s impact, even though he’ll never get completely away from politics; and how hiring his team for long-term success may just be the way to fund his retirement by passing on Meeting Street Insights through an internal exit plan.
Brett Fellows We also talk about the process that Rob uses every year of writing his own job description to help him decide what he wants to delegate away; learning to rely on specialists for accounting, financial, legal and human resource issues; and how the pace of technology was pushed by the Covid-19 pandemic to get more and better data from both qualitative and quantitative resources.
Brett Fellows And be certain to listen to the end, where Rob shares a practical tip that any business owner can use, which is how listening to his clients has been Rob’s best resource of what he should be doing with his firm. So, with that introduction, I hope you enjoy this episode of The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast with Rob Autry.
Brett Fellows Welcome, Rob Autry, to The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast. I am so excited to have you on the show today because I really find your business unique. And not a lot of people do what it is you do. And so, I’m excited to have you on the show to share that journey that you have with Meeting Street. So, thank you.
Rob Autry Well, thank you, Brett. I’m excited to be with you.
Brett Fellows So tell me, Rob. How in the world did you get or decide to start your own business? When was that? What were you doing before? And how did this whole thing of Meeting Street get originated?
Rob Autry Wow. So this is going to be a three hour podcast, I assume?
Brett Fellows Yes.
Rob Autry Yeah. Um, so it started when I was in college. I developed a passion, for lack of a better word, because it really was a passion, for politics and political campaigns. And so, by halfway through my junior year, I’d gotten all of my politics credits for my major there. I went volunteering on political campaigns in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where I went to college at Wake Forest. And I just, I found something I really enjoyed.
Rob Autry The challenge was it wasn’t something that the Career Services Office at Wake Forest really had sort of a roadmap for. So they basically told me go to Washington, pass out your resume, and work on Capitol Hill. And that’s not at all what I wanted to do. And so I found, through the help of someone at the career offices, someone who was a general consultant on campaigns. He lived in Northern Virginia right outside DC.
Rob Autry Met with him. He hired me on kind of a part-time basis and then helped me find jobs on campaigns in that area to sort of supplement my income. And so I did that for a couple years, sort of ran a state House race, a Senate race, and then a Congressional race in Mississippi. And that’s kind of, so I thought that was really my career path moving forward.
Rob Autry On that Congressional race in Mississippi, I had a great candidate. It was nine candidates in the primary race. The problem with my candidate is he, from the campaign perspective, just wanted to do his day job, which was being a state rep. He didn’t take time out to really campaign. That hurt our fundraising. We wound up finishing fourth out of nine candidates in the primary.
Rob Autry And it was a race where I didn’t do any polling or any type of research. I just kind of went with our gut instinct. We had a limited budget. So, but 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. And it’s pretty humbling in politics on election day, when you lose.
Brett Fellows I bet.
Rob Autry Yeah, it’s a very unique business. And I, you know, I get this question a lot when I was more heavily involved in politics. People complaining about negative campaign ads, and how come political campaigns aren’t run more like beer commercials, or that sort of stuff. And I tell people, if you imagine that there’s one day every two years where Americans decide which one beer company is able to provide beer for the next two years…
Brett Fellows It would get nasty.
Rob Autry It would get nasty. And so, you know, it’s just a unique business where your entire work is built up to one day. Judgment Day. You live or die. And 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 18 and a half years.
Brett Fellows Oh, wow.
Rob Autry Yeah. So it wound up being the perfect marriage between my passion for politics and my other passion, which was economics and numbers. In the marriage of those two skill sets was what I found in polling and survey research. And I started out there as sort of the project manager. Eighteen and a half years later, I left as one of the managing partners of the firm, along with the other four who started the firm.
Rob Autry And for me, it was just, I just wanted something different. I wanted to create my own company with my own personality, my own likes. And it was just, I was looking for a new experience.
Brett Fellows Okay.
Rob Autry And that started Meeting Street research.
Brett Fellows Yeah. And what year was that?
Rob Autry 2015. January 2015.
Brett Fellows And where does the business stand today in 2021? So if you started in 2015, how many employees do you have? What’s the ideal client look like? Where’s that today? Here, just six years later, because I know you’ve been very successful.
Rob Autry Yeah, so we started in January of 2015. Just me. We hired a person later that month and another one a couple months ago. And here we are six years away, we’ve got seven employees, which is a good size for us, in terms of kind of a boutique research firm. 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.
Rob Autry And our perfect client, even though we have such a wide variety of clients. We still do politics. We have 18 members of Congress as clients, two US senators, and we do some international stuff. So you can never really leave politics, I found. It’s kind of like The Firm, the John Grisham book. You just can’t leave.
Rob Autry But our other clients sort of run the gamut. We do work for Warner Media and CNN and HLN. We do program testing. So, any type of new programming that comes out, they test that, whether it’s in the pilot phase or in the marketing phase. 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? And sort of what the creatives and marketing look like to appeal to that audience?
Rob Autry And then issue advocacy groups that are pushing a certain issue or an agenda or trying to move public opinion on those topics, would work with us to help identify what are the most convincing messages? Also, what are the obstacles to getting the public to move in your direction and how you navigate around those obstacles?
Brett Fellows Okay. I’m fascinated by that. And I’ve got a few questions there about the present business. 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?
Rob Autry Hmm. That’s a great question. Because there’s a lot I’ve learned over this career, certainly over the last six years. I think the big thing is relationships. Just the importance of relationships. One of my favorite books that I read when I was thinking about starting my own business was Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human. Which just really spoke to me because it’s a book, and the premise essentially is that all of the jobs we have today are sales related, right? The Commerce Department only classifies one out of nine as a sales job. But every job in some form or fashion is about sales. And developing relationships, really investing in your clients and in those relationships pays dividends down the road.
Rob Autry When I left my old firm, I mentioned campaigns were a cutthroat business. politics in general is a cutthroat business. And so when my Partnership Agreement expired, the very next day, I was out on my own. My company called all of my clients and tried to recruit them back to the firm. And so I, in turn, called my clients to say, no, I’d really like you to come stay with us. And every single one of them stayed.
Rob Autry And what I learned from that process, vividly, was their responses. Which was, we have a relationship with you. It’s you we trust. And we are, I think, traditionally thought of as sort of a transactional business because we provide people with data. And yet, what they really 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 was really where they place their value.
Rob Autry And so, relationships with clients, I think, is extremely important. Relationships with the people you work with, extremely important. I mean, as most small businesses sort of struggle, if I were to lose a team member, an employee, it would have a tremendous impact on my business, right? Finding the right fit takes so much effort. You got to make just as much effort to keep them.
Brett Fellows Right. And how has that journey been? So if you started the practice just by yourself, so you were the entrepreneur, you were the manager, you were the technician, you were wearing three different hats. Now you fast forward, and you have this amount of employees? How do you manage those different dynamics in those roles? What’s a typical day look like for you? Are you being the manager of your staff and maintaining those team relationships? And are you still the technician? Are you still crunching the numbers of the data? And then, are you the entrepreneur thinking about where the business is going? Or what avenue to follow? How do you juggle all three of those?
Rob Autry 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. I mean, I think the thing I most attribute it to is just, I’ve had great luck hiring really smart people. And 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.
Brett Fellows That’s great.
Rob Autry I’m very fortunate in that regard. And everybody gets along, and everybody can do pretty much everyone’s job in some form or fashion. So whenever a workflow kind of is heavy for one or two individuals, someone else on the other team can pick up and alleviate some of that burden.
Brett Fellows Yeah.
Rob Autry 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. When I started it by myself, I did everything. Someone told me, oh just put together QuickBooks and anything you screw up in QuickBooks, you can fix in QuickBooks Well, that’s not necessarily the case, right? And I spent way too much time on QuickBooks. And then all the other little stuff, what’s the role of health insurance and stuff like that. It just monopolized all my time.
Rob Autry And then at night, I was worrying about actually servicing my clients. So, I tell this, and I passionately believe this. To anyone who starts a business, it is the most important thing you can do. And I try to do this every year is write my job description. Like, this is my job, this is what I need to do.
Rob Autry And the first couple 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. And so what is it from that job description that I can delegate, or that I can hire smarter, more capable people of doing that. 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 to just keep it running.
Brett Fellows 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? How do you avoid it becoming like a siloed approach where one employee is doing one thing, one employee is doing another thing, and they don’t mix and match? Is that expectations that are set up in the beginning?
Rob Autry In some cases, I will tell you that as sort of a philosophy, it’s easier for corporate clients to embrace that. Politics is still you hire 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 quote, unquote, pollster to be their point of reference. And so I, 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. So it’s kind of like riding a bike.
Rob Autry The corporate world, though, I think it’s a little, much 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. It is something that from the very beginning they may understand. They understand that this is Meeting Street Insights, not Rob Autry Insights.
And it’s, we worked hard to compile a team that’s dynamic. That has experience. Everyone who works with us has had multiple years of survey research experience with other companies. So we’re very fortunate that, you know, collectively, they’re a well-seasoned team of researchers. So and I also as the business owner, I have to a lot of times sort of put team members in positions where they are in leadership. It’s sort of letting them help edit the questionnaire or interact with the clients. And developing them as thought leaders, I think is something that we’ve really started to focus on the last few years in terms of developing content on our website. But also interacting with our clients and letting the clients know that these are experts, not just me. That it’s a collective thing. Because ultimately, as I tell my team, getting to the retired part of the entrepreneur, I want to be on a golf course somewhere. And having you run the company, and just only calling me when you need me.
Brett Fellows Right. And Public Opinion Research, you know, how do you make the sausage? I mean, to have this technology come into play for what it is you do. I would imagine that that’s a huge part of what you guys do.
Rob Autry Yeah, absolutely. It is, it is a very, an increasingly difficult thing to do. Not just from the politics standpoint, but even from the corporate research we do. And 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. For instance, primarily, there’s two types of research tracks. You’ve got qualitative and quantitative, or all your, like surveys or polls. You do those types of research when you want to find out how many people feel this way about a particular topic, right?
Rob Autry 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. I think an in-person focus group doesn’t happen in a in a pandemic. So 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.
Rob Autry But we’ve also found that we get more data from online research. People are able to spend more time there, right? There’s not as much of a 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 from our clients from doing, for moving our qualitative research online. Surveys are increasingly done online, whether email, mobile devices, text based surveys. So that’s something that the pandemic really sped up. But we’ve been doing that for five or six years.
Brett Fellows Okay. And you mentioned you have such a diverse clientele from Google to people in Congress, CNN or even the Olympic Committee. Is it the same, you can 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, in this in the service world? 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?
Rob Autry I don’t know that I know the answer to that. But I can tell you, I don’t think I could be sort of a one-trick pony. Yeah, I just would get bored by it. And what I love about having the clients that we do is that is I’m learning something new every day. I think what we do, what we really try to do well, is this sort of, to get in the heads of our clients, to understand their business. To, just to know what it is their ultimate goals are, right? 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, and we’ll be done with it. That’s it.
Rob Autry And quite honestly, most clients don’t come to us for that. They can find that somewhere else much cheaper. The clients, for instance, like Warner Media or CNN that we do a lot of work with and have a really close relationship with. They get a sense, hopefully, from us that we’re just as much invested in their businesses, that their objectives become our objectives. And so we spend a lot of time understanding their business, understanding the problems around their business. And so it makes the research that we design, and the insights we give them as a result, more relevant and more impactful and more actionable.
Rob Autry So, and I like that I learned, I mean, when I started working, when we started doing program testing, we didn’t have any experience doing that. We were primarily political researchers. But we were able to learn this. We worked recently for a financial services company that was offering its financial app that was looking at a line of new products. We had no idea, we’d never, no one in our company had used this app. And when our company had heard of this app, we all signed up for this app.
Rob Autry And we’re fascinated by it. And this is talking to people who, who just, we’re doing stuff that we’ve never even thought existed. Just to learn, I think it’s that learning process. It really forces us to be more creative, and kind of have very much an open mind to all these projects. I love that challenge. So I, my ideal client would be probably dramatically different than the client, we just, we didn’t get into the firm.
Brett Fellows So it’s not all politics at the end of the day. Is that the biggest misconception of Public Opinion Research?
Rob Autry Yeah, I think it’s certainly, absolutely. I think one of the biggest misperceptions about Public Opinion Research in general is, well, there’s probably, I definitely 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. Which that polling certainly does exist. But it’s not really true survey research.
Rob Autry We really are approaching an issue to understand the landscape, to understand people, where people really are on that issue. What’s the positives and the positive movers on that? And what are the negatives and obstacles you have to overcome? And, and who are the key groups that sort of move on it? So, it’s so much more holistic than that. And I think, 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.
Brett Fellows Yeah. That’s interesting. That’s really interesting. And what is, you look down the road, I mean, in the future. So if it’s 10 years from now, Rob, and you’re looking back over the last 10 years, what has to have happened for you to feel happy with Meeting Street’s progress?
Rob Autry Well, 10 years from now, all seven of our employees, hopefully, will still be there.
Brett Fellows Yeah. Do you envision it getting even bigger?
Rob Autry I don’t know. You know, I don’t, I haven’t really, I don’t have designs on that 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 with offices here. I just, 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?
Rob Autry And the great thing about this is, being sort of a small boutique firm, that we have a core set of clients who really do bring us in on a wide variety of projects. It’s really very family. It feels like a family. Both in terms of, you know, our team members and also our client relationships. And I think we all value that. I like, 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. That’s, I haven’t set much broader goals than that.
Yeah. And have you ever thought about whether it’s that team that you’ve created? Is there a point in time where like you said, you’re on the golf course a lot and, or they take the reins over, where they become equity owners in your company? And maybe at some point in time you actually walk away from the business and perhaps use that event to fund your retirement?
Rob Autry That would be awesome, right? I think in terms of, not that I’ve thought about retirement, 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. 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.
Rob Autry And it is that, as 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.
Brett Fellows Right. That’s great. Some generic questions here. What are some of the—as a business owner in your space and a leader of a team—what are some resources that have helped you along the way?
Rob Autry Yeah, there’s a ton of resources that I’ve relied on over the years. I think in terms of the business perspective or building the business, our clients are probably our best resources. They constantly tell us what products or services or offerings we need to provide. Maybe not directly, but indirectly, in just terms of listening to them and understanding where their needs are. So I mean, even to the point of staffing. I’ve just sort of learned over the years, that it kind of happens organically with our clients giving us clues what we need to be doing. So we rely a lot on our clients as a resource.
Rob Autry You have been a great resource for us in growing the business, taking a lot of the pressure off understanding the financial aspects of that and retirement, for also our employees. That is, again, in terms of, when I put down all my list of things initially, I had to do, that’s not something I’m able to do, I’m not particularly good at doing, and you’ve removed that aspect off our plate.
Rob Autry I’ve learned a long time ago, well, not a long time ago. I learned five years ago, the six years I’ve been in business, that delegation is the most important thing you can do. And so hiring smart people like yourself and hiring smart accountants and bookkeepers, HR companies, all these things have been tremendously helpful in keeping me focused on the business and growing the business and moving the business forward. Things that would have diverted most of my time, had I not invested in those resources.
Rob Autry It’s one of those things that as a business that when you start out, you’re bootstrapping it, you’re trying to keep things cheap. And the idea of hiring a bookkeeper, initially when it was just me, and maybe one or two clients coming in the door, actually doing work seemed like a waste of money. I wish I’d had done that from the very, very beginning.
Brett Fellows Yeah. That’s great. Rob, as we wrap up, a last question. This podcast is really about successful entrepreneurs. And what I found is that the word success means different things to different people. So I’m curious, what would be your definition of success?
Rob Autry 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. That’s to me success. It’s not necessarily the size of our company or the number of clients we have. It’s just a feeling of happiness.
Brett Fellows That’s great. I love it. I love it. I’ll be sure to put it in the notes on the bottom. If there’s someone who’d like to get in touch with Meeting Street, what’s the best way to find you or contact you all?
Rob Autry Yeah, our website is probably the best. We’re at meetingst.com. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. But yeah, the website. And we’re trying to put more and more stuff on there about what we do, how we do it, who we do it for, fresh content.
Brett Fellows Your website is great. And for anybody who’s listening, I definitely recommend that you check out their website, even if you’re not looking, to see how a website should be. I think it’s really fascinating. You’ve done a really good job of that.
Rob Autry Thank you.
Brett Fellows Well, Rob, I thank you very much for your time and telling us about your journey and wish you the best of luck. Thank you for your time on The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast.
Rob Autry Well, thank you, Brett. I enjoyed the conversation. This is great.
Brett Fellows Have a great day.
Rob Autry You, too.
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