Field Agent, a mobile market research startup, to go global

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 675 views 

How does a retailer or product supplier find the proverbial “Bubba” to review a deer hunting product? Or how would a property manager based in Fayetteville or Fort Smith quickly verify that a lawn service recently mowed the yard at rental property in Boca Raton, Fla.?

In a matter of minutes Field Agent could solve those questions with the help of its expansive network of 400,000 agents across the country who have downloaded the mobile app and accepted a job for cash.

Rick West, co-founder of Fayetteville-based Field Agent, said he and partners Henry Ho and Kelly Miller have harnessed the power of crowdsourcing to help retailers and suppliers solve questions, draw marketing insights and audit their own operations since 2010. And by early 2015, Field Agents will extend to six different countries with an international expansion already in the works.

West and Ho have customer development and marketing backgrounds with Procter & Gamble and have worked around the world for the large consumer packaged goods (CPG) company before returning to Fayetteville to launch Field Agent, a mobile marketing data provider. Miller is the app developer and serves as the chief technology officer for the startup.

“Around 2009 when the first iPhone 3 came out, we were sitting around thinking about how this device could change retail and the world in general. We began to see how the average consumer armed with an iPhone could penetrate certain barricades that had gone up in the retail world,” West said.

He explained that as Wal-Mart’s supplier list grew larger and larger, access inside stores at certain times was off-limits for all but the largest suppliers. Those times included Black Friday and throughout the busy holiday season.

“We began to think the iPhone and its camera and GPS ability are tools that average consumers can use to help suppliers gather data as needed. At this time everyone was focused on pushing content out to iPhone users in order to get impressions and downloads which could then be leveraged for ad revenue. No one was having consumers use their devices to gather data. That was our plan to use these smart phones and pay cash to those agents who helped us gather the data,” West explained.

He said on April 17, 2010 the Field Agent app debuted on the iPhone App Store and was the first app that paid real cash in exchange for specific data. The cash is paid through a PayPal account. Within the first 20 minutes there were 3,000 downloads of the app.

“We used the local supplier community to help us pre-launch. We got Johnson & Johnson and some other large suppliers onboard to upload jobs onto the app so when it went live there was real work available from some of the top CPG companies. Wall Street media noticed and called us immediately after the launch,” West said.

It’s been four years and the company has never looked back.

Field Agent works with suppliers of all sizes and retailers from Wal-Mart and Target down to local mom and pop stores with its latest iteration now in Beta testing.

West explained that consumers across the country download the free app and complete a short profile that clarifies gender, age and contact information via email address. The agent can then log onto the app that will detect their GPS location and reveal jobs available in their immediate area.

One job cold be to check the lowest price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs at the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Prairie Grove. If the agent accepts the job they take a photo of the lowest priced milk and eggs at the store. That photo is time stamped with a geo location and must be taken inside the app and uploaded to Field Agent within the two-hour time requirement to receive the $2 payment to their PayPal account.

Jobs are loaded into the app by those suppliers, retailers and other businesses needing tasks done or answers involving consumer insight. Unlike Big Data scraping which can be cumbersome to manage and qualify, the crowdsourcing method is real-time, and provides quick turnaround insights to specific questions.

West said there several ways subscribers can use their service. They may:
• Question the 400,000 field agents on certain topics and then analyze the responses;
• Use agents to audit store operations (like time spent in the check out line); and,
• Or verify out-of-stocks and empty shelves, an ongoing problem in the retail segment.

For instance if a supplier looks at their Retail Link data and sees they have not had a sale in one particular store in two days, they can go online, create a job for a field agent, set the pay at $10 or more and place a 2-hour limit on the turnaround. West said the field agent in the store or nearby can quickly see if there is an out-of-stock problem and notify the supplier who then can dispatch their merchandiser to fix it. 

“There is no reason for a supplier to pull a busy merchandiser at $30 per hour off their job and send them to another store to check a potential problem, when a field agent could do it quickly for far less,” he explained.

West said one client wanted to have only deer hunting “Bubba” stereotypes to go into Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabella’s to check the price of arrow tips. He said they wanted “Bubba” because they were after user opinions. He said they asked how Field Agent would screen their agent base for “Bubba” stereotypes.

“We asked ‘Bubba’ to send us a photo of his hunting license, a photo of his bow and the arrows he uses and another photo of his bow propped up against his truck. The client was satisfied that anyone who provided all of that information would be Bubba. We found 200 agents who qualified as Bubba and we sent them into retailers for the assignment and we were able to get our client the insight they were after by a qualified class of responders,” West said.

He said qualifying this select group would be very difficult and time consuming without the use of crowdsourcing which remains inexpensive. West said retailers continue to ask for certain qualified groups such as certified organic advocates, or verified Millennials. He said many are now figuring out that people lie on social media feeds, and many times it’s underaged kids who claim to meet age requirements.

“Take Facebook. Originally you had to be 18 to join. Lots of 13-year-olds joined and said they were 18. Now the age has been lowered to 13 and kids younger than that are joining. There is no way to tell if they are telling the truth. It’s also unlikely they have ever updated or corrected their age. Companies have been making decisions based on data scraped from social media feeds believed to be from Millennials, but who knows for sure,” West said.

Field Agent has doubled in size over the past year to 40 full-time employees and 20 part-timers with the help of a $2.5 million raised in Series A capital funding from Five Elms Capital in Kansas City.

“This year we will make between $5 and $10 million in revenue and we are growing at about 40% year-over-year,” West said. “We are still a startup company but growing rapidly.”

With 400,000 field agents in the U.S. West said another growth avenue opening up in the coming months is an international expansion into Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Beyond that he expects to move into Mexico, South America and Southeast Asia.

“Several of our largest clients (Unilever, GE, Hershey & Procter & Gamble) have global operations and we will be taking on more international work with them as well as growing our organic business,” West said.

West said Field Agent will remain focused on its core business which includes mobile shopper marketing research via crowdsourcing in real time for the retail and supplier community, and the new expansion of a “do it yourself” model for small and micro businesses.

He said one of the toughest challenges is staying focused on the sweet spot that has proven to fill a data niche since the first day of the company’s operation.

“We have turned down capital offers from firms that would have required us to relocate to Palo Alto, Calif. We chose Fayetteville and this region for our business because of the expansive supplier community here. There really is no other place like it,” West said.

He believes in the next few years the company could be purchased by a larger agency. West said that would be appealing if it could operate as its own subsidiary.

Sarah Daigle Scott was hired in March to help Field Agent set up and launch a do it yourself (DIY) model outside the retail/CPG sector. It's now in beta testing. Scott said she has a real estate firm and some small businesses testing it. 

“It’s a way for small businesses to check out our their competition, or just verify that certain things are done,” Scott said. “The possibilities seem almost endless at this point with the number of businesses that could benefit from the type of data we can help them source through our expansive agent base. … This model is affordable for companies of all sizes and can relay the type of data that at one time only the largest companies could afford to access.”

West said there are jobs that Field Agent has turned down.

“We are careful not to interfere with military bases and we don’t help folks spy on one another,” he said.

West said a private investigator wanted to use agents to cruise through hotel parking lots and take photos of license plates. The PI told West he was trying to help a lady find out if her husband was cheating. West said protecting one’s privacy is important and respectfully declined the work.

Scott admitted that no one gets rich being a field agent, but it does pay real cash for quick and easy jobs. It also provides valuable real-time feedback for companies with answers to whatever questions they choose to ask.