From PowerPoint to the operating room (and back again) – Kerry Edelstein recalls (re)inventing the business of data storytelling. | A tale in 3 Acts.
ACT 1: DEATH BY DATA DUMP
One afternoon in the Spring of 2011, I was sitting at my desk in an airy, modern open office space in Santa Monica, where I ran a research and analytics team for an online video company. An email popped up from one of my favorite colleagues, an ad sales manager. “I was told we should be using more research in our sales decks,” it read. “Can you take a look and help me out? It needs your touch!”
I opened the attached PowerPoint and groaned. In front of me were 40-odd slides of arbitrary data, with no clear narrative. I wasn’t sure what ad products the deck was persuading the reader to buy. And there was certainly no argument as to why they should buy those ad products from our company. I wrote back, “You don’t need more research, you need less!”
“35 slides less,” I thought to myself, chuckling. A quick phone call answered my key questions. Who is the agency – our client – interested in reaching? How do we serve that audience on our video publisher network? Why should the agency choose us? What are we offering them? I picked 2-3 data points that supported the story he wanted to convey, and we agreed the outcome was much more digestible. The final deck had fewer than 10 slides.
At the end of that conversation, I started a mantra: “Research has to tell a story. If a data point doesn’t drive the story, it doesn’t make the cut.”
As I spoke the words, I thought to myself, “Someone should start a company focused on telling stories with data. For months, that thought, “Someone should start…” kept re-entering my mind. Eventually, I searched the internet for the company name “Research Narrative,” curious to find the genius who’d inevitably beaten me to my idea. Much to my surprise, nobody had. Nobody owned the name, the domain, or the philosophy. It appeared that the someone meant to start that business was me. So I filed the DBA and bought the domain name. And in December of 2011, Research Narrative was officially born.
ACT 2: CONQUERING FRANKENFINGER
Research Narrative began humbly, operating out of the rustic dining room of my 1940s Spanish style ranch home. By 2013, we’d amassed an impressive client list that included both high profile companies like Viacom, Netflix, Amazon, and Rovi, as well as emerging digital success stories like SocialFlow. We were off to an exciting start, and the momentum kept building.
One Friday morning in October of 2013, I rolled out of bed a little earlier than usual – I was excited about a meeting with a potential new client. The company was almost entirely female-run, a rarity in media. And their biggest challenges were the same ones I’d conquered when pruning a 40-slide deck. This meeting was why I’d started Research Narrative.
I stood in the kitchen, thinking about my project ideas while waiting for my morning coffee to brew. A clear glass vase sat nearby on the counter, wilted pedals falling off the decaying flowers inside. I mindlessly tossed the dead flowers in the trash, thinking, “I should just leave the vase in the sink for the housekeeper.” Followed by, “Cripes that’s lazy, she has enough to do, I’ll wash it while I’m waiting for the coffee.”
I grabbed the vase, turned on the water in the kitchen sink, squeezed some dish soap onto a sponge, and began to scrub. Suddenly, the vase was no longer in my grip. In the sort of slow motion that can only take place when a disaster is impending, it fell toward the ceramic edge of the sink.
“Noooooooooo!” I cried, trying to grab it tighter. My un-caffeinated reaction time wasn’t quick enough. Glass shattered everywhere. Including in my hand. As it would turn out, I would leave that vase in the sink after all. Specifically, I left it in the form of broken glass and a pool of blood that might have been mistaken for a gruesome crime scene.
My medicine cabinet could rival the first aid supply of your standard CVS store, and on that particular day, my gratuitous overstock proved valuable. Bandaging myself, however, proved to be a formidable task. I was home alone, and the damage had been entirely absorbed by the fingers on my right hand – my dominant hand. Balancing myself carefully on the bathroom sink, I rinsed my severed skin under warm water and patiently applied pressure until the bleeding slowed. My left hand offered limited dexterity as I slowly bandaged myself up, finger by finger. Half an hour of struggling later, the destruction was under control.
I breathed a sigh of relief and flopped backward onto my bed, shaken and more than a touch exhausted by this entirely sub-optimal start to my day. I still hadn’t had any coffee, either. Waiting for the shock to pass – both literally and figuratively – I made a fist to make sure the bandages were on tight.
Four of my fingers made that fist. One did not. I willed it to move; it refused. I willed it again. My powers of persuasion failed me; the finger remained stubbornly in place. Or rather, out of place. I bolted upright. “Well that can’t be good,” I announced out loud to no one.
A wiser woman might have thrown in the towel and headed to the hospital. I had a better idea. There was an Urgent Care facility across the street from my meeting. I could get my FrankenFinger checked out, then go right to my meeting! How serendipitous was that?
I threw on what I later realized was a barely passible outfit for a business meeting, and poured myself a cup of coffee (FINALLY). I assumed I’d be needing stitches later that day, and operating a motor vehicle on pain meds seemed unwise. I called a cab. (Upon reflection, this might have been the last time I took a taxi in Los Angeles. Uber and Lyft became the norm in subsequent years.) I grabbed my laptop, backpack, and cell phone – I was leaving for a conference the next night, so I figured I’d get some work done while waiting to see a doctor.
The taxi driver brought me to a closed Urgent Care. Once a week, Urgent Care doesn’t open until Noon, so that people can come after work. Today was that weekday. Of course it was. Because I was there at exactly 9:30a. I called the potential new client. “I’m already in your neighborhood,” I explained. “Any chance you could meet earlier?” A combination of surprise and curiosity in her voice, she agreed, and I headed over to our cafe meeting spot across the street. More coffee was ordered; I was taking no more chances.
The meeting was a blur, albeit as productive a blur as a meeting can be when one is operating with nine fingers and a vague sense of PTSD every time a glass bottle nears the table. Truthfully, I was glad for the break from the chaos of the morning. Brainstorming a research roadmap was like a familiar blanket I could drape around me, blocking out the hurricane that was my morning. FrankenFinger could wait.
Sitting on an ER gurney six hours later, I stared incredulously at the orthopedic surgeon. I’d been turned away from Urgent Care and directed to the ER, a 15-minute walk away. “Wait, I came here for stiches. You’re telling me I need surgery?” I asked. Yes, and in the next 48 hours he suggested. FrankenFinger was a serious injury that would heal improperly – or not at all – if I waited. And it required 6-8 weeks of follow-up. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me,” the surgeon joked.
The shards of floral vessel had taken out a tendon, and in a flash of a moment, I found myself getting admitted overnight for emergency surgery the next morning. Friends were summoned for a cell phone charger, a sandwich, shampoo, and a change of clothes. Emails were sent to see if I could get my money back on that conference I wouldn’t be going to. Calls were made to the airline and hotel I wouldn’t be using. Nurses came by to see if I needed anything. “I could use some new bandages,” I replied no less than three times before someone brought a bandage. I wasn’t entirely confident that the hospital staff remembered why I was there, but I had too many business logistics to sort out to worry much about surgery.
My surgeon asked if I was concerned about the surgery. “Nope,” I replied. “You’re clearly good at your job, I’m just worried about being able to do mine.” Over the next few weeks, our follow-up appointments would reveal a shared love of water sports and a similar world-view when it came to our respective careers. By December, I’d greet him at his office with a victory pose, as we laughed and exchanged a bear hug. Pictures would be taken of a healed FrankenFinger and closed fist, for a conference presentation he was giving. And as I posed for that photo shoot, I’d jokingly inquire about making residuals for my modeling efforts.
Back in the ER, the surgeon and I had yet to establish that kinship. Still, I sensed I was in good hands. So I shared my concerns with him. The prospect of spending busy season trapped in an elbow-to-fingertip cast. The inability to efficiently type or take notes, when I work at a computer most days. The hours of PT that would need to be scheduled during my work day. The lack of time I’d have to do business development during the quarter where it mattered most. The impact of missing the biggest research conference of the year.
He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Oh. Jeez.” And instead of walking away, he sat down. “So yeah, the actual surgery is the least of my worries,” I continued, chuckling. And for a few minutes, we chatted about the road ahead.
Talking through these worries didn’t just prepare me for surgery and recovery, it caused me to consider what lessons I was going to take away from the experience. There were the comedic lessons, like “Drink coffee before doing the dishes.” (This became a new household survival strategy.)
There were lessons to be learned about absolving myself of guilt. There’s a reason I hired a housekeeper, it was ok to let her do her job. (And if I’m being honest, glassware does have a curious way of piling up more heavily since the incident.) There were lessons in privilege and the consequences of litigation, like, “Thank goodness I can afford the out-of-pocket expenses” and “When you have a good insurance plan, hospitals obscenely over-treat you.” (The pinnacle of absurdity was being forced to take a wheelchair to my private hospital room because I was a “falling risk.” They’re not wrong that I have keen capacity for tripping over my own feet, but I feel confident that cutting my finger and taking some Tylenol didn’t heighten that risk.)
The lesson for Research Narrative didn’t hit me until the day after surgery. And when it did, I immediately typed out a left-handed text message to a friend and fellow UCLA alum who’d just returned home to Los Angeles after a three-month stint working in Beijing. The text read, “Are you back? Are you jetlagged? Do you have a job?” He promptly wrote back, “Yes, not too bad actually, need to start looking tomorrow.” Two days later, we met for lunch. I offered him a job.
FrankenFinger taught me a valuable management insight: Needing help when you’re busy isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of success. The path to sustaining my business – and my health – was accelerating my reliance on others. When I shared the news of my new hire to friends, one friend commented to me, “It must be hard for you to have to ask for help.” The truth is, it wasn’t hard at all. On the contrary, it was quite thrilling to reach the business milestone where relying on others was an organizational imperative.
As for the meeting I didn’t skip, that female-run company was delightfully undeterred by an un-showered consultant sporting a fistful of bandages. We got the gig. Followed by another. And another. And another. We’re still working with that company four years later.
ACT 3: REINVENTION
Post kitchen-debacle, Research Narrative began to find its stride. My vision for a data storytelling consultancy began to materialize into a company that not only conducted original research, but also helped companies craft narratives with their existing data. Part time contractors became full time employees. The company outgrew the dining room of my ranch home, and moved into a commercial loft in Culver City.
As my colleagues and I celebrated the company’s five-year anniversary, we started to ask ourselves, “What’s next? How do we stay ahead?” During those five years, media had changed dramatically. Research had changed dramatically. Technology had changed dramatically. And I knew that to remain relevant, our team had to think dramatically. Change wasn’t going away. We had to embrace change as part of our business model.
Over the next few months, I’d walk into the office periodically and gather the Research Narrative team. “I have a crazy idea,” I’d announce. “Work with me here.” I’d pick up a whiteboard marker and start talking and brainstorming. I’d talk about research we’d done about ourselves, to understand why our clients, contractors, and partners choose to work with us. (What we’d learned was: our colleagues see us as resourceful, fun, and trustworthy creative thinkers, who appear to magically distill highly complex ideas into clear and manageable action steps. What amazing brand equities to own!)
I’d talk about using research to create our own media property. I’d talk about taking a stand on thought leadership topics, and parlaying our knowledge into speaking engagements, so that we could remain nimble and boutique while growing our footprint of awareness.
I’d talk about transforming our one-on-one coaching and workshops into a leadership training institute. I’d talk about thinking a whole lot bigger than the story-driven market research firm I’d launched five years earlier. If the first five years were about base hits, the next five were about swinging for the fences.
Over time, I did less of the talking, and our team did more of it. Tracey, our Managing Director, was the first to pipe up during our inaugural impromptu whiteboard session. I had just pitched her my vision for Trophy Nation – a media enterprise rooted in reinvention – and was on path to hijack 90 minutes of her workday with zero notice. She had every right to dropkick me down the stairs of our office loft. “I love it,” she declared. “We have to do it.”
Jordan – the original research analyst hired in the wake of Vase-gate 2013 – was next to weigh in, offering to take Python courses so that we could integrate data journalism into our roadmap.
What resulted from several more months of these conversations was not resistance, panic, or fear of change. It was passion. Renewed energy. A team of professional storytellers, seasoned researchers, cognitive behavioral scientists, and corporate training veterans came together to say, “Let’s do this.” Over the next six months, a vision for a company that triangulated Research & Data Science with Media with Education & Leadership Training would emerge. What resulted was the launch of M:RISE, SI-Suite, Trophy Nation, and The THINKerry.
AFTERWORD: INTO THE FUTURE
Our reinvention chapter is really just beginning. But at Research Narrative, where media and research are central to our expertise, we’ve never had the luxury of ignoring the future. Big data & analytics have rapidly catapulted research methods into a new world of data science. AI and machine learning are positioned to revolutionize that field of data science. Cognitive Science is unearthing new ways of understanding the human psyche, a key consumer insights objective. SVOD, AR, and VR are on path to transform the media industry.
In some ways, change is the new normal. And at today’s breakneck pace of change, it’s not enough to be an expert in “here and now.” In the world ahead, we all must continuously adapt. We must reimagine, reconsider, rethink, and reinvent, if we’re to remain relevant.
At Research Narrative and Trophy Nation, “re” isn’t just our philosophy, it’s our priority. We look forward to helping you make it yours.
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