20 YEARS AGO, ANNETTE ANTONOVIC HAD A VISION.

She wanted to own a nimble research company that could deeply connect with clients.

Heather McGeachy: Why did you start Cognito?

Annette Antonovic: My first job out of grad school was at Griggs-Anderson, and I remember walking in that first day and thinking I want to have this one day, I want to have my own business. The client is the only boss I care about, and doing what’s right for them; so I’ve been working towards that vision for the last 20 years. I discovered I really liked working with small entrepreneurial companies that had tight budgets, lean timelines, lots of energy and lots of fun, that’s what I wanted my company to be.

HM: What is it about owning a small company that is appealing?

AA: It’s another challenge, I’ve learned research; I’m good at what I do and now I’m learning something else. It’s hard to own and run a business and as a researcher, it’s hard to have a career path, because at a certain point you stop doing research and you change to managing people who do research. I like to do the work, but I needed that next challenge. Ownership gave me that challenge; makes me use my head in a different way and makes me temper my inclinations to just do it all myself.

“There is no better feeling then going to the back room after a study and your client saying you answered all of our questions.”

HM: What makes you such a great moderator?

AA: I think ultimately what it comes down to with moderation is being yourself, not hiding who you are and showing a bit of vulnerability. Being truly interested in the people you’re talking to, finding that one thing you can like about someone, sometimes is really hard to do. If you can do that, people will tell you stuff, sometimes too much. Also knowing what your clients can get out of it outside the structure of the {discussion} guide, knowing where you need to go and anticipating what they want to ask. There is no better feeling then going to the back room after a study and your client saying you answered all of our questions. You are orchestrating a process, it’s really fascinating.

“Anyone can be trained to be a moderator and be functionally very good at it, but you need to be able to connect with people.”

HM: What do you wish people knew about hiring a researcher?

AA: Anyone can be trained to be a moderator and be functionally very good at it, but you need to be able to connect with people. Sometimes you cry with them, it has happened to me all the time. Sharing vulnerability leads to really great insights, and sometimes you don’t even understand what it means right away, sometimes it takes a day or two to see it.

HM: What is your greatest challenge?

AA: With new clients, proving you know what you are doing. It’s very subjective, you either click with {new clients} or you don’t. It’s very personal, some people may love the way you moderate, and some people may hate it and it doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. When you don’t click with a client and your working on a project and they don’t appreciate what your doing and they don’t trust you, those relationships rarely continue because the fit is bad and no one is happy.

HM: Where do your clients come from?

AA: It’s happened pretty organically, it’s word of mouth, meetings or people move around to other companies. It’s all purely based on relationships. Clients are hiring you to be their voice in the room, to represent them, it’s more than just asking questions they want you to ask, it’s understanding at a deep core level what they need to understand and why and be able to throw away the guide when it makes sense.

HM: What has been your most impactful project to date?

AA: I did a project with Nike where they wanted to understand their customers in east L.A. So I interviewed 5 teens in sports in east L.A., and talked to them about their lives, what Nike meant to them, what their future was. I said go into your room and get 5 things that represent who you are, whatever it is. They would bring these things out, and everytime, the stories….my camera man was crying, I was crying, the kid was crying. It was just so meaningful.

“Our job is to make their job really easy and make them look really good.”

HM: What does Cognito do especially well?

AA: Becoming a partner versus a vendor; understanding what clients need to accomplish and why and coming up with the right approach to get there. Also it’s making clients look really good in front of their cohorts. That is a really big part of what we do. Our job is to make their job really easy and make them look really good. It’s really personal, these are your friends.

HM: What will Cognito look like in 5 years?

AA: We will have an office, a nice cozy house. A fun laid back setting with creative spaces. I hope we are up to 12–15 people all equally into research and have curious minds and want to learn. That has always been my vision.

HM: Anything else I should know?

AA: I’m secretly fascinated by pro wresting. Last time I was in Mexico we went to a craft market and there was a stall that was all wresting. So I have a tote bag, an apron, t-shirts and even a Christmas ornament!

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