The research specialist is behind the surveys that power the geeky BBC show (in which contestants attempt to guess niche answers) and the architect of its growth is 38-year-old Roger Perowne.
Over a decade, he has built the firm with his business partner and software whiz Alistair Cunningham.
Its unique technology helps to collate and present research easily for the likes of Pizza Express, Nando’s and travel site Mr & Mrs Smith. Clients can embed the tailored surveys in their own site among a host of features (“we set out to create a bicycle, 10 years later it’s more like a jumbo jet,” Perowne says).
The pair — at the time working for brand consultants Interbrand — tipsily devised the idea at 2am in Chelsea’s trendy Vingt Quatre. Perowne describes their conversation as a “game of chicken”, each convincing the other to walk out of their job. “Alistair was like Boxer, the horse from Animal Farm — the brilliant one who no one appreciates. My biggest concern was him leaving his job, with a young family up in Edinburgh,” says his business partner.
Thankfully, Perowne was no stranger to taking a gamble. Like a risqué William Brown, his first moneymaking scheme was to cut out Page 3 of The Sun and sell it to classmates at 10p a time. A few years on and he made £30,000 in a year by betting steadily on the Footsie — using Futures data seconds ahead of the market — before the introduction of robots put the kibosh on that earner.
Perowne has channelled this grassroots, moneymaking spirit to incentivise his staff, creating “collective capitalism” with a John Lewis-style pay structure that means the best-paid team member is 24-year-old sales director, Lewis Reeves, earning more than him.
Perowne admits his is an industry in flux. Corporate titans such as Google and Facebook increasingly harbour more shopper data than anyone could ever analyse, and the traditional survey format feels as dated as a battered-up BlackBerry.
“The question/response mechanism is a poor one,” Perowne says. “It’s like democracy — it’s not great but it does vaguely work. Asking a few closed questions is a struggle but you also can’t trust other sources such as social media — it was way off predicting the Oscar winners.”
Perowne argues that its consumer panel, used in partnership with Sky, is far more representative than most, and says its targeted surveys for Wagamama have helped the chain to add the equivalent of 1% in like-for-like sales.
What’s more, new research tactics are round the corner. “Take this restaurant,” he says, gesturing around the cute Kensington establishment where diners are shaking off a downpour. “I could survey you on leaving or send you an email or I could have a Microsoft Kinect camera and see how long it takes to serve you, monitor your expressions as to whether you’re happy or not, and get better information to see if you had a good time entirely passively.”
Cunningham’s algorithms also lie at the heart of the business, using devices such as fuzzy logic (“so it understands if you’ve typed ‘Think Floyd’, you probably meant Pink Floyd”). He adds that brain scanning, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all in their infancy but offer huge potential.
The firm is targeting a string of acquisitions to grow its market share. Morar itself was acquired by communications group Next 15 for £5 million and Perowne plans to snap up firms making decent 5% margins and cut costs by introducing its own software. “It’s a bit like buying a struggling Formula 1 team — nothing wrong with the driver or technicians, it’s just the engine’s a bit crap so if you can put a better engine in, you can have more of the podium.”
Perowne is keen to emulate the attitude of his ex-Navy father, Sir James, the constable and governor of Windsor Castle, a figurehead role that has been in place since 1075.
“He was number two at Nato in America and was hanging out with George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, and a month later when he retired he was talking to the pub bore in the local. I learnt then I didn’t want my job to determine my evaluation of myself, your job is not you.”
To this end, the self-confessed “clever but lazy” research boss says he ultimately wants to return to the part-time role he used to have, sharing childcare with his wife, and then teach cricket locally in Amersham. A genteel ambition for this colourful boss.