The Supply Side: Approaching year 10, Field Agent growth continues

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 818 views 

“Elevating the everyday” is the mantra of Fayetteville-based Field Agent, which continues to harness data from an army of 1.4 million consumers around the globe. The crowdsourcing machine is the heart and soul of the tech data company that has grown its local employee headcount to just under 100, including 20 part-timers and five interns.

Field Agent crowdsources the smartphones of over 1 million shoppers in the U.S., and over 2 million around the globe, to collect in-store information and shopper insights for suppliers in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.

Co-founders Henry Ho and Rick West said they never dreamed in 2009 they would be growing revenue at a 50% clip in 2018, with prospects even brighter in 2019. West declined to give exact or estimated revenue numbers for this story.

Ho said the company’s growth trajectory has been steady, and the business recently launched a new division known as Field Media, made possible with the acquisition of Rogers-based Smack, a social marketing agency founded by Sean Womack in 2015. Ho said the company is expanding another layer of data generated by the Smack team known as influencer marketing.

West said personnel growth at Field Agent has doubled in the past five years. In the past 18 months, the mystery shopper service has now spawned another growth engine with the help of the Smack media team.

“We wanted our culture to be something unique when we launched the company,” West said. “We see ourselves as a greenhouse and a launching pad. We have had a small amount of turnover, but most of that has been with our blessing because of the opportunity it was for those leaving. Our culture has created a sort of stickiness, and sometimes they come back to us.”

Field Agent has enlisted 1.4 million consumers, its “field agents,” who are somewhere all the time across seven countries. West said the company is adding Ireland and Spain in the next few weeks. Through its global network, Field Agent is also hoping to help foreign companies with crowdsourced intel from shoppers in the U.S.

Field Agent co-founders Henry Ho, left, and Rick West.

The company has grown with the help of financial partners in the Silicon Valley Bank and Five Elms Capital. Ho said the company continues to invest proceeds back into its business, and the partners are very conscientious about controlling the company’s growth, making sure not to over-leverage.

The company’s livelihood is its basic audits in stores or other venues that the army of field agents log into the app for a small financial stipend of $2 to $5 on average.

West said that service is still active and lots of clients in the CPG and retail space continue to use it. This business segment had an approximate revenue of nearly $10 million in 2014 and continues to grow between 40% and 50% annually, according to West.

As the company continued to ramp up its agent base from 400,000 to just under 1 million by 2017, Field Agent launched a second product called Jicco in the spring of 2017. Ho said Jicco wasn’t possible until the company had the 1 million agents around the globe to provide the data.

Jicco is a subscription suppliers can purchase to do a simple price check or take a photo in a store. The information can be evaluated for authenticity and get the subscriber an answer within an average of 15 minutes. A typical client question to Field Agent might be about a price check in 2,500 stores on a certain product category. That project would take about two to three days to complete, according to West.

Ho said in 2019 there are still lots of suppliers using Jicco to get a basic price check in a region or a few stores. He said the growth of Jicco over the past two years has been strong because it fills a need around dynamic pricing that is a concern in the retail supplier businesses.

West said the growth of Jicco has also fed more business to its traditional Field Agent segment with bigger and more detailed jobs that cover a wide scope and could take up to two or three days to complete. He said Jicco wasn’t possible until the Field Agent customer base reached critical mass.

In the past 18 months, Field Agent has focused more intensely on growing the mystery shopper segment. The company has consumers around the world that already shop at lots of retailers and are willing to do small jobs for nominal pay. So they asked the agents if they would be willing to purchase and try a product, and then answer a short review in exchange for a small cash payment and reimbursement of item cost.

West said customers were willing to do it as a mystery shopper. In the past, mystery shoppers were mostly paid professionals who showed up with a clipboard and usually recognizable by store employees. He said the Field Agent model users “everyday shoppers,” and the company can curate a list of a specific type of shopper to fit any supplier’s or retailer’s wishes. For instance, if a diaper company wants to sample diapers or baby products, Field Agent can curate a list of hundreds of moms with babies and even sort by ethnicity or geographic regions, then offer them a mystery shopper job. West said the information that comes back is real-time, unbiased and unlike what suppliers can easily get today through traditional marketing focus groups.

Field Agent partnered with Smack to help its supplier and retail customers gain access to real-time customer product reviews online that are shared across social media. West said Field Agent has been primarily a business-to-business company, but with the recent acquisition of Smack, the new Field Media division will be the fastest-growing segment in the company for some time. He said it starts from a small base, but the web portals — Aisle Nine for women and Product One for men — are now up to more than 3.4 million unique users in a matter of months.

Ho said the company sees great opportunity with Field Media.

“It’s a major game changer for us,” he said. “Most of our revenue dollars come from operational and shopper research budgets that our customers have to spend. This new layer of intel is about consumers influencing other shoppers, and that falls into much larger advertising and marketing budgets.”

Ho said Field Agent has the scale of a crowd, an operational machine that is the data the crowd collects, and now it’s layering on marketing insights down to a granular level in near-real time.

West said he continues to be amazed at the meetings he and Ho get from some of the biggest retailers and suppliers and the level of surprise from the brands when they understand the level of information available at a reasonable cost.

“We have been at this for nearly 10 years, and still today marketers are surprised when we tell them we can get consumers to show us their pantries, buy a product and take a survey,” West said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.

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