As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna. He is responsible for leading the vision, development, and strategy for Toluna’s suite of digital market research products. He is passionate about identifying first look technology and trends that innovate companies, industries, and business concepts. Phil has a broad range of experience in digital product leadership and marketing focusing on automation and disruption across all industry types. He has held senior leadership roles from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.
Under his leadership, Toluna’s digital products have been the fastest-growing products in the market research industry and have established Toluna as the top organization for end-to-end market research technology and innovation. Phil holds degrees in Decisions Science and Management Information Systems from George Mason University School of Business.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I’m a first generation American, and my parents are not afraid of risk. They did the American Dream in reverse — when they emigrated and arrived in the United States, they spent all their money on risky investments and had to start over.
I grew up watching my family hustle, grind, and champion education. They never stopped looking for opportunities or how to advance a business concept. I worked in the family businesses while I went to school, and learned firsthand what it takes to be a leader and an innovator. Early on I discovered my passion for disrupting traditional expectations and introducing ideas that drive innovation in companies, industries and business models.
Business was in my blood; that’s what eventually led me to my role at Toluna. Though we are a sizable organization, we have an entrepreneurial mindset in everything we do.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I don’t have one funniest mistake in particular, but I do believe it’s important not to be afraid to make mistakes, funny or not. They’re going to happen; so own them, learn from them and move forward. Learning from failure is sometimes more valuable than immediate success.
I learned the importance of calculating risk from my parents. There’s always a chance for failure when you are thinking outside of the box or trying something new. But if you do the work and do the math, make a calculated risk and then work hard, you have a real opportunity to be successful. Even if you fail the first time, you will take away invaluable lessons to apply to your next venture.
Don’t be afraid of diving into a risk — but do the legwork first. Identify every opportunity and carefully assess its potential value and how it aligns with your passion and view of success. Crunch the numbers, and then commit unapologetically.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I can’t say any one book or media has helped me in my career. I enjoy a variety of reading material and media, from business to sports. Lately, I’ve really enjoyed sports leadership reads and the stories behind how successful leaders manage highly talented people and their sometimes massive egos. I am lucky to have a very talented team here at Toluna and while I don’t deal with egos like Phil Jackson dealt with Shaq and Kobe, I’m interested and inspired to learn how successful leaders can continue to push and grow highly talented people.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Well, I don’t believe Toluna would even exist — nonetheless succeed for the last 20 years — if we did not clearly define our purpose and uphold it across our organization. Our purpose is simple: we help companies make better decisions. We do this by giving consumers a voice during a company’s product development process, campaign creation or any one of the many other moments consumer opinions are necessary to daily business decisions.
Our vision is simple: by empowering companies around the world to quickly and easily tap into the mind of a consumer, we help them build better and more relevant products and understand the best way to communicate the value of those products. In return, consumers have a voice in the development process, more products and services that directly meet their needs come to market and hopefully improve their lives.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
It’s hard to pick just one, but I’d say the principle that has helped me stay as level as possible over the course of this year has been: be open. Be open to learning, open to listening, open to changing, open to asking for help, open to take more risks.
This might sound simple, but the best way to get through tough times is being able to realize the problem, and act on the right solution quickly. Have an open mind and the ability to willingly admit that something isn’t working. The need to pivot might feel like a weakness or even uncomfortable, but it’s the most powerful thing you can do. Being open also means transparency which leads to authenticity, that in turn creates trust in those around you and empowers your team and company. No one is perfect — and I am sure most of the people I work with could rattle off several of my flaws — which proves why even the best leaders need a strong, diverse group around then. Ultimately, the team can elevate all its individuals. Leaders today must empower those around them to be part of the solution — and to do that, you have to have an open environment.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like most of us working for a global company with teams and clients dispersed across every major city in the world, I have been accustomed to spending at least 50 percent of my time on the road. While I am comfortable working remotely, the biggest change has been the feeling of isolation from team members and clients. Digital tools have helped, but it’s hard to realize the value of face-to-face interaction, especially when working on creative or innovative streams, until you are all remote from each other.
From a family perspective, I have the opposite feeling. I have two young girls, ages 6 and 9. As my work travel came to an immediate halt, their schools, camps and other hundreds of activities also came to a crashing stop, so we have been able to spend a lot of time together. I have not been home for more than three weeks at a time in over a decade, so the amount of family time we have gained during this pandemic has been invaluable. At the same time, it is a challenge to navigate. My wife also works from home so during a work day (which can feel like a 20-hour work day) we both have to manage work and find ways to keep two active kids entertained all day. My family used to call my work travel a vacation — now I think my kids are officially sick of me as they are constantly asking me when I am going on vacation…!
At the end of the day, I treat this as just another problem. I stay focused on what I can control and where I can continue to grow as a person and a professional. I stay open to changing the way I work, the way I interact with individuals and the way I balance my personal and professional life. I am lucky to work for a great company with great people, and I have an amazing family that’s supportive and always challenges me to do better.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
2020 was planned to be a huge year. It is Toluna’s 20th anniversary and we planned to go BIG with a huge company rebrand and a new revolutionary product platform launch. Because the pandemic disrupted so much of our day to day lives, we had to adjust many of our plans. We basically ripped up the 2020 playbook that we built over the course of many months and built a new one in a matter of weeks. Our first and most important goal was to ensure the safety of our global staff. Then, we had to figure out what we wanted to do for the rest of the year and how we could get that done.
To be able to pivot so quickly from a plan we worked on for months to an entirely different plan the very next day was not an easy task. Looking back, it feels like we climbed Mount Everest. At the time, I didn’t feel that the task was impossible, for two reasons. First, we were too busy to take a moment and think about how the heck we would pull it off. Secondly, we have an amazing team that simply see a problem, find a solution and are agile enough to adjust the way they work to execute that solution. And when I say this requires a team — it really does, from all backgrounds and groups across an organization (operations, marketing, R&D, finance, sales and more).
While 2020 threw us a wrench, I am proud to say we reset our plans, launched an amazing new brand over the summer and recently launched an industry-changing market research insights platform called Toluna Start. It’s a bit later than we had originally planned, but when I talk about what we were able to accomplish in 2020 with colleagues in the industry, I usually get a response of “are you crazy?” Maybe, but our company DNA is focused on growth and moving forward. What better way to put a tough year behind you than to focus on innovation and growth?
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s incredible to work for a research company that has produced significant amounts of free research on consumer sentiment and behaviors during the pandemic. I believe in educating myself and keeping myself informed. It may be the cynic in me, but if any time period in our lives will teach us something, it’s this one. Knowledge is power, and is the most powerful asset you can have in times of uncertainty. Learn how to protect yourself, how to plan your finances and how to plan your work/personal life balance. I stay up to date on the news but I always keep an open mind on certain situations. If I am not informed enough about a subject, I do research on it so I can form my own opinion. We live in a world where endless amounts of data and information are just a few clicks away, so get informed.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We can all expect that the way we work, live, buy and consume will never go back to exactly the way it was. A lot of this disruption was already underway, and the pandemic simply accelerated it. I was catching up with a client recently about how the pandemic accelerated the adoption of certain products and solutions and allowed them to reach growth targets in three months that were originally projected to take ten years (perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point). The companies and the people that will succeed post-Covid are those who can adapt to new ways of working and providing solutions to meet changing consumer needs.
Understanding consumer sentiment and behaviors through research is more critical than ever. It’s crucial to know what consumers need today. And it’s even more crucial in a post-Covid world where so much is still unknown, to understand how consumers will react to future changes and how your products and solutions will fit their needs accordingly. If you don’t know that now, you may be wasting time and resources developing products and solutions that could be outdated even before they launch…
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are focused on continuing to democratize research and deliver consumer behavior and sentiment in real-time. In an uncertain world, knowledge is power — and critical to success. Things are changing so quickly that if you are unable to get the information you need to make the right business decision, you could be wasting valuable time and money. That’s where Toluna comes in. We are flexible enough to provide the right solution to fit your research and insights needs, whether it’s Do It Yourself (DIY) or full-service research. Our goal is to continue building on the vision of making consumer insights available to all, so that we are all empowered to make the best decisions possible.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We’ve talked a lot about the pandemic, but 2020 has been far more than just a pandemic.
Equality and diversity are pervasive issues, and we all need to look closely at how we are treating each other and how each of us can play a role in solving these challenges. I encourage everyone to be less selfish and a lot more open minded.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One thing I learned very quickly is that no matter how great or smart I am (or think I am), there is always something to learn from someone else. It was very important to me early in my career to have people to look up to and to have mentors. My first day on my first job out of school, a senior person went out of his way to help, guide and make me feel comfortable in the role. We worked together for a short period of time but he made me realize very quickly how much there is to learn, and that having the right people around you can accelerate the learning curve and put you in a position to succeed. I don’t believe you are ever too experienced to have a mentor or a set of people that can help and advise you. Even today, I rely on a group of people I can learn from, all hailing from different backgrounds and stages in their careers.