Darshan Mehta – CEO and Founder of iResearch

The only thing I have some control of is me. Therefore, I choose to make the most of the time I have.

Darshan Mehta is the CEO and founder of iResearch, an online focus group platform that enables companies to quickly and affordably extract insights from consumers worldwide. Drawing from more than 20 years of marketing strategy and research design experience, Mehta is authoring a book, “Getting to Aha! Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts,” to help business leaders understand and leverage changing consumer preferences.

In addition to his role at iResearch, Mehta is an adjunct professor at universities in Thailand, Sweden, France, and the U.S. Through the course of his work, Mehta has traveled to more than 80 countries and been recognized in publications such as Forbes, Inc., the Journal of Advertising Research, and Quirk’s.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

I’ve been doing consulting work since I graduated from college. In college, I loved working on case studies because they made me realize my passion for solving problems. I enjoy the challenge of ferreting through large amounts of information (much of which is noise) to home in on the root problem and architect a solution.

In 1998, I founded iResearch to reposition my existing strategic consulting business to better reflect the promise presented by the digital era. My gut told me that the market research industry would be disrupted by online surveys and online focus groups. I predicted that gathering insights would no longer be a playground for large companies with big budgets. Small to medium-sized companies, I realized, would benefit as well.

The name iResearch came from a crossroads of strategy and reality. I wanted a name that was simple, memorable, and short. I also wanted to be listed at the top of search results, and back in 1998, Yahoo was “the” search engine. Unlike Google, Yahoo listed results alphabetically, but I didn’t think “AAA Research” would cut it. Complicating matters, I came to realize that special characters like exclamation points were listed first.

I came up with !Research. Domain names cannot contain special characters, however, so I opted for the domain name “iResearch.com.”

I became a pioneer of online market research, but I had no idea what to expect with online surveys and online focus groups. I came from a world of traditional surveys and focus groups, which involve a certain degree of rigor and process to eliminate bias and ensure a positive experience for everyone.

Still, having been accused of having an extra gene for technology, I decided to explore online research methodologies. I had no idea whether the experience would be good, bad, or ugly. But my gut told me that online research was going to be big, and I had to be a part of it.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

For me, there is no typical day. This is partly by design and partly by necessity. I appreciate variety and challenge, but I’m also switching business models from selling my time to selling a product. Each requires a distinctly different focus and approach.

When I was consulting — the “time for money” model — I conducted business development, client relations, project management, presentations, and strategic consulting.

Now, with the brand-building and product model, I focus on the user experience, product road-mapping, new technologies, partnerships, investor relationships, and branding. The required skill sets and challenges are totally different from my prior approach, but they’re equally energizing and rewarding.

How do you bring ideas to life?

This is something I think about all the time. It’s closely related to my personal mantra: “I don’t mind problems; I just love solutions!” For me, bringing ideas to life is about combining philosophy with implementation.

My philosophy is to be curious and inquisitive. For instance, I can be curious about visiting a country. But to be inquisitive, I have to dig deeper by getting to know the locals. I’ll talk with them, break bread with them, and try to understand what makes them tick. Inquisitiveness requires a greater degree of effort than curiosity, but it also results in a deeper level of understanding and knowledge.

Implementation, in my view, is about making daily decisions to expand my horizons. It’s about training my brain to see things differently and connecting the dots. For example, when I travel from one familiar destination to another, I often vary my route to challenge my mental acuity and heighten my level of situational awareness. Implementation requires me to be spontaneous, creative, and inquisitive and to go beyond my comfort zone. To think outside the box, I have to act outside the box.

By combining philosophy and implementation, I arrive at all sorts of ideas and inspirations. But when it comes to bringing business ideas to life, I take a stricter approach. No matter how great the idea, I assess it against my company’s core brand and purpose. If it doesn’t fit, I consider whether the idea can be altered. If not, I shelve it for another day.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I think we’re in an era of blending. I see it all around us. The world has grown smaller thanks to globalization, and people are fusing all sorts of cultures and backgrounds together.

People are challenging norms and wondering: “Why can’t I combine this with that?” “Why can’t I combine a rider with an independent driver via an app for a better taxi experience?” “Why can’t I connect travelers with local hosts for a whole new travel experience?” “Why can’t I have an electric car that’s eco-friendly, looks cool, has great performance, and offers an awesome driving experience?” “Why can’t I create a taco with a Doritos shell?”

This era of blending is opening new possibilities because we’re not just open to change; we’re actively seeking it. We’re looking for new experiences and ways to make the most of every moment.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m endlessly willing to try new things, meet new people, and explore new places. Again, it’s about being curious and inquisitive. It’s what makes life interesting for me, leads me to expose myself to different viewpoints, and propels me forward into the unknown.

On top of my curiosity and inquisitiveness, I also pride myself on my empathy. I believe that to truly understand an issue, I should be able to convincingly defend not only my viewpoint, but also the opposing viewpoint.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Do what I am doing now, but do it 10 years earlier. In other words, have more confidence to follow my gut, know that perseverance is more than half the battle in making any business successful, and recognize that failure is an opportunity, not an end.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

Life is short. If this truth is acknowledged, few will disagree with it. However, there is no universal agreement on how this truth translates into action. I choose to have this truth drive me to act. The only thing I have some control of is me. Therefore, I choose to make the most of the time I have.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Carve out time to contemplate. People could solve most of their problems if they just took an extra minute or two to think before acting. The endless options and opportunities of our digital lifestyles have made this more challenging. The one constant for us all is the 24-hour day. As much as we’d like to do it all, we can’t. It’s better to do one thing well than to do many things poorly.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

You have to be willing to be your own worst competitor. Concentrate on what you control. You have no control over your competitors. To propel your business to new heights, try viewing it through the lens of your fiercest competitor.

What is one failure you’ve had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

For me, failure is not an option. That doesn’t mean I haven’t failed. I just don’t view failure as an end; I view it as an opportunity to learn, iterate, and try again. The No. 1 reason most people fail is that they give up too early. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying. The way I deal with any failure is to view it as a learning experience, not as a reason to quit.

For example, the first time I was looking to hire someone, I took the traditional approach of looking at applicants’ credentials and experience. Despite doing that, I made some poor hiring decisions. Instead of blaming the failed hires, I looked at what I could learn from the experience. Now, I still look at traditional criteria, but I emphasize the candidate’s hunger to perform and willingness to collaborate.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I can’t choose one idea to share, but I will share my formula. To build a great business, you need to either deliver a unique customer experience or save the customer time or money. At a minimum, your business must offer one of those things; if you can achieve it all, you exponentially increase your likelihood of success. Accomplishing this requires knowing your customers’ pain points, triggers, and motivators. Whatever the idea, focus on two areas: who will benefit from it and who will pay for it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

The best investment I make regularly is having a nice meal and an engaging conversation with a customer, colleague, friend, or relative. Engaging conversations are the path to insights, and today’s insights are tomorrow’s facts. I like to get a head start!

What is one piece of software or web service that helps you be productive?

I am going to assume that podcasts qualify as web services. I’ll recommend two for entrepreneurs: “The Growth Show,” which is a business podcast for leaders focused on driving business growth, and NPR’s “How I Built This,” which consists of interviews with innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists about the stories behind their creations.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read?

“The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumeier. It’s a great read on modern brand-building. Are you selling a product or building a brand? You should be building a brand.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I never met Steve Jobs, but I’ve been labeled an Apple fanboy. For me, Jobs was a virtual mentor. I watched every video and product announcement he produced, and I learned something new each time.

Jobs always highlighted his products’ features and benefits, but he also discussed why he excluded others. His strategy was to strive for simplicity and to maintain a laser focus on the user experience.

One of the last public appearances Jobs made was his presentation to the city council of Cupertino, California. As always, I learned a lot watching it.

Jobs started his pitch to the council by telling a nostalgic story about his boyhood experiences living near and working for Hewlett-Packard. He could have simply said that he wanted to establish Apple’s new headquarters at the former HP property. Instead, he wove a relationship with Cupertino’s city council that centered around the land Apple had acquired from HP for its new headquarters. Just as he did with his products, he integrated many facets into one central story. Observing Jobs has made me a better thinker and a strategic planner.

Key Learnings:

  • No matter your industry, strive for simplicity and a unique experience.
  • Carefully consider which business model — product or service — is best for your skills, industry, and target market.
  • Don’t just be curious; be inquisitive. Combine inquisitiveness with implementation to bring ideas to life.
  • Look for opportunities to blend ideas, products, and cultures to create a uniquely valuable product, service, or experience.
  • Read “The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumeier to learn how to build a brand.
  • Become a better storyteller and brand builder by learning from Steve Jobs and many others.