Forum Institutional

Is small data the new big data?

Fruzsina Eordogh works outside a cafe in Chicago, March 19, 2012.

Fruzsina Eordogh works outside a cafe in Chicago Image: REUTERS/John Gress

Laura Gurski
Member of the Global Leadership Team, Kearney
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Make it smaller, tastier, healthier and, naturally, make it more local. This is the direction prepared food is taking, and it’s more the norm than the exception that behind every innovative new food start-up is a talented woman.

Examples of successful women-founded start-ups abound. Taking their cue from the back-shed-to-riches story of Roxane Quimbey and Burt’s Bees, women have started companies after identifying a poignant market need. In the food category, Annie’s Homegrown, Lärabar, Bear Naked, Noosa Yoghurt, Happy Family and Stacy’s Pita Chips are all women-inspired institutions, first appearing on the fringes, then making their way to a mainstream grocery shelf near you. Even legacy companies like Pepperidge Farm and Kikkoman were founded by women, the latter in 17th-century Japan, the former in the US in 1937.

On the face of it, this would appear to indicate some level of gender catch-up, if not parity, in the food industry – a field that, from big food to fast food, has traditionally been led by males. In fact, recently, big food companies have either been acquiring these small, women-led start-ups or partnering with and learning from them. In doing this, the food industry has gained diversity, innovation and creativity, empowering the innovators of these new, non-traditional companies while meeting newly articulated consumer demands born of a more health-conscious and experiential culture.

While the establishment of these small food companies has presented an opportunity to add the female voice to a male-dominated industry, much of its success came about because of intuitive thinking, which guided them in a particular direction. These women saw a gap in the market, whether it was gluten intolerance or people not wanting to expose their babies and toddlers to processed food, and they sought to provide something more wholesome to their own families. The specific needs they observed were strong, but not being fulfilled, and had yet to hit the mass market. So they created the products, and by extension, the trend.

These small start-ups are already deploying diverse thinking, mostly intuitive, to spot trends and redefine consumer needs. But as small food companies look to survive, grow and flourish, they should be thinking about ways to harness small data. Serving a different purpose than big data, this is more about microanalysis, either using specific or targeted data sets, or taking data and defining a question more narrowly to pinpoint a particular inquiry. Small data is like a laser beam compared to the wide, sweeping searchlight of big data. It can be used to help entrepreneurs refine their concepts and sustainably accelerate scale, ensuring they maintain an intimate connection to their customers while growing that base.

Making the leap from the intuitive to the scientific, it is possible to make better business decisions by examining this data, that’s relatively easy to collect given a narrower scope of enquiry. Indeed, some data is already being casually collected – for example, consumer opinion through in-store tastings. This feedback can be more systematically collected, tracked and weighted.

Small data can be used to test and refine an idea, more quickly assess or research consumer demand for it, and speed it to market; it can also inform new and better ways of distribution, pricing, and even operational improvements.

How does small data work best? One rule of thumb is that the more targeted the question, the more data can help enlighten a business process. So, for example, small data could inform these questions:

  • Where does diversity exist in consumer demand?
  • Is the market for this new product big enough? Too often, failure is the result of targeting a market that’s too small and will never grow to sustain the business.
  • How can you either develop or expand a market? By doing so, can you create a product that’s big enough to disrupt the status quo and win market share, replacing some other existing product?
  • What prices are consumers willing to pay for this product? What will the market bear without overpricing?
  • What are distribution costs? This will help set pricing from the outset.
  • What are the best distribution channels for the product? Data can be used to understand networks of distributors, potential and real distribution.
  • What regional tweaks might improve a product, and/or its sales?
  • Which sourcing materials and products are available and when? At what prices?

In essence, the path of small data gives backing and certainty to the intuitive hunches that launched these small food businesses in the first place. It places science and fact at the disposal of that “Aha!” moment that allowed these products to fit into existing trends or to anticipate and set the pace for the next trend. It can help gauge consumer appetite for tweaking existing product favourites to answer to new trends –to name a few, gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, locally sourced, high protein, all-natural, allergy friendly. Small data can also inform how to distribute a product at a certain phase in its development, and even which outlets will distribute it.

Putting this all together, the challenge is to point your research and analysis and harness data towards answering questions you may not have completely articulated or even thought of. This might yield a leap to a small data-generated insight, perhaps one that’s non-traditional or takes a different path than conventional wisdom would dictate. For example, you can marry your search for the ideal retail outlet to consumer demand, asking questions not only about the trend and whether there is demand, but also where these consumers tend to buy these types of products. The outcome is that you’ve forged a distribution system that’s unique. In this case, small data is used both to create a market for a product and change the way you’d originally thought to distribute it.

What we’re seeing now is that by tapping into a diverse perspective, and thinking differently, women-owned businesses are meeting needs, coming up with different and better products, and starting new megatrends. It’s a milestone on the path to gender parity that these consumer-responsive small companies have stepped into such a key role, moving the dial on quality of life and sustainable business. What’s next is putting more facts on the table, and at these women’s disposal, to reinforce their intuition and drive business decisions. When small data is used this way, small food can make better decisions – better informed by information that exists outside of that business.

There’s still the key question of how to get this know-how into the hands of smaller start-up and women-owned businesses. There are multiple ways to do it. Examples include hiring fledgling data scientists or pitching a project to a local college or university as a hands-on part of a course on entrepreneurship. Start-up companies can also make small, highly targeted investments in purchasing information. And there are many more ways these capabilities can be accessed. Following this path, small data can take a founder’s fabulously intuitive sense of the market, help her understand its nuances, and move along the business process faster and more sure-footedly than she could on her own.

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