SoundRocket: Origin Story

The Beginning: From Rubber Bands to Plastic Bags

Riding from house to house on my scooter, aiming to "porch" every edition of the San Jose Mercury News that I could (especially for the big tippers in the small ranch on the corner), the 16-year-old version of me loved the freedom that came with running my own business.  

While I suspect I would have made different choices in today's more eco-friendly atmosphere, I learned that if I used plastic bags (previously reserved only for those rare California rainy days), I could fold and prepare the papers about 20% faster than when I used rubber bands.  The added cost of the supplies of bags was small in comparison with the added papers I could deliver in that saved time. I can still remember the confusion I felt when my route manager suggested that I shouldn't do this because the News had always used rubber bands.

I had no idea at the time, but this situation led me to conduct my very first survey - a two-question insert into the next bill I delivered to each of my customers:

Q1.  How do you prefer to receive your News:

  • With a rubber band (that sometimes breaks and doesn't protect the front page from driveway scratches)

  • In a plastic bag so that the paper is better protected, whether or not it is raining (and just in case my neighbor's sprinkler sprays it)

Q2.  If you prefer to receive rubber bands, please tell me why you prefer rubber bands?

Before I had a single course or on-the-job experience to teach me the difference between biased and unbiased questions, I saw the questionnaire as a highly manipulatable tool. I could generate the data that I knew I wanted.

Upon receiving the results, I was not surprised to learn that my customers agreed with my preference for the plastic bag - and they were more than willing to call the News to specifically request that I use the plastic bag daily.  The News could not ignore their customers' request!

I anticipated this, but I did have one holdout who strongly preferred the rubber band.  This was why I had asked Q2, as I wanted to understand his motivations. It turned out he had a use for them, and felt the rubber bands that were used by the News were far superior to those that he could get at the local stationary store.  After a quick discussion, we arrived at a solution - when he needed more rubber bands, I would purchase a bag of them from the News and deliver it to his door with his paper (enclosed in a plastic bag). I offered this service for free, but I was always given a $20 tip whenever I delivered his bag.

My love for business, for thinking differently, and for understanding the quality of social science survey research grew from this early experience.  While many things changed, the core values have remained.

Survey Sciences Group, LLC: The best of both worlds

The world of survey research suffers from a fear of change (for a nice piece on this see Reg Baker's posts part 1, part 2).  This plays out in particular in the world of academic research, where there also exists an insane desire to reinvent the wheel for each study.  As a result, academic research is often needlessly cumbersome, inefficient, and wasteful of resources.

Our commercial counterpart in market research may adapt to changing technologies better, but there exists much difficulty in keeping up with the growing science of survey methodology.  Attention to quality and the scientific method is often lacking - with case counts, speed, and costs driving decisions.

I founded the Survey Sciences Group, LLC  in 2004 to address this discrepancy. We focused our attention on serving academic researchers and addressed their need for quality and solid survey methodology.  And we brought to the table an innovative and flexible organization, with the efficiencies of the commercial world. We became experts in web-based survey methodology and implementation.  As we grew, we further innovated with a business model of distributed funding to survey research that made previously impossible research possible.

Rebranding: Change is Never Easy

Or more accurately, making the decision to change is never easy.  Once that decision is made, I have found that change takes on its own course and flows.

In 2014, after 10 years of doing business as the Survey Sciences Group, LLC, I came to the conclusion that a change was needed (and wrote about that here).  This decision had roots in my thinking as far as two or three years prior, but I resisted those ideas, fearful of what such a change would mean.  

The reality was that after this much time, even our best research collaborators were routinely mixing up our name.

Student Social Services Group... Social Survey Group... Survey Services Group... Survey Center Services Group... Student Surveys Inc...

Twice during this time, customers got it so wrong that we could not cash their check - our bank being certain that it could not have been meant for us.

Trained as a survey researcher, and not as a branding expert, I learned this lesson on branding the hard way.  As Seth Godin would likely say, we had a dumb and generic brand.  I was too personally tied to the old name, so this was difficult to acknowledge.

Working with NewFoundry in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we began a process to uncover our brand character, where we learned we are all-in, authentic, agile, and aligned.  Further, we focused in on a clear purpose (the fundamental reason we are in business):

Our Purpose:  To propel social science forward for the greater good.

With our purpose clear, we found a mission that provides an overall strategy for achieving that purpose:

Our Mission:  Develop and deliver innovative, science-guided survey methodology practices and services to the global community of social science researchers.

It is no secret that we have chosen the name SoundRocket to be our outward expression of our brand.

Why SoundRocket?

As with any naming - be it a business, a child, a service - there is an internal gut feeling that one must be comfortable with.  It is that internal check that can answer Yes when you ask Does this name adequately reflect what it is that I am naming?  Without it, the rest is increasingly difficult.

Our old name, Survey Sciences Group, LLC, met this test because it allowed the name to speak for itself.  While it was difficult to remember for some, it was always very clear about what it is that we do. So in our case, we had a name that met that gut check, giving us a solid benchmark to compare against when we found our new name.  

For many of us, SoundRocket resonated well inside.  

It wasn't an immediate decision for all, as this was a very different name.  So for a couple weeks, we each grappled with our fears of what such a change would mean, and how it would be received.  

Beyond this internal gut check, there were many logical reasons why SoundRocket was a great fit.  Here are some:

  • It is memorable.

  • It forces the question "What do you do?" or the request "Tell me more." It causes people to listen to our story.

  • Many of our internal processes used language that conveyed rocket imagery.  We routinely speak of study launches, and we use a pre-launch checklist prior to data collection.  

  • Many of the processes we used had origins in the lessons learned from the Challenger explosion and the Columbia accident.  The science employed in evaluating what happened on January 28, 1986, as well as the days, months, and years preceding it demonstrated many lessons for the management of science itself.  Books such as The Challenger Launch Decision and reports (in particular Chapter 8 from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report) played a role in the formation of the processes we use.

  • We routinely hear the statement:  This is not rocket science - we can handle it on our own.  Our response is direct - You are correct, it is not rocket science.  It involves the study of humans, which is much more complex than what is involved in the highly predictable science of rocketry.