Cropped shot of a businessman using a digital tablet
Most students find school all-consuming, but Ekaterina Damer, PhD co-founded Prolific as she completed her doctorate. At the time, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was the most efficient way to conduct a survey for academic research, but it lacked the tools to deliver trustworthy results.
Prolific changes all that. The company helps researchers in academia and business connect with high-quality participants to conduct studies. As a graduate of Y Combinator, Prolific counts researchers from world-class universities such as Stanford, Oxford, Yale, and UPenn as some of its most active users. Other customers include the World Bank and several Fortune 500 companies. The platform currently has 70,000-plus active participants from a wide range of backgrounds, and 1,300 active researchers each month. I spoke to Ekaterina about the challenges of running a two-sided marketplace, what happened after she achieved product-market fit, and the cultural differences between academia and entrepreneurship.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What problem are you solving?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: We help researchers and companies get access to trustworthy data so they can make better decisions. Whether it’s a big decision for society or a decision about what products to build for a business or how to market those products, you need data to make good decisions. You can’t get away with purely operating based on gut instinct anymore, so we provide accepted trustworthy data to help make better decisions.
About 90% of our customers are academic researchers. We handle very diverse research about psychology, management studies, economics, and politics. Those are all across the board and the remaining 10% of our customers are from industry — startups to tech companies to more traditional, bigger corporations. The original product we built targeted scientific researchers and now we’re doing exploratory customer research to understand what kind of a minimal viable product we should build for tech companies.
Even though Facebook isn’t the most flattering comparison these days, I still think of them as the gold standard for micro-targeting demographics. As your platform grows, will you charge more to target specific groups, especially if they’re more desirable?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: We don’t do that yet. It’s called incidence-based pricing. The more desirable the target demographics, the more you can charge. Right now, we just charge a flat service fee. We still need to work out the pricing, but we want to get as targeted as possible.
The difference between what Facebook does and what we do is we get super engaged people who can provide in-depth data. Participants are fairly well-compensated for that. So when researchers on our platform do deep research, it can take participants an hour or longer. Then they can follow up with them over time, which is hard to do elsewhere because people normally just drop off.
You’ve written some insightful blog posts about product-market fit. Where are you in that journey?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: For the academic space, we definitively have product-market fit. I’m fairly certain because 71% of our existing customers say they would be very disappointed if we no longer existed. Typically 40% is considered a very good response as an indicator for product-market fit. More than 70% is really really good.
As a startup, that means we can focus on growth in academia now. And by the way, you know, a lot of people will tell you academia is such a niche market — who even cares, right? Well, first of all, it’s not as small as it appears. And second of all, it’s meaningful in terms of social impact. Our team shares the core belief that high quality research is key to progress in society. Besides, to attract the best talent nowadays, it helps to have a clear company mission.
Participants seem to love Prolific. I imagine there are as many ways to expand the participant side as there are to expand the researcher side. Does this make it challenging to grow a two-sided marketplace, or does it just provide a larger opportunity for growth?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: One. Hundred. Percent. I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. Historically, our focus has been on the demand side of the marketplace, which is our researcher customers. We saw them as the bottleneck. We thought the more researchers we got to post studies, the more participants will come. But now we’re starting to think that this is not sustainable.
We just had a strategy meeting in which we discussed priorities for next year, for 2020. One of our key milestones for next year is diversity and acquisition. It’s definitely something we’re really starting to care about now because there are only so many ways you can capitalize on existing organic growth. At some point you need to strategically grow the supply side of the marketplace.
So for instance, we have some gaps. If you go to our demographics page, it shows who the people are now. At the very bottom, you will see mostly people from the UK and the US. It’s mostly young people in their 20s and 30s. It’s a distribution, but that’s the bulk of the people and a lot of them are white. What about minorities? That’s something that customers want for their research. Same thing with older demographics too.
Are you saying customer feedback only gets you so far before you have to make a strategic decision to accelerate growth? Where did the inspiration for this come from?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: We just want to have maximum impact. We want to help as many people and organizations make better decisions as possible. During Y Combinator, we realized that to really have an impact, we needed to think beyond academia. There’s just a bigger opportunity to have an impact in business, right?
Right now, academics are at the cutting edge of this stuff. They totally get it and they’re really good at it, but I don’t think industry appreciates all the stuff they can do with our platform. We offer on-demand results with a fast turnaround, and they’re still working with panel companies that are essentially black boxes. Some of it is kind of from the Middle Ages, right? (Laughs.)
With panel companies, businesses don’t know who the participants are, how they’re treated, or what their incentives are. It’s essentially a model where you contact some firm and they get you data, but you have no idea how it was collected when you get the results back. It’s just not good enough anymore. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that there’s a lot of dodgy stuff going on.
You were also in an incubator at Oxford. What were the key differences between your experience with the incubator at Oxford and at Y Combinator?
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: I’m not sure you can compare them. (Laughs.) They’re just two different worlds. When we participated in 2014, the Oxford Startup Incubator was very hands-off, with a minimal schedule. It helped us get off the ground in the early days with basic things like incorporation, accounting, and legal questions. YC, in contrast, places more emphasis on how to build and scale high-growth startups really fast.
Generally, scientists and academics are really good at being rigorous, right? I mean they’re good at developing a hypothesis, testing it, and then waiting to see what the evidence says. YC and the modern startup world have also adopted this mindset; the best startups test their assumptions, but they execute and iterate really fast.
Oh yeah, that’s dogma in the Valley at this point. Ever since the dot com crash, it’s swung all the way to the scientific side of things, but it’s more derivative of the scientific method than actually being scientific.
Ekaterina Damer, PhD: Yeah, but the basic principles are still the same, so I’d say that’s what they have in common. That’s what I see in the startup world that I also see in academia: testing your hypotheses, iterating.
The difference is academia moves extremely slowly. They just don’t have very good process for planning. They optimize like crazy. Typically startups can’t afford to optimize and perfect things. In academia, if you write a manuscript, you polish it and polish it. That’s a massive opportunity cost when only five people end up reading your article. Sometimes it feels so pointless.
In my experience, it’s pretty clear. If you want to have an impact with what you do, startups can be more gratifying and rewarding than academic work.
- Businesses that feature two-sided marketplaces have more levers to pull when it’s time to accelerate growth.
- Product-market fit can be so difficult to achieve, the challenge of expanding beyond that success deserves more emphasis.
- At the highest levels of academia, researchers can follow their curiosity wherever it leads them, whereas founders have to respect demand when it presents itself.