The Herndon-based market research and data collection firm I’m writing about this week isn’t the sexiest subject I have covered, but what is interesting to me is the story of one of its co-founders.
Kathy Benson, 53, is a self-directed “mompreneur” who created a $20 million business named ORI that provides her with control over her life, a decent income, self-satisfaction and the flexibility to raise her family.
Her career arc includes — not in chronological order — dealing with an annoying boss, sewing for extra money, taking risks, schlepping crates of documents from the World Bank, supporting her husband through college and bottle-feeding her tyke at work.
Lean in? Take risks? You bet.
Benson has traveled far from modest beginnings in Altoona, Pa., to reach her current station in life, which includes a $950,000 home and a snazzy, if aging, Audi convertible.
ORI began as Office Remedies Inc., which began in the late 1980s at her kitchen table, where Benson typed lists into a computer for clients. The company lost money three out of the past seven years, including 2012 and 2013, but it recently landed a five-year contract surveying 140,000 businesses for the Bureau of Labor Statistics that is worth up to $150 million.
The company has expanded from 85 employees earlier to
475 this month.
Other clients include George Washington University, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Washington Consumer Checkbook, the State Department, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Fairfax and Montgomery county governments and the Nature Conservancy.
Benson — who pays herself a $100,000-plus salary — is president and the face of the firm, recruiting clients, networking, setting strategy. Her co-owner,
Susan Lynd, runs the day-to-day operations.
The business has a single-digit profit margin. The labor-intensive data collection provides the vast majority of the revenue and involves tens of thousands of phone calls and online surveys. The questions range from how satisfied people are with their doctor to whether they thought a recent conference on digital marketing was worth their time and money.
I found her early life interesting, if only because I am a softy for scrappy risk-takers. She grew up in a blue-collar family but showed drive early. She worked after school for $3.50 an hour and raked in extra cash selling wreaths and needlepoint items she made. Her dad worked in a Sylvania plant, and her mom worked nights at a Sears credit office.
While on her way to graduating near the top of her Altoona High School class, she learned to type 100 words per minute and developed shorthand skills she would tap to launch ORI.
College was not in the cards, so she followed her high school sweetheart, Shawn Benson, to College Park, where he played football for then-coach Bobby Ross at the University of Maryland.
Shawn graduated in the early 1980s, and they used his $10,000 signing bonus with the Redskins to put a down payment on a $100,000 “teeny, tiny” house in Great Falls. After Shawn got hurt in training camp, he became a salesman at Xerox. (Shawn’s brother, Brad Benson, was a successful offensive lineman with the New York Giants and a member of the 1986 Super Bowl championship team.)
In the mid-1980s, Kathy worked as an executive assistant at a financial services firm in Tysons Corner, where her overbearing boss would yell at her. “He was not a very nice person,” said Benson, who made $26,000 a year while Shawn brought in about $50,000 at Xerox.
After she had her son, Travis, in January 1988, she decided she had to get away from the boss and chart her own course. She and Lynd, a co-worker from a previous job, put an ad in a local newspaper in Northern Virginia asking for typing work. When Benson told her boss she was leaving, he asked what it would take for her to stay.
She demanded a four-day workweek with every Wednesday off, her own phone line for the business she was going to start and the ability to run out of the office at a moment’s notice to meet with clients.
“The guy agreed to everything,” she said.
She and Lynd started cold-
calling companies that might need outside help with data entry. In other words, simple typing.
“I would go through the newspaper and magazines, looking for companies that looked like they were growing and generated a lot of data. I would call, call, call all day and set up meetings for Wednesday.”
She landed a couple of small projects. She and Lynd would often sit at the kitchen table or in Benson’s basement late into the night, entering data on their personal computers.
“We had so many mistakes in pricing. We were lackadaisical with employees. They would let us down, and Sue and I would stay up all night typing so that we never missed a deadline,” she said.
As the pace of work increased, they learned to pay employees piecemeal rather than by the hour to incentivize them.
“I didn’t want people not producing,” Benson said.
After two years, she quit her day job at the financial services firm and devoted herself full time to ORI, which was starting to take off.
ORI’s initial jobs paid $5,000 to $10,000 until their first big break: a $50,000-plus contract in the early 1990s to type surveys from Tanzania for the World Bank.
Even that started off a bit rockily: When Benson arrived at the World Bank on a Monday morning, driving her new Chevrolet Suburban, there were 200 boxes waiting, requiring her to make several trips back and forth between Washington and Northern Virginia.
The company has carried out some key strategy initiatives in the past decade. It made a big push for government contracts to bring predictable revenue streams to cover overhead such as payroll, leasing and utilities.
The company scored a big victory last year when it secured a Bureau of Labor Statistics call-center job. It wasn’t an accident: ORI spent more than $220,000 on consultants and new staffers to make a competitive bid. The
85 -person staff it had a year ago has grown to 450 as of this month, including full- and part-timers.
The government work frees Benson to make more strategic bids for the high-margin market research consulting jobs.
When I asked how they pivoted from data collection into market research, Benson said it grew out of client requests for help interpreting data.
“When key-punching the data, we noticed that some of the responses did not make sense. So we called the client, and they asked us to help them reword and rewrite the question for the next go-around.”
To find experts in market research, she turned to her network. Many were women searching for flexibility and change, which is the same boat Benson found herself in when working for that boss in Tysons Corner in the late 1980s.
“They were women, working for a company, having children and wanted to work part time. So I said, come work for us part time.”